Dressing for cold water


I’m hoping to get out in northeast Ohio this fall and winter to do some kayaking on inland lakes (not Erie). I will be in a Perception Carolina and don’t expect to be in a situation where I would capsize, but am curious how you all would prepare for this kind of venture, as well as any extra precautions you would take (i.e., staying close to shore).

I’m thinking I’d be on the water for 2-4 hours, primarily for light exercise, nature watching, and occassionally for fishing.

Well iam sure you will get alot of opinions on this subject but if your paddling in the winter in OH which gets darn cold there a Drysuit is your only choice. Anything less in the winter would be crazy. If just in the fall then thats not near as dangerous as the water will stay warm for a little while. But in the winter its dangerously cold. Many drysuits available I myself got super lucky on a used one a Gortex Kokatat for $250.But like I said if paddling in the winter anything less than a drysuit I would think would be crazy. I got a drysuit just for paddling in NY in the early spring time let alone winter time.

Dry suit
Ohio, winter, water temps likely down to 38 degrees at least in shallower stuff, and air temps 20 degrees before wind chill if you pick the nicer days.

Assume you will capsize. You can’t afford to assume otherwise at stuff that cold. Water robs the body of warmth 25 times faster than air, should you capsize you do not have enough time of mind and hands working to save yourself unless derssed for hefty cold temps.

Also hood, very warm/protective gloves, (not the stuff you wear in winter) and a good layer of socks and undergarments.

Or find pool sessions until you can roll and are very, very acclimated to recovering on the water in challenging conditions. This is a very profitable use of your winter time, and you can often chill out in a really nice sauna afterwards.

You have posted before recently and are actually planning to paddle with your wife, yes? Or am I remembering wrong. If I have it right, you should both sign up for a class in assisted and self-rescues while it is still warm. Use their boats - it matters more that you find out what your issues may be than whether it is in your own boat.

Do the Experiments for yourself

– Last Updated: Aug-03-12 12:21 PM EST –

You'll NEVER know what its like unless you Do It.

Go to the launch site in late Sept., early Oct,
and "plan" to get wet via bit of swimming.

Have dry towels, hot chocolate, sugary foods
at the ready in a pre-warmed car .

Walk into the water, with your "test outfit"
and a PFD on, go for an immersion float of 15 minutes.

Take a dry bag (with clothes in it) out with you,
dunk it repeatedly, test it, eliminate any doubts.
Pinholes getting fresh dry clothing wet is a problem.

Lakes usually involve Wind, i.e. no trees blocking
the flow across the land - so plan on chilled air.

It's your life - Know and Understand the Conditions.
Guessing will cause you grief, and anguish.

Can you survive with synthetic undergarments and
layered clothing - sure - but at what mental anguish.
Farmer John Wetsuit still lets water in, you'll be wet.
Is it okay, perhaps you'll still make it home....etc.

Only you can decide for yourself what you are willing
to endure in a mishap and it's all about various
"levels" of discomfort from mild to severe anguish.

Do your own homework, test items yourself, and then
you'll know for yourself, without any doubts what works

I do paddle in the winter in Michigan
I started low cost, layered undergarments, etc.
and over the years decided on a Dry Suit.

Thanks for the advice!

No, it’s just me – my wife currently has no interest in kayaking (and probably never will).

And yes, I am looking for classes to practice rolling and self-rescue. Perhaps I will give up any notion of (outdoor) winter kayaking in Ohio!

Dress to swim
Well, sort of.

(Dress to swim) x (probability of swimming) x (cost of swimming)

So, fall or winter on a small lake in Ohio calls for a dry suit. No question about it.

Only you can judge the probability of a swim. Piss flat water, no wind, knee deep. No problem. Unlikely to swim. Wind, waves, chop, current, etc. all increase this probability.

The cost of the swim depends on who you are paddling with (in your case, alone) and how good your self-rescues are. For me, I would only paddle with someone I trust to get me back in my boat in 60 seconds, so the cost of a swim with a nearby car is pretty low.

If I were paddling on 38 degree but flat water, with my wife, sunny skies, car nearby (< 1 mile)

Drysuit x 0.1 x 0.1 = 0.01 drysuits, so basically, wind pants and a fleece top.

If I were alone:

Drysuit x 0.1 x 0.9 = 0.09 drysuits, maybe a wet suit.

If I were alone, didn’t have a good brace or roll and I didn’t have a reliable self-rescue:

Drysuit x 0.8 x 1.0 = Drysuit

But then again, I don’t really want to orphan my son.


immersion test
A good test once you decide to go is to do an immersion test. Wear what you intend to kayak in and wade out into waste deep water, dunk your head and float for 10-20 mins. Everyone is different in how much insulation they need so this will give a good idea of what you will be comfortable and safe wearing. I wear a drysuit and Smartwool or thin pile under in the winter. A thin neoprene or rubberized pile hood makes a huge difference. I wear one pulled back and can pulled it on my head when the wind picks up and it starts raining or snowing.

one way to find out

– Last Updated: Aug-03-12 1:55 PM EST –

Dump your boat in fall in a controlled environment.

I'd agree with almost everything that has been said here. But if it were me, I'd be wearing a wetsuit and drytop, because around here the fall temps can vary. BUT, I've reached a point where I can make the call to sacrifice a bit on protection in order to gain some comfort. How? I used to use a dry suit more and I've capsized in those conditions often enough.

