Dumb question re: cold water

I just traded in my canoe for a kayak and am enjoying the experience so far. I would like to be able to take it out this winter as well, but am concerned about hypothermia if I were to somehow end up in the water.

Can anyone give some basic advice on what I need as far as cold water protection for the fall and winter months? I'm really looking for something minimal but effective. I don't intend to be in the water all day. I just need enough protection to keep me alive and coherent for 20 minutes in cold water until I can swim to shore. Something lightweight and non-bulky would be a plus too.

Thanks in advance.


I live north of the 49th…
…so it’s cold water here all the time and basically I was told to be prepared for a wet exit into cold water all the time, which means I should be 'yaking in a wetsuit in the summer and a drysuit in the winter. I would expect the same to apply for you too :slight_smile:


No, good question!
Suggested reading: Sea Kayakers Deep Trouble, by Matt Broze

Learn from others’ mistakes. Case studies of actual swims in cold water. After reading it, I think you will appreciate the need for dressing appropriately to survive (e.g. a drysuit & insolating layers).

Here’s another good resource:


Click on “Cold Water Safety” & “How to Dress”

Dying bad

Living good

How far from shore will you be
We paddle in a lake that the water temperature gets to the upper thirties/low forties in the winter, and just stay within a quick swimming distance to the shore.

In that way we don’t have to wear our dry suits.

We do always carry some warm dry clothes in a dry bag, just in case we take a swim.

Our normal dress is poly underclothes, polar fleece over them, and then light weight waterproof cycling pants and a lightweight waterproof jacket. We also use NRS waterproof knee high boundary shoes.

If you are going to be far from shore, then forget all of the above and get a one piece dry suit.



Above and
look up the discussion of cold weather/dressing for immersion on the site of Atlantic Kayak Tours out of the lower Hudson Valley in NY. Good discussion, I don’t have the link in front of me but you can google it with the above name plus kayak.

As to time - the 20 minutes only works if you can oget back into the boat and start paddling again in that time. Even with proper clothing, cold enough water can really alter your normal responses, and if you are just starting in kayaks your self-rescue stuff may not be up to speed right off.

If it’s more than 100 feet…
> We paddle in a lake that the water temperature gets to the upper thirties/low forties in the

winter, and just stay within a quick swimming distance to the shore.

In that way we don’t have to wear our dry suits.

Exactly how far from shore do you venture? If it’s as much as 100 feet, you are courting death. Look at this from the ACA…

Any decision to swim for shore should not be

entered into lightly. Physical activity such as

swimming, or other struggling in the water

increases heat loss. Survival time can be reduced to minutes.

Strong swimmers have died before

swimming 100 yards in cold water. In water under

40 degrees farenheit, victims have died before

swimming 100 feet. Also keep in mind that judging

distance accurately on the water is difficult.

From http://www.acanet.org/safety/coldwater.lasso


That’s not immersion gear, Jack
What you do for yourself is one thing, but recommending improper/inadequate clothing to someone else is not a good idea. Someone could end up seriously hurt or even dead because of it. I’m sure there are many dead paddlers who probably had thoughts like “I’ll stay close enough to shore to swim for it” or my personal favorite (which I’ve actually heard) “I don’t plan to go in the water.” No one plans to get into trouble, but it can happen to anyone at any time, regardless of skill level.

start with a farmer john wetsuit
A farmer john wetsuit is exactly what you’re talking about for now–enough immersion protection to keep you alive while you get back into your boat.

If you eventually decide you want to paddle in the winter, then you can get a drysuit. NRS often sells last year’s wetsuits for great discounts–and they’re very high quality. I got mine for about $30 several years ago. Right now, NRS has excellent sales on hydroskin wetsuits for $60 instead of $150. They’re thinner than neoprene, but probably fine for your purposes (and they’re lots more comfortable than heavy neoprene). Make sure you get a sea kayaker’s farmer john wetsuit, not one meant for divers (Sierra Trading Post usually sells divers’ wetsuits for cheap, but they’re hard to paddle in because they have arms and so chafe.)

Then you can add a paddle jacket when you’re ready, then eventually a dry top or dry suit. But many people paddle for years with a wetsuit and never buy the dry gear (a good goretex drysuit can cost $1000 once you add booties, etc).

