Cold water survival

-- Last Updated: Feb-09-06 10:21 AM EST --

I could not help but notice on the weather broadcast this morning that the water temp in the Atlantic Ocean off Massachusetts is at 40F today. So that got me thinking (again) about cold water survival strategies for the small craft padder in open seas, solo or in a small group.
I consider as the bare minimum a sound self-rescue strategy (with lots a practice), drysuit, and VHF radio. Add to that a PLB and flares, perhaps. I notice too that on longer sea expeditions, some will carry some kind of small life raft.
So, I wonder if anyone has any insight into cold water survival at temps around 40F? How long can one survive in a drysuit, with typical insulation underneath, and PFD? Would a solo raft forestall hypothermia if the paddler were not fully removed from the water?
I'm sure I am opening myself up to replies like "never paddle alone" and "gear is no substitute for prudence" and the like, but I hope to learn something about surviving for several hours out-of-boat in cold water as well.

Hi Al,
I’ll be out in the 40 degree Atlantic tomorrow–alone. I hope that I do this with reasonable judgement. Here are the things I do to minimize my risk:

  1. When it’s cold, I only go places I know very well–places where no rock or current will surprise me. I only go in weather conditions within my abilities–and I try to hone my abilities, and my knowledge of my limits at other times of year, in warmer water.

  2. I roll and roll. I’ve worked to make my rolls so automatic that I don’t have to think. I’m up before I know I went down, and I have a dozen different ways of coming up, on each side of the kayak, with or without paddle. I did this because it was very clear to me from accident reports that the inability to roll reliably caused most kayaker fatalities and problems. I do as many as 500 rolls on a single outing, so the muscles are there, and I’m not likely to hurt myself while rolling. (Also, learning all those Greenland rolls is fun.)

  3. As far as equipment, the most crucial to me is spare paddle and rolling stick. I use a boat designed for rough water (Mariner Elan), which is highly predictable. I trim it to leecock slightly, which I find more comfortable than weathercocking. I use Greenland paddles, which stow easily, are less prone to capsize-inducing “air strokes,” and have terrific bouyancy for balance bracing and extended-paddle sculling. I also carry a VHF, laser flare, PLB, and all the other usual safety equipment.

  4. I swim in the water. I wear enough insulation under my drysuit that I can swim a half hour comfortably. I don’t usually venture further from land than I could swim back. I often take swim fins to get me home faster if my boat should fail and capsize. I usually take several different gloves and hoods so I can adjust my temperature.

  5. I leave a detailed float plan (I preprint a basic plan, keep copies in my car, and fill in the details right before leaving).

  6. If I go with other people, I want to know that they know what they’re doing.

    I may be an idiot, and you may read about me some day in Sea Kayaker’s accident section, but I hope that I show decent judgement for what I do,


500 Rolls per Session
"I do as many as 500 rolls on a single outing"

I am not worthy!

About 2 weeks ago it was the coldest morning of the year (here that meant only just above freezing and 55 F water, no big deal) and the waves were really small, there were no surfers out, and decided to roll three or four times just to practice a bit. I was feeling so self satisfied at my diligence… wow.

I’d get dizzy after 20

Sanjay hit it
if you can swim/float around for 30 minutes you won’t have to ask. The water will teach you. My $.02 is that adequate head gear/hood and hand protection will end up being as important as the dry suit.

If you can’t use your hands you won’t do to well getting back in your kayak and finishing self-rescue,if your head isn’t adequately protected your JUDGEMENT will be affected as well as X btu lost.

If the only thing you have for self-rescue is a vhf radio and flares while floating in the water you’d want to have the brain to use them correctly.

Somewhere between a 7mm neoprene divers hood and a lycra beanie is headgear that will work. But only getting in the water will tell you.

My Gut Reaction

– Last Updated: Feb-09-06 12:24 PM EST –

is that if you need to drag along a life boat on an outing, then you really should just not head out in the conditons of a particular day. Likely if you lose the boat to need a life raft, that raft would likely be lost along with the boat.

(Not targeting you but a general statement.)

I am not a big fan of the approach that takes gear as replacement for individual's skills, physical conditioning and judgement. I do paddle out with a immersion gear, VHF, flares and not much more. So, I am not against gear per se. What I am against is encountering folks outfitted to nth degree but have minimal skills AND physical endurance to be out there in challenging conditions. No amount gear will help these folks. Only outside help will save them if poop hits the fan.

