Cold Water Questions

I am new to cold water paddling. I live in KS and the water is currently about 33 degrees. I have never given a thought to cold water paddling because…well, it is cold.

I got myself a new boat on a winter sale and just can’t stand looking at it in the garage. I have had it out a couple times on local lakes I know well. I have a 3mm wet suit and always were a PFD and stay close to shore.

Am I risking too much to cure cabin fever, or do I need to pony up and buy more gear to extend my season?

go for it
If your not in open water the wetsuit will give you the time you need to reenter or swim to shore. I would suggest water proof socks with wool socks underneath in order to enter the boat.

Ryan L.

Don’t be fooled by early warmth of
Spring either. Air temps are often balmy but the water temps can still be pretty cold.

It isn’t just being close to shore, it’s
also how easy it will be for you to swim, wade, and clamber up the bank after you dump. You WILL be very cold in spite of the wet suit. And on that 3mm wet suit, that’s what I got stuck with many years ago, and it’s too restrictive on arm movement. Even after getting the company to reduce the arms to 2 mm, I still found it too restrictive, and removed the arms.

We’ve had a lot of loud discussion lately about whether cold water causes the “gasp reflex” and whether one can swim any useful distance in under 50 degree water. It appears that some people can survive a sudden dunking and a cold swim, under some conditions. Some people. You might consider putting on your wet suit and jumping in the lake, just to get used to how it feels. Have a friend there to help if needed.

Booties, neo gloves and a hood wouldnt
hurt. Also…practice…practice…practice in full gear in ice cold water. It’s amazing how things change with your cold water gear on.

G2d is right
33 degrees, a wetsuit is going to be better than nothing, but it is going to be hell just the same. I’ve done whitewater rescue training in a wetsuit and paddle jacket in water at a bit less than 50 degrees. It’s cold, it’s scary, and you don’t have much time to get out of the water, even in that controlled atmosphere. That said, I canoe all winter in 45 degree water, sometimes in ice, and I love it. Stay close to shore and add a whole bunch of chicken shit to anything you do.

Can you wade to shore ?
I would not think about it unless you know the water is very shallow and you can wade to shore.

Is your wetsuit a farmer john? If yes … don’t even think about it.

Wait until the water warms to about 50 F for a 3/2 wetsuit if there a good chance you could be swimming.

A 3/2 suit will give you some help in 32 F water but I would not risk it personally.

Cold Water Survival…

– Last Updated: Feb-22-11 9:10 PM EST –

...depends on a lot of factors - water temperature, body build, reentry/self rescue skills, access to shore, air temperature and wind speed (a strong cold wind on a soaked 3 mm wetsuit can dangerously chill you incredibly fast - remember that getting out of the water is only step one in staying alive), cold water shock tolerance and so on.

You also must be aware that you can lose functional use of your hands frighteningly quickly - within a very few minutes - and this can make even the simple matter of pulling yourself out of the water difficult or impossible. If that sounds alarmist, just submerge your hands over the kayak's side for maybe 3-5 minutes, then try to handle a rope...

Where we paddle, the water is always lethally cold, albeit somewhat less so in the late summer and early fall. Here's our kit for early spring - late fall conditions:

Heavy thermal polypro underwear.
Two layers polypropylene fleece, at least one heavy.
Cold water hood, boots and gloves.
Merino wool socks and glove liners.
Full change of clothes in a dry bag - thermal underwear, fleece layers, a windblocking layer, heavy wool socks, hat and gloves, dry footwear, space blankets and plastic sheet and twine to create a windbreak. Fire making materials - starter sticks, 'torch' cigarette lighter, and several chemical hand/foot warmers.

Finally, there's only really one test for your cold water gear - put it on, and take a swim in controlled conditions. Using the setup described above, I am comfortable upon entering the water, and start to feel the chill after maybe ten minutes. I wouldn't want to spend more than 15-20 minutes immersed, with maybe 30 minutes being the outside edge of the envelope for self-rescue...your mileage (and life expectancy) may vary...

Central Illinois
We had a guy with cabin fever who went out on the river this past Dec. He was a experienced paddler. Thay think he got caught by a sweeper and fell overboard. Then was pinned under a log jam. It took several days to find him.

Don’t be fooled by short periods of warm weather . . . it can kill you.

33 degrees is freaking cold!
I paddle year round in water that is almost never less than 10 degrees warmer than where ever you are considering. You have gotten some good advice here and none probably as good as what VK1NFN suggested.

