How cold can you go?

Ice is out on our local Midwestern lake. Was thinking of testing drysuit and underlayer capabilities.

What do you have to wear underneath a drysuit and what water temp can the average (yes, I know that this will garner angst) person handle?

What’s your experience with cold water?

Not just the suit
The suit’s the easy part - throw three layers under it including some good fleece and 40 degree water is quite tolerable on the body for me. Alpaca wool socks over polypro. I don’t do cold well.

But at those temps I need either Nordic Blues or a scuba diving dry glove on my hands, and to roll comfortably at least a 5mm hood and either full goggles or a Henderson Ice Cap to take care of my head and face.

Go jump in
I was out on Superior the other day and decided to go for a swim after I got back to the beach. I had a T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, and a fleece vest ontop, and quickdry pants on bottom. The water was 35 F. On my feet, just some NRS Desperado socks. I floated around for awhile without getting my head wet. Not too bad, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the water more than a couple of minutes.

Last fall, I decided to take a swim for ten minutes from shore to a rock off shore pulling my kayak, dressed in the same as above, but with fleece pants. The swim took 10 minutes and by the time I pulled myself up on the rock, I was sapped. The water was 40 F. I’m glad I had my kayak, so I didn’t have to swim back. And I’m glad water was coming up on part of the rock, so I could get in and just wait for a big wave to launch. I was actually surprised how difficult it was and how energy draining it was.

Your best bet is to go to a safe spot and get in and see how you handle it. Bring a friend to help you if you get into trouble.

Head and Hands
Head and hands are crucial. As Celia said a good dry suit with three layers (one wicking and two insulating) is fine for your body, but be certain your head and neck are covered enough to avoid shock and pain. Of course be certain your hands are warm enough to function.

For winter paddling we use scuba gloves and ice diving hoods.

under the dry suit
I usually wear a long sleeve polypro shirt and fleece pants. I carry a spare dry shirt because my upper body sweats a lot from paddling. I also wear neoprene gloves and sometimes a neoprene beanie.

Last weekend the water was in the high 30’s - low 40’s.


I’m mostly paddling narrow rivers. Swims typicaly don’t last more than a few minutes. On open water where a swim would likely take longer I’d dress more conservativly.


The best way to find out is to
drees in your layers and drysuit and go float around for 20 min and see how it feels. You can adjust from that. What works for one will not work for another. I can handle the cold with no problem and I dress lighter than my wife does. So go for a dip and see what you like.

I’m not average
but my swim (not by choice) yesterday consisted of roughly 5 minutes swimming in 34 degree water in a 2mm shorty wetsuit, and seal skin socks and gloves, with foul weather pants over them(leaked like a sieve.)When I went in, I was surprised at the lack of cold feeling, but I think this was due to me sweating bullets in a semi-flooded river where I was trying to get up to a good playspot, so my core was hot. I swam the canoe to the bank, then decided to stay in the water while emptying the canoe out. Legs got prickly but core was fine. Paddled another hour, son stopped looking worried after reassurance that the water was fine.Hitting a good downriver stretch after work tomorrow with a little less worry about dumping; also knowing friends car and a towel will be right after the roughest stretch is comforting.

I don’t have a dry suit
But I have swum in cool water. 45 is my personal sanity limit. I took two swims in 45 degree water, 58 degree air, one day. The second swim was significant. I had to be rescued by some rafters. Didn’t even have strength to get in a raft after just a few minutes in the water.

If I get on the water when it’s cooler than 45, I take significant extra precautions, including being much more particular about the company and the route and I’ll scrub for weather a lot quicker too.

If I had a dry suit, I’d drop that temp down a bit, but cold water is dangerous no matter what you’re wearing. What you’re wearing CERTAINLY mitigates the danger, but it does not eliminate it.

  • Big D

hands are weak link
On day last year I practiced rescues near shore on the local lake while there was still a bit of ice. Drysuit worked fine with poly longies & fleece underneath, but bare hands became useless after just a few minutes. I had been paddling comfortably with just pogies. Finding gloves with the right balance of warmth and dexterity is a critical part of being safe in cold water.

