Experience with cold-weather clothing...

Okay, so here is my follow-up on cold-weather paddling clothing. This is in response to a couple different threads I’ve been participating in on the subject lately. I finally got the chance to put all my gear on during some pretty cold weather, and these are the results.

It had been a couple weeks since I’ve been out on the water, but finally got an opportunity yesterday (Saturday) morning. We’ve been in a bit of an arctic blast since earlier in the week. So, it was nice and chilly. I got up, got dress, and headed out to the Fox River about 6:30 am. When I had first gotten up and started getting dressed, the thermometer read 17°F. I completely forgot to look at the temperature again until after I was already finished with my morning kayaking session. At that time, it was still only 29°F.

Here’s the list of cold-weather gear I ended up wearing yesterday morning in the order I put it on:

  1. C9 by Champion “Warmest” Thermal Base Layer top and bottoms
  2. Carhartt Liner socks (with the bottoms of my thermal pants tucked into them)
  3. O’Neill Farmer John wetsuit
  4. O’Neill Thermo Neo Hooded Vest
  5. Dickies Wool Thermal socks
  6. NRS Hydroskin neoprene socks
  7. Del Rossa Microfleece footed pajamas (nice and warm, and cheaper than a paddling-specific insulating union suit)
  8. Immersion Research Session 2.5 long-sleeve semi-dry top with latex wrist gaskets and a neoprene neck seal
  9. Kokatat Launch socks
  10. Level 6 Current semi-dry pants with neoprene waist and ankle seals
  11. Size 12 water sandals
  12. Terramar Thermasilk Glove Liners
  13. Cabela’s Gore-Tex mittens (have a pair of NRS Maverick neoprene gloves, but the Gore-Tex mittens are warmer)
  14. HotMocs fleece beanie

    So, after I got myself all layered up, I drove out to my usual put-in on the Fox River. I put in around 6:45 am or so. The air temperature was hovering around 20°F give or take a couple degrees. I’m not sure what the water temperature was as I don’t carry a thermometer with me. All I know is that during my time on the water, paddle splashes and drips were freezing on my deck, spray skirt, and paddle as I was paddling.

    I have to say, I was perfectly warm and toasty the entire time I was out on the river. I never really noticed the cold at all, especially when I was kicking the paddling into high gear. I was out on the water for about 2.5 hours and could have stayed out much longer. However, I had my niece’s birthday party to get to later that morning, and my wife and daughters to spend the rest of the day with. So, I couldn’t stay out for very long.

    So, now comes the part where I reflect on all the advice I’ve received from fellow Pnetters and their insistence upon proper cold-weather gear. While I was not able to follow through on the ultimate advice of getting a full-on drysuit, I did the best that I could with the funds available to me (e.g. Farmer John wetsuit and semi-dry pants and jacket).

    When I had first put in, the first 20 feet out into the river was iced over. The weight of me in my kayak (and a few strategically-placed paddle whacks) got me through the ice and out into the main channel of the river. At the end of my paddling session, my return to the put-in found the take-out iced over again. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to glide on in to the cement ramp and prepared myself to step out of the kayak and into the river. I pulled my spray skirt and watched the ice shards pop off the skirt, deck, and coaming. I braced myself with my paddle and carefully stepped out of my kayak and into the river. The water was only about calf-high here. Knowing that things might be on the icy side, I was being extra careful to avoid slipping on anything. What I wasn’t expecting at this spot was the excessive sedimentation in the river. My foot sank ankle-deep into the river bed and caught me off-guard when I tried to take my next step.

    As I started going down, I had sudden flashbacks to that other thread here on Pnet where someone’s reply warned, “you will get wet”! I landed square on my side with a nice big SPLASH! I quickly recovered and scrambled to my feet awkwardly looking around hoping no one had noticed my fall. I braced for the shock of intruding freezing water that I was sure was only a nanosecond away. Luckily, I felt… nothing. I was still nice and toasty warm. I didn’t feel any cold water infiltrating anywhere, other than some seepage over the cuffs and into my mittens. But even that wasn’t too bad. Amazed, I pulled my kayak up the ramp and proceeded with loading all my gear back into my van for the ride home.

