Kayaking in really cold water

I just bought a house on a lake in upstate NY. I have been going out for an hour about 4 times a week. Neighbors tell me the lake rarely freezes because the waves keep it open, so I hope to continue all year long.

I have a Necky Zoar Sport (http://www.atlantickayaktours.com/pdf/Retail/Kayak/Necky/Zoar-Sport-Low.pdf) that I think is pretty much impossible to capsize. I took it out in Sandy with 2.5’ waves and it seemed perfectly stable, though a bit difficult to control. So if I take it out when the water is reasonably calm, I don’t see much danger.

I have a wetsuit (and wore during Sandy, as I expected to go swimming) but it is awfully uncomfortable and I really really prefer not to wear it. They are designed to be worn wet, and just don’t do well dry.

I did go over in a canoe once in icy water and didn’t care for it; but I think the chances of capsizing the ZS in calm water are about the same as being hit by lightning.

So… am I being an idiot for not wearing a wetsuit, or is it a reasonable thing to do.

(Actually the toughest thing about Sandy was just getting into the water. The wind would kept pushing the bow into the beach before I could even get into the kayak.)

Go for a swim - then report back

– Last Updated: Dec-08-12 4:17 PM EST –

If you are comfortable swimming around for 15 minutes
in what you are wearing - with a PFD on hopefully -
then you are slightly protected from the elements.

The important thing is ACTUALLY going for a swim
- leave the boat home, bring towels and dry clothes instead.
Run the experiment for yourself, you call the shots,
you dress how you want, you analyze the results.

The mammalian "gasp reflex" is a dooosey and often
people suck in some water involuntarily - gasping for air.

At 25 inches wide - that a LOT of surface area
for a wave to pound upon flipping you over.
At 14ft its a bobber; going up-and-over waves;
potentially pearling the nose, or pitch poling.

Atlantic Kayak Tours website

– Last Updated: Dec-08-12 4:15 PM EST –

here is a link to visit:

http://www.atlantickayaktours.com/pages/expertcenter/how-to-dress/How-to-Dress-5.shtml In upstate NY the water temps will be below 45 degrees all winter and likely much of the way into April.

if you would like to self-test, put on your wetsuit & cold weather gear. Tip out of your boat in water deeper than you can stand in so that you are fully immersed. Stay in the water at least 10 minutes, try some dog paddling or swimming around your boat. Then try your preferred method of re-entry. If it works, or not, you've proven it for yourself. Preferably conduct this test near shore (like within 15 feet) and w. a friend there who's got blankets and a car w. the heater running.

Always assume you will capsize. Needn't be from waves. People have capsized reaching for something, spilling hot liquids on themselves, from sudden movements, from coughing spasms or nausea.

Hypothermia is deceptive
I do not personally know anybody that has died from drowning or hypothermia, but just like a PFD, a wet suit is good insurance to lower the odds of death.

Generally speaking, I do enough stupid stuff to get myself into trouble. Anything I can do to lower the odds of getting myself into a bad situation is a good thing.

I have never had to have a PFD, throw bag, or wet suit to save my life, but I have them, because if you needed any one to save your life it would really suck if you did not.

You Don’t Need It…
until you need it (which is usually the worse time to find out that you needed it).

Just going down to the corner store. Do I really need the seatbelt?

Going for an easy ride on the bike path. Do I really have to wear a helmet? (My jury came in on this one recently,)

Maybe this guy was just doing something stupid…


If you are looking for agreement that it’s fine for you to go without immersion gear in cold water conditions, if it’s calm, there are a couple of folks here who share that perspective. The prevailing sentiment (mine included), however, is that – Yes, you would be an idiot.

Hey, you asked… :wink:


A couple of years ago…
…three guys were out at the local reservoir in a typical fishing boat during February. It was a windy day and they were reported to be about 100 feet off shore.

For reasons unknown to me, the boat flipped and two of the guys were (frozen) toast before they could get to shore.