I’ve swam a lot in 40 degree water…

– Last Updated: Mar-29-07 8:14 AM EST –

...during training sessions. I typically wear thin long underwear under 300 weight fleece bottoms, with similar underwear under 200 weight fleece on top. The reason for the lighter top layer is that the PFD and neoprene skirt provide some added insulation and I've found heavier fleece to be too hot to paddle when combined with them.

I wear thin wool socks inside the latex socks on my drysuit and neoprene boots over them. I have dry gloves with wool liners on my hands and a 3mm hood on my head.

Dressed this way, I can typically stay in the water for 20-30 minutes with little movement to generate warmth, before I feel the need to get out. If I'm actively swimming or demonstrating rescues, I stay warmer and could probably handle being in the water for a considerably longer period of time, though I haven't actually tried it.

FWIW, I've swam in seawater as cold as 30 degrees and been reasonably comfortable, but it's not fun.

Some good information
Here’s some great info on what you ask.

I second the motion on hands as a real problem. They’re located on the end of long appendages and your body will shut them down pretty quickly to preserve heat. Your body type (big, small, fat, thin, short, tall) is an enormous player in your tolerance of the cold.

Warm air, cold water
Right now, air temps are in the 60s - 70s but the water is still cold. I just got a dry suit, but am confused as to proper undergarments.



I use
2 layers of of polypro fleece under my garments in real cold air and 39 deg water. I do not like 5mm dive hoods unless it is really cold, like 15 deg or below. I use 3mm dive gloves or Nordic Blue dry gloves. Not uncommon for me to have ice coated gear

Go Jump in - GOOD ADVICE
The reply about jumping in is really good advice. I don’t think folks really test themselves and their gear in cold water enough.

One thing I learned is that a neoprene hood doubles the time you can spend in the water. If your wearing a drysuit in rough water and don’t have a hood handy, you’ll regret it.

Completed experiment
Thank you everyone!

I took your advice and suited up yesterday after work and took a swim. Water temp was measured to be 38.6 F

I wore light fleece pants, wicking layer top w/ polartec 100 top, normal socks, 3mm neo hood covering neck as well. I used my Kokatat semi-dry Supernova suit over everything with 3mm NRS gloves and 5mm NRS boots.

Was generally pleased with the fact that I was in the water and not completely freezing. I lasted about 15 minutes reasonably comfortably, but soon noticed that my legs were chilly and my hands were definately not doing well.

Per others recommendations, I will likely invest in some heavier weight fleece pants and add better first layer all around. I’m going to go with the Nordic Blue dry gloves just as soon as I can because I think the hands were the weakest link in the setup.

FWIW…the Supernova was bone dry following this signicant immersion, which included water lapping up over the neck/neo-hood junction constantly. For my use…the Supernova does the trick nicely.

Balancing act
All cold water paddling is a balancing act as far as dressing for the water vs. over-heating aerobically. It’s a real drag. To really be dressed for submersion well enough to swim for a while and possibly do a reentry of some type, you are going to over-heat while paddling if the water is in the 40’s. I know through a lot of discussion with other paddlers most dress just warm enough to take an immersion but not a long one so they don’t over heat while paddling. I cannot paddle with a hood on unless it’s in the 30’s or I over-heat. Even a thin one. I’m just very cautious in the cold weather and I keep a hood on my deck if the conditions pick up.

Start all your paddles out very gently and let your body slowly warm up. Otherwise you will overheat. If you start to over heat, take the hat off to cool down.

heavier layer on your torso
remember, cold legs are a sign that your body is preserving warmth for your core.

A heavier layer on your torso and head may keep your legs warmer. try tossing a hat on under that hood, or an extra fleece on your torso.

Not saying that better fleece pants aren’t a good idea, but that may be treating the symptom, not the cause.

And/or be ready to change
Any time the gap between the water and the air temps are 20 degrees and more, like spring and fall, or the sun is really out and strong without a lot of wind, I will sweat a good bit in what I wear under the suit. It’s the reason that I’ve come to prefer fleece to polypro on those days - it stays warmer as it gets wet.

I just always go out for a longer paddle ready to do a half to a full changeup, so I at least have something that isn’t soaked on my torso. On a wintry day just the act of changing will more than take care of feeling too warm…