    Once I had everything loaded up and ready to go, I got the hair-brained idea to fully test clothing. I figured, what the heck. I have my van warmed up, and I have a full change of dry clothes in case this doesn’t work. I pulled off my wet mittens and pulled on my NRS Maverick neoprene gloves. I made sure the Hydrocuffs of the gloves were over the latex wrist gaskets of my jacket, and the neoprene overcuff of the jacket was pulled down over top of the Hydrocuffs. I then walked back down to the put-in at the river.

    Checking over my gear one more time to make sure everything was fastened tightly, I waded out into the river to about knee-deep. Stopping for a few moments to make sure I didn’t feel any cold water coming through anywhere, I proceeded to sit down in the water. Then I laid back into the water. The air trapped under my semi-dry top and pants ballooned up and allowed my to just float on the surface of the water. I stretched my arms and legs out wide and fully rested my head back into the river. I laid there floating in the water for several minutes. I’m sure if anyone had been walking by at that moment and spotted me, they probably would have thought a dead body had floated up to the river bank. There is a popular bike trail that goes right past the river there, but no one was walking or riding by at the time, thankfully.

    I laid there feeling for any cold, infiltrating water. After a bit, I did start to feel a little cold against the back of my neck. Kind of like the water was just starting to soak through the neoprene neck. However, it didn’t trickle down my back or anything like that. My neck just felt a little cold and wet, but that was it. After several minutes, I decided that was enough of a test and crawled my way back up to the ramp. I grabbed a towel from the van and wiped down the outside of my clothes so I didn’t soak the driver’s seat as I drove home.

    When I got home and started taking off my layers, I was very surprised to find that nothing other than the polypro neck of the O’Neill hooded vest had gotten a little damp from the river water. There was no infiltration of water anywhere else that I could tell. All the neoprene seals that make my jacket and pants “semi-dry” rather than fully dry had been cinched up tight against other neoprene and/or waterproof fabrics. And I had been wearing enough layers under the pants and jacket to put enough pressure at all the seal points to keep everything pretty snug.

    All in all, in my one “wet” experience so far, the semi-dry top and pants were plenty dry enough for me. And all my insulating layers kept me nice and warm. As it is, I personally would not have any worries if I accidentally took a swim wearing these clothes. As long is it was in the calm waters that I normally paddle in. I don’t know that I’d be brave enough to test my kit in more “adventurous” waters. Luckily, my lack of skill and experience will keep me from venturing into those more adventurous waters. So, no worries for now!

Good that you tested it
Icy cold water is nothing to fool around with - glad it all worked out.

I was out for about 3 hours on Saturday too - air temp’s were in the mid 30’s. Water temp’s were in the mid 40’s. There is a USGS gage nearby that records water temp’s, and the water temp’s have dropped about 10 degrees in the past month. I had my dry suit with booties, a fleece insulating layer, neoprene gloves, hat - the works. On my feet I had liner socks and wool socks with my usual (not neoprene) paddling shoes. After a couple of hours my feet were freezing. I had waded around in the water a couple of times to take pictures and climb over blow-downs - that probably didn’t help. I got out of the boat and walked around a little, and my feet started to warm back up.

Staying warm is definitely a work in process.

I used dry top/dry pants at first
Dry top/dry pants combo is what I started with. As long as you do not spend more than a few minutes in the water, these are fine.

However, if you are actively swimming, and especially if there is a strong current, you will get a few quarts of water in after just a few minutes. Because the water gets inside slowly, and because of all the layers, you won’t feel a shock and you won’t be uncomfortable immediately. You drain your pants once up on shore. Yes, you are now wet inside, but not necessarily much colder for it, compared to working-up a good sweat. If there is a chance to spend more than a few minutes swimming in very cold water though, a 2-piece combo (or any other gear) that can leak is not a good idea.

But after getting a full dry suit a few years ago I have not once worn the dry pants! I do still use the dodgy top a lot for a couple of months each year, when the water is warm but the air is cold, or when I am doing white water with no chance for more than a couple of minutes immersion.

Good Idea…
…to “Test” your gear in a “Controlled” test, especially if you paddle solo. Cold weather/water paddling can easily kill you if you don’t prepare, think, and take it seriously. Glad it worked out!

