Fall/Winter safety

Every last one of us who paddles takes a calculated risk. Mostly the risk is pretty easy to calculate and we minimize those risks well enough. Its really not for anyone else to dictate what risks are too risky for someone else. We can only suggest what seems to us like they might be “pushing the envelope” a bit much, but in the end we’re all solely responsible for our own safety. I think we do a disservice to the sport when, in the telling, we exaggerate those risks and make every unexpected encounter we experience into some sort of epic Bar Grylls survival story, as though that’s an exciting and somehow worthy thing to do. (Brings to mind an old Grateful Dead lyric: Though I could not caution all, I still might warn a few, Don’t lend your hand, to raise no flag, atop no ship of fools)

BUT We have lost two good paddlers from this board to incidents involving cold water. (One was a 37 year DNR fisheries manager from MN - no stranger to cold water and a very very experienced canoeist.) I love paddling in snow, too. But take cold water very seriously.

Hypothermia has been studied. There are facts to be known. Know them. When you hit cold water you have to control your breathing. It will be difficult for from one to three minutes - failure to control that first gasp, if your head is under water, could well be your last breath. You have about ten minutes to get out the water before you become unable to function, and your hand’s dexterity and ability to grip goes early.

And it isn’t over when you get out - whether onto ice or dry land. If your core temp has dropped significantly or is dropping, it will continue to do so for a while after. Once you start shivering again (when you stop shivering initially it is not a good sign - it means you’re starting into serious hypothermia) it is incapacitating - and that will be happening just when you need to be getting your clothes as dry as possible, starting a fire, gulping hot liquids, dumping as many calories as you can into your system.

There’s some informative (and entertaining in its way) stuff here from a guy who has made a career of studying this in Manitoba. These guys know a thing or two about cold… and are willing to demonstrate.
To start…


and a three parter

Makes a wet suit or, better, a dry suit seem like a pretty good idea, eh? Maybe sometimes a dry bag and change of clothes is enough. I did that for years and took only one cold swim (~37F) which I survived, after which I bought a wet suit - and a neoprene diving hood. (And even with a wet suit that first shot of cold water is indeed a shock.) BTW, That was one occasion where I nearly decided to forgo a bow line tie down as discussed in another thread - darned hard to tie a knot under some circumstances…

We all like to paddle, no doubt about it, but really, how important is it? We’re not fur traders or timber cruisers, its not our livelihood… So what’s the acceptable risk for a recreational paddler?

Only you can decide for you… but think long and hard about it and do so with a clear-eyed understanding of what a mishap might entail.

And may all our outings be in safety and beauty.


Spring? Where the water is even colder?

Really, now is the best time to go for a few deliberate swims so you know how to handle yourself in the water. Take a note of the water temperature. If you then feel confident about your ability to handle a capsize, go on paddling.

Continue to do this occasionally into the winter, until you aren’t confident anymore that you would like to capsize in those circumstances. Again take a note of the water temperature.

Now, when spring comes, you will know which water temperature to wait for before you start paddling again.


When I take people on river trips, I have them stand in the water at least thigh deep, for about 10 minutes. Then they can decide what clothing is going to be appropriate.

I do not wish to be harsh or disrespectful, but I want you to get the message about dressing for immersion. It is not a grey area. Starting in the fall the water starts to get cold. In winter it is cold. In spring it is still cold. Remember that and dress appropriately. If you can’t afford a used wet suit, hang up your paddle until the water warms up.

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Here’s the flavor of kool-aid I’m drinkin’ to stay safe: wear a properly fitting pfd, dress for the water temp. and boat within your abilities.

I’ve convinced myself that if folks do those three things that paddlers will have less tragedy and more fun.

In addition to the flotation a pfd provides, it also provides some valuable insulation.

My choice for winter paddling is a dry suit or semi dry suit. I did the wool sweaters, wool pants, double paddling jackets with layers in between, the farmer john neoprene wetsuits and even nonbreathable plastic dry suits when they first came out. I guess the best I can say about that early stuff/methods is that I survived- but barely. Bring on the modern stuff- breathable dry and semi drysuits, pogies (not playtex gloves), neoprene booties (not wool socks in tennis shoes), and balaclavas.

Stay within your skillset in an appropriate environment. You’ll swim less, get to shore quicker, and have a better time.

Actually I’m not drinkin’ kool-aid at all. PBR Paddle Boats Responsibly.


@PJC - this is so helpful. Thanks for taking the time to help a newbie. I’ve decided to stay off the water until it warms up. Maybe in a future year, winter paddling will be worth the investment for me. This year my investment will be in a real boat.


I’m here trying to learn and make responsible choices. Thanks to this group, it only took a couple of posts for me to realize I’m not going to be a cold-water paddler, at least this year. The fact that spring water is colder hadn’t occurred to me at the time I posted that quote, and after I learned that (duh, I just hadn’t thought of it and I’m glad for those who addressed that), I realized that it would have been more accurate to say “when the water warms up again.” But, I couldn’t edit my post - maybe because people have already commented on it.

I’ll definitely follow your advice to swim in the spring. Right now swimming in cold water sounds miserable, and if that’s what it takes to paddle responsibly, I’m out.

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@ppine Your testing sounds totally reasonable. I’ll do that when I return to the water next summer.

I felt harshness in “if this is a real post”. I said I was new and seeking advice. I also responded to each piece of advice, and by the time you posted, had said I was quitting for the year thanks to the input of the group. To have you question whether I was real felt very shaming.