I am also of the belief that if you are not willing and able to handle the conditions of a particular day alone, then you really should not head out in those conditions just because there are partners/leaders who are willing to take you out. It's a fine line. I think partners can help you stretch a bit. But, if the partners are there to ensure your essential safety, it's wrong for you and wrong for the experienced partners (who choose to place themselves in "God's position" vis a vis you.)

For paddling in cold and challenging conditions, do so in a graduated and progressive manner so you can appreciate where your skills and conditioning are for the paddling you're doing.

Plenty of folks here will disagree with me. But, it's my position and how I choose to paddle. To each their own.


Sea Seat

– Last Updated: Feb-09-06 1:25 PM EST –

I'll just respond to the life-raft idea... I've got a Sea-Seat which folds up and fits in the back pocket (smaller one Kokatat offers) of my PFD with a tether coming off of it that I clip onto the PFD shoulder strap. Probably weighs 1.5 lbs. Gronseth mentions them in 'Sea Kayaker Deep Trouble' a couple of times.

Here's an article in Wavelength:

You'll see contact information at the bottom for Derek Bamforth, originally from Britain. He was the force behind these things as far as I can tell. I bought mine from him in 2001. He was the only VCP dealer in British Columbia. He was a great guy, but sadly, he's since passed away and I have searched in vain for someone who is manufacturing these and cannot find anyone.

The construction is quite simple and you could make one yourself out of heat-sealable nylon. They are about 3' square and sealed around the edges, of course. One heat-sealed corner has a grommet to which is attached about a 3' tether with clip on the end. There is about 14" heat sealed circle in the middle of the Seat-Seat which is where you sit when the thing is blown up. Expect this to take 3-4 minutes while in the water--I've done it a couple of times in 'conditions'--it gets all but your feet out of the water. The air inlet is a 1/2" Halkey-Roberts twist valve glued to about 7" of 1/2" ID vinyl tubing glued to a Halkey-Roberts 1/2" elbow all vinyl cemented together. Total material cost is probably about $40 max, I would think. I've got all the materials and I've done quite a few dry bags with this material and made some custom float bags using the above valves, I've just been too lazy to actually make another Sea-Seat. No great mystery to making it though and in terms of a good compromise between life raft weight/bulk/having the device on your person when needed/getting you out of the water, etc., I haven't seen anything better yet.

Dress to swim but…
I don’t know how long you want to be in the water even in your dry suit. I’ve never stayed in the ice water any longer than it took me to get my gear to the river bank. Five minutes sounds like a long time to me.

It’s hard to dress warm enough to stay in the water for an extended time without over heating when you are out of the water. Easier for Sanjay rolling or Sing surfing since they are in the water more than for an expedition paddler trying to cover some distance. In that scenario I’d be looking for any and every way to minimize time spent in the water

A Bit Differant For Me
We are a few degrees warmer in the South although our ocean water temps of 52 yesterday are at about their low for the year. I paddle mostly solo though I enjoy paddling with others when it works out.

I generally paddle a little closer to shore and a little closer to the next put-in potential when it is cold. I have a difficult time stringing 3 repetative rolls together and can’t imagine 500. I carry some basic saftey equimpment in addition to my PFD including a spare paddle, a sky blazer kit, a small knife, and a pump and paddle float. I do not carry a vhf, a cell phone, a raft, or epirb.

If and when I start open big water crossings I will reconsider my list of gear.

Happy Paddling,


The first time I practiced self-rescue in cold(still some ice on the lake)water, I was impressed at how quickly my ungloved hands became useless. It’s important to plan for that – safety gear that requires fine motor skills might be less useful than you think.

spare gloves
It’s been awhile since i went cold water camping but I took three pairs of gloves. The neoprene ones I was wearing, another pair tucked against my chest under the pfd and a pair of mitt/gloves for once I got out of the boat and needed to do things.

The ones tucked under the pfd were always warm in case I lost one while doing something sitting in the kayak or my fingers just couldn’t keep up with the heat loss. I figure if I can’t have working hands I’m screwed. Once the extremities shut down it takes a LOT of body heat to pump it out the extremities. That option isn’t always available.

The fingerless mitt/gloves were the best thing ever. EMS made them but there are other manufacturers,it’s a windproof fuzzy material. Once I was out of the kayak at shore I took off the wet neoprene gloves and put on the dry mitt/gloves that were in a small dry bag with a dry cap, pulling over the mitt flap when dexterity was needed the immediately covering them back up.