Cold feet
Yeah, the feet are the only thing I can’t seem to get right. No matter what combination of layers I use, or how many layers I use, I can’t keep them warm. This time out, they stayed warmer longer than in the past. But eventually, as always, they ended up getting cold and I started to feel pins and needles in my toes now and then. I can only assume it’s due to low circulation in the extremities. I have more layers on my feet than the rest of my body, and the rest of me stays nice and toasty. I’m sure the fact that my feet just sit there doing absolutely nothing while I’m paddling doesn’t help the problem at all. Stupid lazy feet!

Toastie Toes

– Last Updated: Nov-17-14 10:43 AM EST –

I buy them at Wally World and keep a couple pair in my dry pack this time of year. Got started using them on those long days in the duck blind. When it's really cold, I go ahead and stick them on my socks when I put my paddling boots on. Since my circulation has not improved with age, I think these things are the best thing since sliced bread.

Do you have foot pegs?
If so, putting your feet to work will keep the circulation going.


kudos Robb (and words of caution)

– Last Updated: Nov-17-14 11:43 AM EST –

First of all there was nothing hare-brained about that idea of the safe way you executed it. More people should try this. Good of you to post the writeup, and good choice on the non-paddling-specific stuff to thin the cost a bit.

The only time I've ever gone over in winter was because I was goofing off in calm water in an unfamilar boat as a novice. I wasn't dressed properly but was stunned by how fast I lost my full strength and dexterity. Luckily I was close enough to shore to grab my boat and swim, but by the time I reached shore, I was dragging the boat.

My point is that the gear is one part of preparedness, being able to re-enter your boat quickly is another. I'm not sure if you practice a reentry but the faster you can get out of the cold water the better.

One thing you might have discovered is how you reacted mentally: you probably got a tiny panic insinct, heart rate quickened and breathing got quicker and shorter. You can counter that mentally next time and physically by taking deep belly breaths, but the best way to counter it is toget familiar with the experience of capsizing and getting back in.

Good stuff.

Wetsuit under dry top and pants?
I am a little confused about the concept of wearing a farmer john wetsuit under a dry suit (or dry pants and top). The purpose of a wetsuit is to trap a layer of water against your body and to keep you warm by preventing circulation of that water with the cold water around you. If you are wearing a water impermeable layer then the wetsuit is a not very comfortable not very efficient insulation layer. It serves a purpose but not as efficiently as another layer of fleece. I am not sure why one would wear it.

I do a lot of winter trout fishing. It is a lot like winter kayaking except without the boat. Cold feet can be a real problem because you stand in water or snow without moving very much. One key to keeping feet warm is to remember to keep the insulation levels loose. I have a pair of waders with tighter neoprene feet. They compress my socks and my feet are always cold when I wear them. Loose boots keep my socks looser and allow the insulation to work.


Dry tops/pants & Farmer John wetsuit
The Farmer John wetsuit came about due to another long thread I participated in here on Pnet. I was trying to come up with cold-weather paddling clothes, but didn’t have the funds available for a full-on drysuit. I had found the farmer john for a really low price at a local Goodwill store. So, I picked it up. I was informed that, in the very least, this is a step in the right direction for cold weather immersion protection if I layer it under my other gear.

At the time that I got the farmer john, I did not have the semi-dry top or pants yet. I only recently (past week) got the IR Session 2.5 top and the Level 6 Current pants. I didn’t know for sure if I still needed the farmer john under the semi-dry top and pants or not, but I figured it couldn’t hurt anything to wear them anyway. At the very least, it would add an extra layer of insulation and immersion protection in case the semi-dry top and pants were on the leaky side, as some said they might be.

I’ll admit, the farmer john under all the other layers felt tight, restrictive, and was not the most comfortable clothing I’ve ever worn. However, I soon came to grips with it as long as it kept me warm and offered some form of cold water immersion protection. After testing the waterproofiness of the semi-dry top and pants, though, now I’m wondering if the farmer john is necessary. Maybe I’d be more comfortable and just as warm if I replaced it with another light layer of fleece top and bottom.

Pedal with your feet to keep them active
It helps your stroke as well. Press against the pedal on the side that you are drawing the paddle back with each stroke. It will help with your rotation and keep your feet warmer. That said, if you are in sandals rather than full paddle shoes, I can’t vouch for how effective pedaling will be for you.