Whatever you get, make sure you also practice getting back into your boat, both when you’re alone (paddle float rescue or re-enter and roll) and when you’re with a partner (assisted rescue). Most paddling clubs will offer lessons or practice sessions of some sort–and practicing this is probably even more important than dressing for immersion!

cold water
hi - if you’ll be paddling a lot i’d recommend taking the plunge and getting a breathable drysuit - palm has models that are very reasonable (starts around $379 if i remember right) - i use a palm torrent - and it’s fantastic. v. comfortable, breathable, and safe - i’ve done wet exits and rolling in sub 40 water comfortably. there’s also the peace of mind knowing you’ll be safe if you capsize! good luck!


My 2 cents
I have a drysuit and with two layers of expedition weight poly-p under it I am comfortable in water temps in the mid 30’s. If you are paddling hard it will get really warm though. If that happens you just get in the water and cool off a bit. (I am a SOT paddler.)The best thing is to take what ever outfit you want and go swimming before you get in your kayak to go paddling. You will know really quick if you are dressed for the temperatures and it is better to know you aren’t a few feet from shore rather than a few miles.

100 ft or 100 yard?
I find it hard to believe that it takes 20 min. to swim 100 ft. 100 YARD perhaps. Even with all the extra clothing, it doesn’t take 20 min to swim 100 ft!

Sure, the source is from ACA. But they’re people too. I used to swim for exercise (a couple decade ago). 40 degree is cold, but I could swam 200 YARD before I had to get out. And I was wearing just swimsuit.

Same old crap Bryan…

– Last Updated: Aug-30-06 12:41 PM EST –

Of course it is not immersion gear. I didn't say it was.

Go back and reread my post, and take note of my last sentence.

And no I wouldn't want to be in the water for twenty minutes in the clothes that I recommended either.


time and distance

I mentioned 20 minutes as a worst case scenario, and I don’t think that is unrealistic. I probably stay within 75 yards of shore 90% of the time. That said, I realize my relative inexperience and would like some margin of error in my planning. I can’t imagine that swimming in cold water is as efficient as hitting the pool in July, and I have read multiple accounts online of people dying in cold water in very few minutes.

As far as margin of error goes, I am assuming I won’t be able to get back in my boat and have to swim to shore. I’m also assuming that the nearest point to shore probably won’t be where I parked my vehicle. I can see a scenario where I could spend a few minutes in cold water, only to find myself coming out in cold weather, with a decent hike in front of me to get back to civilization.

Thanks for the responses.


And Don’t Forget The Gasp Reflex
I experienced it when I capsized in water in the low 50’s with a wetsuit and other immersion layers. This happens immediately upon immersion, and as I learned afterwards, could be fatal to some people or under some circumstances. I have personally decided not to paddle in cold water rather than buy a dry suit because I don’t like the cold much anyway. I would not change my mind until I got a dry suit and felt very confident about my rescue skills.

Good Luck…Lou

Have fun, be safe–and get a wetsuit at least. They’re cheap on sale. Who knows–maybe someday soon you’ll want to paddle way out from shore. And do practice getting back into your boat.

100 feet, 200, 300? Who cares!
> I used to swim for exercise (a couple decade ago).

40 degree is cold, but I could swam 200 YARD

before I had to get out. And I was wearing just swimsuit.

Swimming intentionally in cold water is one thing. Being unexpectedly dunked in it is another.

You’ll be suffering cold shock, maybe gulping water from gasp reflex, disoriented, panicked and not thinking very clearly. If you were in a double canoe, there will be more than one of you and you will wonder about the other too, a significant distraction in already difficult circumstances.

Also, how will you even know just how far you are from shore? 100 feet, 150, 200, 300? Are you going to be taking distance readings every couple minutes using some accurate method?

Nope, if I was not in proper clothing (dry suit and full insulation), I’d stay within 30 feet of shore. Heck, why bother – I wouldn’t even go out on water that cold even 6 feet without the right stuff on. Why take such risks for a little comfort?


Just where are your talking about?
I see all these suggestions but are you paddling up north, down south, etc.? Just curious.

Then why even bother to suggest it?
The OP asked what he needed to be protected when paddling on cold water. You gave him an example that isn’t protective. What’s the point?