I ask this because the wife and I have rented a cabin near Raystown Lake starting October 14th.
We are typically summertime recreational kayakers. We have sit-on-top kayaks that so far on every outing we have managed to remain firmly seated and return safely. I wade fished a nearby lake this weekend and the water was warm enough to wet wade. I estimate it was easily in the mid-60’s. We have no terribly cold weather forecast in the next week. I’m guessing Raystown will be in the lower to mid 50’s in water temperature in the places we would paddle.
When we kayak, we always wear approved life vests. We will not go out in high winds or harsh conditions during the summer, we certainly won’t do that in October.
With that in mind, is there anyone who can suggest a practical water temperature when staying off the water is the best choice? There are other options close by to Raystown other than the big lake, so we will keep that in mind as well.
Full disclosure, I am a very experienced fisherman who has wade fished and fallen in the water more times than I care to admit, including several times in mid-winter. I’m still typing, so I survived. But I don’t want a pleasant paddle to turn into a disaster.
Any opinions are welcome.
Good for you for asking! I’m a year round paddler in Michigan and have also survived a dip in mid-winter. But extended full body immersion is super dangerous.
That practical temp depends on your gear and experience. The guidelines you’ll find on coldwatersafety.org or other sites say the cold shock gasp reflex can happen at 65F or below and may be riskiest right in the temp range you’ll be in. Long term hypothermia gets worse the colder the water but you would start losing muscle function very quickly in 50 degree water. So you should be wearing a dry suit or semi-drysuit or some neoprene to give you time to get out in an emergency. I paddle alone and have a range of protective gear and always carry dry clothes in a dry bag. In principle there’s safety in paddling with a partner but some cold water tragedies involve the weaker paddler getting in trouble and then the stronger paddler gets in trouble trying to help. It’s important to think through “what would we do if” scenarios. The truly dangerous scenarios are probably a long shot for someone like you with good judgement so I’ll just say that I’ve experienced a few unbelievably sudden weather changes and even experienced paddlers get surprised.
That said, maybe you could invest in some thin neoprene tops and shorts and stay close to shore and on the smaller lakes you’d be less vulnerable to wind and sudden weather changes. I think that even the thinnest neoprene would be way better than nothing; check out the 0.5mm tops from REI…you might enjoy wearing them off water too.
I go until my hands can’t stand it anymore. I have gloves and mitts and also pogies. But there comes a point the water is simply too cold for more than about one or one and a half hours.
However it’s not a long ordeal here because once the water gets into the low 50 or high 40s it’s usually only a matter for a week or so and it freezes over, so at that point I am not doing any paddling at all until spring thaw.
Go all year air temp above freezing. Not a fan of much freezing on the deck. Water temp 60-65* F wet suit, below 60* dry suit. Really don’t bother with wet suit much at all. Local bays around Long Island NY. One cell phone in bag, VHF on PFD and another on kayak deck. All the other safety gear too. Balaclava below 60* water temp. Hands usually bare 40* and above depending on wind and splash. Neo gloves are tucked in PFD just in case extended water stay below 60* water temp. Pogies at times for wind and splash. Spare paddle below 50* water temp. CG station is not all that far away either direction I paddle east or west in the bays.
I am lucky enough to live on a placid 100 foot wide river that seldom freezes, and that lets me paddle pretty much every month of the year regardless of the water temp. I don’t particularly like going out when the air is below freezing as it introduce the possibility of frostbite and the boat and paddle ice up. Ideal conditions are 45 degrees and sunny, not that it happens often in February.
I love paddling in the fall right up to ice-in. In addition to what others have said, I stay on narrower lakes (they tend to stay calm, even if the wind picks up a bit), and I hug the shoreline where the water is shallow enough to walk to the shore in a pinch … haven’t had to yet (knock wood), but it gives me an extra margin of safety.
A few key points:
• What matters is water temp, not air temp. You need to be dressed to function and survive if immersed. Immersed means-- in water depth over your head, floating with your head above water, but probably with your head already wet or being repeatedly wet by waves or spray
• Wading is not equivalent to immersion in terms of your body’s heat loss. Immersion robs you of body heat much faster. Your sense of your ability to tolerate water at certain temperatures while wading substantially overestimates your ability to tolerate those temps if immersed
• Voluntary immersion near the beach–where you can simply walk out of the water (e.g., events like “polar bear plunges”) is not equivalent to being even 30 or 40 yards off the shore, where you would need to swim while fully immersed the full time back to shore
• Beware of hypothermia tables that show survival times at various water temps. These almost never account for the fact that your ability to function–i.e., use your hands, even swim–fails a lot faster than the temperature alone will kill you. This loss of function will result in your death by drowning long before death from hypothermia. This is true even if you are wearing a standard kayaking PFD (Type III or Type V), because these are not designed to keep your face out of water if you cannot function
• Even water temps around 60oF are dangerous pretty quickly if you are not dressed for immersion. The outfitting for various temperature ranges suggested by @PaddleDog52 are very close to what I have used for myself over several decades of winter paddling–in water temps down to the mid-low 30o’s F
• Properly equipped, you can paddle safely in cold water. However, another major safety risk reduction factor is to not paddle alone. I routinely paddle solo in summer. I never paddle solo, even properly equipped, once the water temps get down to 50oF or lower. A capable companion can greatly abbreviate the time it takes to help get you out of the water in event of capsize or fall.
• Obviously–PFD always!