I always assume that I’m going to flip. I’ve flipped in four foot waves and even when I was just messing around on flat water (now that was a surprise). Last year just for fun, I tried a couple of rolls in 34 degree water while wearing a drysuit. I can say for sure that if I had to spend more than two or three minutes in that water, my hands would have become useless.

You really need to dress for the water because you just never know. After all, it is a water sport:)

Well said, Sing. I went over my first
winter, in 4’ of water, near shore, December with 50 degree air temp (water was much colder), and though I didn’t have a wetsuit on, I was fortunate enough to have dressed in all wicking fabrics (3 layers). Had I been in deeper water, I most likely would have been in DEEP trouble.(I purchased much better attire after this day.)

One never knows what will happen as you can’t always see what’s under you in the water.

Better to be safe than depoloyed into very cold water.

Live to paddle another day.

Paddle safe.

Inuit who still use kayaks
traditionally do not use PFD’s and do not use wetsuits or dry suits. They use sealskins. However they know a few dozen rolls that are truly bombproof to get themselves out of the water fast.

So they have an arsenal of tricks instead of merely assuming they will never flip. That assumption ( that your boat is capsize proof) is going to kick your a$$.

No one has addressed yet some peculiarities of sub freezing kayaking. First, your paddle is likely to ice up. Second your boat is going to become slippery. Very much so. Don’t assume that you wont fall in either boarding or getting out just cause you have not done that before.

Third, while your lake may not freeze due to wind action, water along the shore probably will. This makes getting in and out of the water a bit of issue. You may well have to slink across ice. In your kayak you may be more stable, but never underestimate the fact that ice sheets can give way and dump you in. And getting out back on to the sheet or floe requires ice claws. Do you have those?

You hate your wet suit. I get it. Go get one you will use, and that is comfortable. Its safer prepare for the worst and hope for the best, rather than assume the best and have the worst crap on you.

Also get dry clothes (wool, fleece, hat, gloves) in a drybag and consider that part of your kit. Its amazing how chilled you can get when your wetsuit actually gets wet and you get out.

Second the swim, plus…
If you do actually capsize, unless you have a very reliable roll (which I suspect not), you will have to re-enter the boat from the water. Try this out near shore wearing what you prefer.

Then try it wearing the wetsuit.

No cheating, keep your feet off the bottom so you have to empty the boat, inflate the paddle float and get back in just the way you would in deep water.

Unless your upstate NY is quite different from the one we live in, you’ll be thinking dry suit and/or a nice warm pool to learn rolls pretty quickly.

Necky Zoar Sport
I’d be willing to bet good money that somebody, somewhere has capsized that boat.

I will admit that I have canoed in Minnesota in the winter on pretty cold water without protective clothing other than fleece or pile (no wetsuit or dry suit) so I am not going to say the idea is idiotic. On the other hand I stayed close to shore and was never more than 1/2 hr from my car.

If you plan to be out no more than an hour, you too would be no more than 1/2 hr away from some type of protection. I would advise staying close to shore and carrying a set of dry, warm clothes and a towel in a dry bag just in case.

Is there power boat traffic on your lake? I don’t know what folks are like where you live, but I lived and paddled on a lake in Tennessee and had the unfortunate experience of having someone in a power craft intentionally try to swamp me a couple of times. Also, sometimes boat wakes reflecting off of the shore bank will meet the wake coming in to shore and amplify the wave heights somewhat unpredictably. I would never assume that a capsize would be impossible.

Saftety and Comfort

– Last Updated: Dec-08-12 8:02 PM EST –

I have occasionally stirred up trouble with one or two people here by suggesting that one does not "necessarily" need a wetsuit or drysuit for paddling small, quiet rivers in fall or spring when the water is cold. Getting out of the water in such a situation normally doesn't take long (but it COULD take too long in certain cases, so being prepared for the worst is still highly recommended). However, I'd never say that about paddling lakes when the water is cold, especially not in winter (even the colder temperature of winter on tiny rivers would make me really nervous about not being well prepared for spending some time in the water). Besides, even with the best safety intentions, a lake paddler isn't likely to be nearly as close to shore as someone on a little river, and in a lake you are far less likely to be able to get your feet on the bottom anytime soon after a capsize either. Best to be prepared for the worst.