How about Google?
I think that there is so much information out there, including water temperature ranges compared to clothing requirements, that you would better find what you need to know by searching for “paddling wear for cold water” on Google. You will probably get more detail in many cases then you will get here. A forum might be a good place to find out about shortcuts from the rules but Google is a good place to find out what EVERYONE recommends, not just a few forum posters.


for example,
see “how to dress” here:


Individual vs Everyone

– Last Updated: Aug-03-12 8:47 PM EST –

I could give a ^%$&# what everyone recommends because
those folks aren't me - an individual with my own
body composite and mental attitude to adventure.

Some folks sweat profusely, some barely at all.
A few suck liquid energy gels, others eat real food.
Some friends endure tremendous pain, others cry daily.

Until a person actually tries it, for themselves,
Google and the endless forums mean diddly poo.

These guys actually tried it - and learned

While useful…
for information, you already pointed out that each individual has a unique response up to the point of hypothermia, so this practical information is really of use only to those who have done the tests.

What follows can be summarized as: Dress for the water temperature since you have no way of knowing your own personal response to cold water on a given day.

What is really important when immersed in cold water is getting out of the situation before one is incapacitated by cold. For this reason, one may be best off looking at the most conservative cold water immersion charts (such as those created by the US Army, USGC, and other such organizations who have quantified testing on a large number of individuals) which indicate a specific temperature and a point where rescue becomes less likely. This is the point where physical and/or mental skills decrease to the point of unreliability. The following chart is an example:


Note that for most, wearing no immersion protection, the time before losing dexterity in maximally cold water is about 2 minutes (it’s actually less for most since it can take as much as 25% of that time for some to recover from the cold water shock and start to save themselves). While one may still execute a self-rescue beyond that point, it quickly becomes more and more unlikely.

For this reason, immersion protection for all cold water paddling conditions is required and, for the sake of personal safety and for the safety of those who may have to perform a rescue, a well maintained dry suit is the best option (though I still use a wetsuit) in all waters where hypothermia is a concern.

The real problem is that most incidences of hypothermia occur in surprisingly warm conditions (for boaters, anyway - kayakers are generally better equipped for immersion). I can’t find the source, but at least one of my books here cites temperatures as high as 65F-72F. This is due to the mistaken belief the air temperature is high enough that one can stay sufficiently warm until a rescue occurs.


Take a swim
That’s the only way to know for sure how you will react.

Inland lake but winter in OH could be very, very cold water. If it were me, I’d wear a drysuit, gloves, neoprene cap (over the ears) unless staying right next to shore. Even then, I’d still wear a full wetsuit at minimum, and I can roll.

Err on the side of caution, whatever your tolerance is. You don’t need to give up on winter paddling, but start ramping up your skills now. That will also help you find out what YOUR likelihood of capsizing is. I’ve seen people capsize in dead-flat water simply by looking to their side with a little too much lean.

If you already have a dry suit…
…why not just wear it instead of screwing around with silly formulas?

If you already have a dry suit…
…why not just wear it instead of screwing around with silly formulas?

Seriously, when you get into your car, do you try to calculate the likelihood of getting in an accident in order to decide whether to put on your seatbelt or not?

I do better in the cold…
when I swim before each paddle. Last winter I got quite worried in the wind and waves until I swam. The water was 53 degrees and my dress was fine for it. Because I did not swim first, I was needlessly concerned because my hands were quite cold. It was the wind cooling them; not the water so much.

So I definitely agree that it make the most sense to swim before each cold paddle.

I will add that when the water temp is below 45, which very rarely happens where I go, I shore sneak in flat water only and never get in water deeper than 4 feet.

Silly formulas = good judgement
I don’t think it’s very silly. It’s just my attempt to articulate what goes into my decision making.

For example: 84 F air, 65 F water, protected cove, 5 mph wind, slack tide, practicing ruddering strokes. Personally, I’m gonna go in shorts and a t-shirt. A drysuit just isn’t comfortable for this.

My judgement has served me well so far. Feel free to call it silly.

But if you starting with nothing?
If you knew nothing, would it not be prudent to do research and find out what the people who make wet suits say about the insulating properties of these things? Find out things about how a dry suit does not insulate you and that you need to add insulation under it?

You really should give a shit about what “everyone” thinks because “everyone” is the people who built your boat, your car, your neoprene. They are the ones who took people and threw them in cold water with and without a PFD to see who could swim furthest. “Everyone” are not the jerks spouting off about their opinions on the internet, they are the ones with the knowledge that you learned in school that you now think is something that you knew by magic.

Without collective knowledge, we would still be in the stone age. Sharing knowledge and then building on it is what got us a cool new rover on Mars.


One note re clothing costs
Something to think on if you are living in northern climes like Ohio - the stuff you wear under a drysuit is the same fleece or wool or wicking synthetics that you wear to do other winter activities like snowshoeing or taking a long walk outside on a damned cold day. The major garment is a significant investment, but the socks and layers for legs and torso are the clothes you likely already have. Adding layers under (or over, things like neo jackets) neoprene tends to involve clothing that is more paddling-specific.

This thought does not make the sticker shock fade away. But it is something consider.

Comparing a seatbelt to a drysuit is a bit of a reach.