I’m making the assumption you don’t have a dry suit, since you didn’t mention it in your OP. Mid 50’s water temp would get a drysuit for me. 50 degree water is cold!
There’s no magical number. It’s based on your body, comfort level, gear and experience. I make the determination by doing tests. I put on various layers of insulation > dry suit and go to the local beach with a thermometer. So for temperate X, I know I can wear a lightweight poly or wool insulating layer, but for temperature Y I need a heavy union-suit. This way I know what works for me and my gear. I don’t rely on what other people think is suitable.
Other things I take into consideration: air temp, location, wind/waves, likelihood of prompt assistance if things go sideways. I’ll always have a dry bag with dry clothes, a thermos with hot liquid and maybe even a small camp stove to boil water/make hot food. I probably wouldn’t go in cold water in an unfamiliar location without a solid safety plan and/or paddlers familiar with the area.
Some here on Long Island get a false security of paddling small lakes, rivers and bays. GASP REFLEX happens in water even 4’ deep and close to shore. My life is to important to me to not be prepared with the right gear. I paddle in 60 ° F water and drag my hand in it. It’s F’in COLD then I imagine my whole body in the water trying to swim which will really strip heat off your limbs and body. Blood all rushed to your core and some have a heart attack. Heart attack in the water your done.
For the Chesapeake Paddlers Association, cold water gear is mandatory for water temperatures below 60°F and may be required for higher temperatures depending on location and conditions.
I’ve voluntarily gone swimming in 60° water in West Virginia, and 60° is right cold. I could only stand it for about 15 minutes.
A suitable lightweight wetsuit should be enough, depending on location and conditions, for water temperatures from 55-65°, although a farmer john style leaves your arms exposed which could be a problem for long immersion. I prefer a drysuit for comfort and adaptability, but that’s costly for only occasional use and moderately cold water.
As others have said there are a lot of factors to consider. As of today, the lake water temperature is 67-70°, but will drop as this week as the local area is predicted to have nighttime air temperatures of 40-47°. The week that you will be up there the high air temperatures are predicted to range from 53° to the mid 60s
A good discussion. It is important to dress for immersion. I see people paddleboarding on Lake Tahoe in street clothes in cold weather. It makes me shudder. Kayakers do it sometimes. I agree about the inhale/gag reflex.
In the West the good river flows are during spring runoff of snowmelt. I have routinely run the Truckee River in Nevada when it is between 43-48 degrees and it is plenty cold. I require full wet suits for those temperatures and we have had swimmers over the years that suffered no ill effects. We used start wake boarding on lakes by April 1 when lake temps are around 45-50. The group seems to agree that below about 50 degrees F the fun quoitent starts to decline. Of course dry suits would be even better, but heavier wet suits are easy to find used and work well. For water skiing and wakeboarding a covering for the head really helps.
It is a serious mistake for people to continue to paddle late into fall with only a PFD. The spring is even worse. It is the drowning season. If you are a serious paddler and plan to be out in other than tropical conditions invest in a wet suit or a dry suit. Carry a thermometer.
Sometimes on river trips, mostly rafting I would have the crew stand in the river at about thigh deep while we talk safety. That would encourage people to put on their protective clothing for immersion. This is a serious topic that deserves consideration. Nobody is a good swimmer in cold weather without protective clothing.
Thanks for the information and suggestions. If the long-term weather forecast is to be believed I’ll probably not bother bringing the kayaks with 4 days of rain on tap. I really hope the forecast changes for the better but I’m not holding out much hope for that.
Staying close to shore is key for me. I’m always cognizant of my “worst case scenario.”
We noticed the alpine lakes were the warmest before “peak summer” because that’s when all the snow melts and return trips in late summer were COLDER.
It’s fascinating and each trip I swear to bring a candy thermometer and start to log it from the middle
and maybe record the mean air temp.
“Staying near shore” and not dressing for immersion can get you killed. We have some fatalities on Lake Tahoe each year. Recently a Deputy Sheriff stepped off his patrol boat at the end of his shift into a tender to go ashore. The boat capsized and he was thrown into the water. He was not wearing a PFD and had the gag reflex. He drowned in front of several people in about 8 feet of water.
The gasp reflex is a serious issue, especially with a kayak or canoe as you are likely to be dumped into the water head first. Without a PFD that inhalation of water can be fatal. This can result in what is known as “sudden disappearance syndrome” where a seemingly fit and healthy person goes into the water head first and does not resurface. Even with a PFD you can inhale a fatal amount of water, although it will be easier to recover your body.
It happened to a George washington University crew coach on the Potomac who was seen to lose his balance in a small outboard chase boat and fall into the water head first. He was not wearing a PFD. He never resurfaced and his body was recovered downstream several days later.
Face it, we are all at risk whenever we paddle.
I enjoy paddling in winter. The razor sound of skim ice breaking behind me in my wake, the magic quiet while paddling in snowfall through a forest, breaking thru candle ice and the candles glow like chandelier crystals in the sunlight… I don’t let gasp reflex risk doom me to the rowing machine in the basement all winter.
me either i use my balaclava
What little ice I’ve paddled in cracked when my bow hit it.
Here’s a chart I’ve used over the last couple years to guide my thinking about kayaking in cold waters:
Additionally, I’ve used the following chart to guide my selection of neoprene in colder conditions:
I’ve never used a drysuit and so won’t venture to provide any thoughts on that.
These charts came from scuba diving websites. I can’t vouch for their accuracy, but that seem reasonable to me.