The other one was “you are literally risking your life.” I’m not. I’m at a computer, on land, looking up water temperatures, asking questions, and ultimately deciding to stay off the water until it is warm enough to be safe for my circumstances (no wetsuit, solo, etc). I can’t currently dress for immersion, so I’m not going anywhere near the water. I think that’s taking immersion very seriously.


@tdaniel Thanks. I love PBR (both types).

It’s clear to me that cold water is outside of my current skillset. So, I’m landlocked until the water warms again.

You’ll get a broad spectrum of cold water wear suggestions on Pnet. I wouldn’t get discouraged about paddling in the fall and spring near Portland, my son lives there and I have a bit of experience. When the water is below 50 F, I would wear a 4/3 wetsuit (full suit), you can buy a decent one on sale at a surf shop for around $180 - 200, dry suits are certainly nice but not necessary. If you get to hot, you splash water on the suit and cool down. In california you can rent a wetsuit , you might rent one from a surf shop on the coast and see how you feel in coastal rivers before you buy one. My advice would be to get a wetsuit and find a paddling partner who has some experience.

SeaDart has said probably the most important thing about mitigating risk. See if you can hook up with someone else. Someone who can be around so you are not completely on your own if you misgauge.

Also, IMO too many paddlers get their eyes drawn by the basic paddle suits like the Farmer John and Jane from NRS, rather than taking a hard look at the wetsuits used by for ex surfers. They are much more refined garments than the basic paddle suit, usually thicker over core body areas. And yes more expensive than the basic hydroskin.

But they are good garments and if I did not have a personal situation that really demands dry wear for my time on the ocean I would explore them myself for local shoulder season paddling. I have to have the dry wear though, so these layers are just an intermediate way to spend more money for me.

At least where I usually paddle the water (a largish, wide, typically, shallow river) stays warmer for quite a while into autumn and early winter, especially if there are extended sunny stretches that warm water in the shallows. Not so much in spring when its constantly being fed with snow/ice melt… But to someone just getting into paddling, that isn’t immediately intuitive and shouldn’t be expected to be. This is the kind of stuff that experience teaches.

Another thing that applies to this discussion, and which can be surprising to some paddlers who are starting, is the “turnover” that occurs in northern lakes in fall.
During the summer months a layer of sun-heated warm water forms which, being less dense than colder water, “floats” on the lake’s surface. As summer progresses typically this forms a layer (epilimnion) that gets deeper, thicker, with time. (Unless it gets disrupted by a major storm like a tornado - and even then it reforms fairly quickly afterwards.) If you just wade into a lake, that’s what you’re likely to feel, especially later into the summer.
As the days grow shorter and the air cooler there comes a day (well, probably an evening) - and, yes, it happens that quickly - when this layer collapses and sinks, mixing with the colder water from the depths. The water temperatures drop dramatically, quickly, over large areas. The day before turnover a swimmer might find a wet suite silly, the day after very necessary. This could surprise a paddler taking an unexpected swim.
You can usually see it: lake water that typically looks green (from phytoplankton) and through which you can’t see very far beneath the surface, suddenly turns clear or grey/tan. Rocks on the bottom that you haven’t seen all summer jump right into vision. And its cold down there.

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I am willing to be harsh with people if it might save a life.
I am glad you have had time to rethink your plan.
Best of luck finding a new boat and some new paddling clothes.

Have a dry run, swim out to where you would be paddling and swim back. See how you then cope with the temperature. A wetsuit would take the panic and cold shock of the moment you capsize. Here in Scotland, no matter the season, I wear a dry suit as I am out in the sea fed by the North Atlantic. Stay safe.

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Yes the turnovers are quite an amazing phenomenon. My local river temp actually went UP ten degrees in the last week (45 to 55), how crazy is that? Maybe the generic point is that nature can surprise the snots out of you even if you’ve spent a lot of time outside. I’d also like to award you 6 points for the Grateful Dead quote.


In keeping with the water temperature columns, they can fool people into thinking the water is warmer and safer in spring. Often the water will feel pretty warm when you dip your hands in, but the thermal layer is often not deep enough to keep you out of the bitter cold just below the surface if you should go in.

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Well, the craziness is widespread at least… check the temps on the first graph

What is even more surprising to me is how high above the average flow rates have been this far into fall - and it was that way for most of the summer. It really is becoming a pattern, a “new normal”…
It was one reason why years ago I quit leading Pnet (as it was then called) trips in August. Did that for 9 years but the last three years in a row we had high water. It was often well over two feet above the long term average. It precluded sandbar camping and forced us to less desirable and more expensive public campgrounds - and there weren’t all that many of them. What was once a nice longish weekend river camping trip turned into a kind of frustrating series of camp set-ups and knock downs didn’t even avoid the daily shuttles. Because of consistently higher than average water…

I sure wish some of the water we got this year had fallen on the western wildfires where it was sorely needed.

Don’t swim out there, Stay near shore.
Ship of Fools.


My deal is - “If the winter tires are on the car, the kayak stays in the garage.” And then some… Plenty of other things to do in the winter. Chop wood. Stack wood. Carry wood. Run trails, XC ski. Zwift. Rinse/repeat…

Personally, I’m camping here in North Idaho this weekend if it stays below freezing so it’s not wet.
Kayaking probably if the wind is calm. Dry suit and other appropriate gear.

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Your post is a good reminder of how different individuals have different levels of risk/tolerance to cold and heat. Clearly there are a lot of general precautions to take, but your experience points out the importance of knowing your individual body and it’s limits. I’m in Texas and most of y’all would laugh at what I consider cold. I’m passing on the local clubs role practice because the forecast is only in the low 70s. I’m just that big of a wimp when it comes to being cold, but your post was a good reminder to me to not underestimate the dangers of heat.