It is my opinion that you dress for the swim and in 33~ish degree water that means that you listen to him/her.

Take what you have and go into neck deep water. See how long you can stand it. Too much pain? Can’t stand it? Then do something else. Personally I can’t stand the idea of being in water that cold in a 3 mil wetsuit. That’s why I use a drysuit.

We had a paddler die in a freshwater lake here in Seattle a couple of weeks ago. As far as I know his body hasn’t been recovered. His pfd was found floating near his boat. He wasn’t prepared to swim the 200 yards in 45 degree water after a capsize, didn’t have floatation or insulation and drowned.

You are asking the right questions.


Was that the guy who routinely paddled
the same stretch of river near where he lived? If so, then I would say that familiarity bred contempt. He seemed not to have known how to handle routine water hazards, and wasn’t clothed or equipped properly.

If that wasn’t him, then sorry, but if I were to flip and drown on a sweeper in winter, many people would be astounded. (And happy.)

As long as you can swim and stay close close to shore, but keep a set of fleece or other type warm clothing in a dry bag bag

jack L

Jump in…
but wit caution an’ knowledge… :>0

Several times durin’ de winter ah’ try ta run a “Paddlin’ Popsicle” swim-wit-yer-drysuit day event fer de cold water paddlers in aar club. Out o’ 550 members we git maybe a dozen dat show up (90% o’ those be canooists). After goin’ over de basics an’ makin’ sure de newbies be prepared, we jump in an’ float around jus’ ta git folks accustomed ta de real thang. Dis year it be a bit tough since almost every place we usually practice be frozen up solid since Christmas.

Experience be de best teacher…


Run the Experiments

– Last Updated: Feb-23-11 11:58 AM EST –

Leave the boat home - suit up - go for a swim
Have dry towels and dry clothes in the car for quick change.

Prior messages mentioned similar scenarious:
Walk out to where the water is over your head
and your pfd begins to support your body weight.
Dunk your head under, get your hair wet,
the real deal for about 5 minutes.
It takes a while to "warm" that layer of water
next to your skin. You will shiver.

******___Factor in the wind chill____*******
A breeze blowing over a wetsuit will chill you fast.
You might be 1 HOUR away from the car, suffering.
Paddle with a buddy in the winter - better odds.

I did the wet suit thing for a while but don't let
anyone fool ya' - it's real nasty as the cold water
water rushes in around your body and face.

Eventually I got myself a dry suit.
Detroit, Michigan paddler

Do a wet exit
Do one real close to shore with your car running with the heat on full. “Cold” is a highly understated word for what you will experience. Actually, don’t do a wet exit, it’s too dangerous, just wade in and see how it feels. But don’t forget, on a capsize your head goes under water.

for everyones input. I think I am just going to save a little cash and buy a dry suit for next year.

I am an avid diver and am aware of just how fast cold water can kill you. I was quite curious to see what you guys thought the risk would be.

I will practice my self rescue skills over the summer in warm water and think about it for next winter.

I will continue using my 3 mm wetsuit in the chilly Carribean Sea! :slight_smile:

Good move

– Last Updated: Feb-23-11 2:54 PM EST –

I also live inland (CO), and while early-spring air temps can rise into the 70s, the water will be either frozen or barely above 32 deg. for weeks to come.

If you're going to do this, a drysuit with good underlayers is definitely preferrable to a full wetsuit. You might be able to get away with the risk level of wearing a thick full wetsuit, IF you stay close to easy exit from the water, the weather is totally benign, and you have a change of dry clothes immediately accessible.

I've worn a 3mm full wetsuit in merely cold water (low 50s), and it is not something I'd count on being lucid in for more than a few minutes. What is adequate for you is something you'd have to experiment with yourself--from the beach, not from your boat. Besides water temp, things such as sunshine, wind, and body condition play a role in your cold tolerance. If you have not eaten or drunk water enough, or if you are very lean, you will be more vulnerable to the cold.

If you really can't stand waiting and break your plan to hold off, at least add a neoprene hood or cap and gloves to your gear. Hands get cold VERY fast even without capsizing, and the neoprene cap will protect your head and therefore your brain function if you do capsize.

Your Life Expectancy…
just increased exponentially!

Check out the Kayak Academy - they sometimes have great deals on used/rental drysuits. Best of luck, and be sure to take a cold water swim in whatever you get before trusting your life to it.