The reason I was wearing water sandals with velcro straps was because I had several layers on my feet to try keeping them warm. I could not fit them into regular water shoes without seriously constricting the layers and my feet. I normally wear a size 9.5 shoe. I picked up a cheap pair of size 12 velcro-strap water sandals at Goodwill. They’re big enough for me to strap footwear of some type onto my feet while wearing all the layers.

Not that I really need to spend (or will be allowed to spend) more money on paddling gear, but what kind of paddling shoes would be recommended that could keep your feet warm in sub-freezing temperatures?

NRS wetshoes or mukluks
The NRS wetshoes go over the ankles so are decent. And with them, you don’t need so many layers on your feet as you had. Better yet mukluks, either Chota or the thicker neoprene diving boots. Same price as paddle wear but a mill or so thicker. And again, if big enough you can drop a layer or two.

Going to email you…

Real test
is to tip over in cold water so your head goes at least 3 feet under and re-enter and tip over and swim fifty yards.

Putting your head under cold water upside down, and having to swim for your life in all that gear, might make you prioritize what you are wearing.

My mukluks take on water when submersed
over the top - they don’t seal on my legs. Feet get cold pretty fast with mukluks full of water and they are difficult to swim in, once water filled.

Check back after a few more paddles
Ye gods, it must take you half an hour to get dressed. You have taken the art of layering and turned it into a veritable lasagna of wardrobe.

Glove liners inside mitten shells will not stay warm and dry if you capsize, or even stick your arm in the water. Wearing a fleece beanie over the neoprene hood is downright bizarre. Spray will soak that beanie.

Instead of wool socks AND neoprene socks AND “launch socks” AND water sandals…why not wool socks inside neoprene booties? Better yet, wool socks inside Chota Mukluks (keep your lower legs warm, not just your feet).

Maybe you’re planning on never capsizing; hence, the mitten shells and beanie over hood. Post back after you’ve done some more paddles in that lasagna. If immersion doesn’t make you change some items, ending every paddle soaked in your own sweat will.

Lasagna takes a long time…
Yes, this mess takes quite a while to put on and take off. I’ll admit that. But, I am new at all this cold-weather paddling stuff and trying to learn. Personally, I’d rather start off way overdressed for the weather and peel back the layers with each successive paddling session until I find a combination that works with as few layers as possible. I’d rather take a little time to put it all on and possibly be a little too warm during my paddling. I can handle that better than wearing too few layers, freezing out on the water and having to cut my paddling session short.

No worries. I’ll play around with the system and find out what works for me. The next time I go out paddling, I’m probably going to try it without the farmer john wetsuit.

Yes, the fleece beanie over the neo hood was probably overkill, but it was freakin’ 20°F out. It was my first time trying out the neo hood. I didn’t feel like finding out at that time that the neo hood won’t keep me as warm as I would like. So, I wore the fleece hat as an additional layer figuring I could easily take it off if I got too warm.

Yes, I have a lot of layers on my feet, but that’s because my feet seem to get cold no matter what I do. So, I’m trying different layering schemes. The liner socks wick the moisture off my feet. The wool socks provide insulation and additional wicking. The neo socks add more insulation with some immersion protection. And the launch socks add a waterproof layer on top of it all.

Yes, the Gore-Tex mittens and Thermasilk glove liners are going to fill up with water and be cold and wet in the event of an immersion. In fact, I experienced that when I fell in the water when I was trying to get out of my kayak at the take-out. I have a pair of NRS Maverick neo gloves. I’ll try those out during my next paddle session. However, during some ice bucket testing I did in my kitchen, the mittens kept my hands much warmer than the neo gloves. That’s why I chose to wear the mittens while paddling in 20° air temps!

If you turst the drywear to stay dry
You don’t need the neoprene underneath. A fleece layer or some long johns would probably be more comfortable.

Keep testing (especially in the water)
Experience will tell you what works best for you.

Cold Feet
I am an open boater and I have tried everything (short of foot warmers) to keep my feet warm. The only thing that works is to get out on occation and walk around. I guess that gets the bood flowing.