After swimming in 40 degree water…
…during our club’s training each spring, I’ve found that I can spend ~30 minutes in the water in my dry suit with fleece underlayers, bobbing about and swimming, before I start to feel uncomfortable (cold feet and legs). By that time, I’m suffering the first phyical effects of hypothermia, but once back in the boat and paddling, I warm up quickly. As long as I have gloves on, I’m still capable of self-rescue at that point.

Although I haven’t tried it - and don’t intend to - I suspect I would still be reasonably functional after an hour, if I made efforts to conserve body heat, but that’s strictly conjecture. Actual survival time would be measured in hours, but I would be essentially helpless after an hour and dependent on outside assistance for rescue. Conditions would also make a difference, as rough water would result in faster heat loss and increase the likelihood of drowning once most motor control is lost.

What layers do you use…
for under the drysuit. Specific fibers, material, thickness for all day paddling in warm air cold water and in cold water cold air conditions vs. hours of high activity surfing. Just got a drysuit and am interested in finding out what other folks are doing and what’s working for them.


polyester fleece
lightweight (in Malden Mills Polartec terms, 100 weight; 100 grams per square meter approx)

is what i wear and what almost everyone else i know wears. i like “expedition weight” long johns because they are fitted and have fly opening and basic fitted top with crew neck. “Power Stretch” with a bit of lycra is nice. this is all very standard stuff available anywhere for low bucks. medium wool socks, merino for feet. high quality, wicking, durable synthetic clothing is totally saturated in the market at this point. there is nothing new or revolutionary, it’s all happened and any of this great clothing is available anywhere to anyone with $100.

comfortable in almost all conditions. if it’s truly fridgid, you would need more, but paddling then becomes increasingly uncomfortable…

Lot’s of thin layers
Polypropolene underwear (snug) and micro-fleece layers. I like multiple thin layers so I can adjust for changing temp./weather conditions. I have 2 layers of polypro underwear and 2 layers of expedition weight fleece. I also have heavy fleece outer layers that I put on during lunch breaks. I have paddled in windy 35degree conditions and stay quite warm.

Better to be out of the water
The effects of still water are 25 times faster conduction than air. Moving water, 10 X more, so possible that in conditions water can conduct away your body heat 250 times that of air. So even if it seems intuitve to stay in the water if windy, get out of the water as soon as possible and as much of you as possible.

Remember drysuits have NO insulation, they work by allowing you to keep the insulation dry so it conducts heat away more slowly. You can add to this by having very light and very puffy Polarguard Delta or Primaloft insulation. It is very non restricting and has the benefits of providing almost 100% insulation even when heavily sweated into.

40 degree water has a survival time of about 3-4 hours maximum, that is still water and still air and you do not attempt to move around, get in a crouch position, and have on a pfd that holds your head up. Remember that the last part of that journey you are completely unable to move your arms and legs and even hold your head up. Not pretty.

So use a dry suit, have insulation on and if get too warm simply splash some water on yourself, go a greenland brace, etc.

For those temps…

– Last Updated: Feb-11-06 9:17 AM EST –

...I typically wear:

Top: Synthetic (I have a few kinds) or Smartwool underwear with 200 weight Polartech over it.

Bottom: Synthetic underwear with 300 weight Polarfleece over it.

The reason for the difference in insulation top to bottom is that the PFD adds considerable insulation of its own, so I don't need as much on top. The double tunnel of my dry suit and the top of my spray skirt (Brooks akuilisaq) also add insulation around my abdomen.

Head: If I know I'm going to be swimming or rolling, I wear a 3mm neoprene hood that fits close enough around the neck to prevent most water intrusion there. It also seals my ears completely. If I'm just paddling and there is no imminent threat of a swim, I typically wear a fleece hat with a nylon shell and ear flaps. I always carry a neoprene hood on the deck in such situations. The hat can be worn over the hood, if need be.

Hands: Dry gloves with Smartwool liners. I used to wear Nordic Blue dry gloves, but now use some that I made with orange Atlas gloves.

Feet: Smartwool liner sockes in the dry suit with Warmers neoprene dive/kayaking boots. I occasionally wear Chota Quicklace mukluks, but not as often as I used to, since I now have latex socks on my dry suit.