I've never heard anyone say wetsuits are designed to work wet and not when dry. The usual complaint I hear is that they tend to be too warm until they get soaked. But if yours won't keep you warm when it's dry, wear something over it for additional insulation and to block the wind. I think the comfort issue is something you can get used to, but if not, a better option would be to find something that is comfortable, and wear it.

All the other advice so far, I agree with. Personally, I normally wear a drysuit for boating on lakes when the water is cold, and frequently wear it for quiet rivers too.

By the way, I'm assuming your lake is a deep one, since wave action won't keep any lake open all winter. In fact, constant wave action will make the day of freeze-up arrive sooner. You see, a lake won't freeze until some time AFTER the whole water profile cools to the temperature of its greatest density (about 39 degrees F). As water at the surface cools, it gets more dense and sinks, until eventually the lake gets filled from bottom to top with water having the temperature providing the greatest density. Once the whole profile from bottom to top reaches 39 degrees, water at the surface which cools further becomes less dense and "floats", where it stays exposed to the colder air and eventually cools below the freezing point. This process takes much longer in a deep lake than a shallow one, and if the lake is deep enough, it takes longer than the duration of the winter season so freezing never happens. Even huge, cold-exposed and wind-swept Lake Superior would freeze quite quickly each winter if it were as shallow as Lake Erie.

Deep lake here
Sebago–lately will not freeze in the middle. Its over 400 feet deep in one spot.

Wave action is working now to keep the near shore ice free but when the ice starts to form, that effect diminishes each day. Depth does prevent the middle from freezing even there is 3 feet of ice in near shore areas. Snomobilers at night from away sometimes find this out the hard way. Each year we have human depth finders. Sorry to be crude, but they invariably die. Already had one this year.

So I suspect your lake too is deep. It would be far safer to use your clothing approach on a shallow windy river. I understand a fair number of Midwest paddlers do this in the winter.

An upset can be no more than a minute swim to where you can stand. Get your stuff out of the dry bag and strip and change. And paddle home as you can’t do an upset twice.

dry suit
Upstate NY right…get a dry suit. I would not use a wet suit in sub freezing conditions personally. I also would learn to roll if you can’t, or paddle close to shore and bring along a cag or somethign to warm you in the event you do go for a swim.

I personally paddle and roll all year long, but use a dry suit.


Dry suit is not realistic
I really doubt someone with a $700 - $900 kayak is going to buy a $1200 dry suit. I think it is better to advise that he get a very stretch thin surfer style wet suit and splash gear and carry two sets of dry clothes and emergency fire kit and shore sneak the rivers and shallow places.

It is hard to die if you can simply stand up and walk to shore to change into your dry clothes. Except for surfing in water above 50 degrees this is almost the only winter paddling I do. A rec boat in the winter in not more dangerous than a canoe.

Stay within two boat lengths of the shore all winter long. Wear your wet suit. Try to swim a bit in it after some of your paddles, when you have the heater in the car running and waiting.

Google Cold Water Boot camp
I suggest you watch some of the videos on the site Cold Water Boot Camp and learn about how long you will last without the proper gear like a dry suit and a PFD.

I’ve done rolls ina Zoar Sport
I’ve done roll practice in a Zoar Sport. Not that hard to capsize in it.

My personal rule is to have a wet suit or dry suit on if the water is under 60.

‘Impossible to Capsize’ – Red Flag
Other posters have pretty much covered the need to dress for possible immersion, so I won’t repeat that. But I will second the suggestion to watch Cold Water Boot Camp. I also must say that anytime I hear someone say or see them write that their boat is pretty much impossible to capsize, it raises a red flag and, frankly, makes me question a person’s risk assessment skills. Never assume a boat is “impossible” to capsize when your life could depend on it – as it could in cold water. The Titanic was considered unsinkable, too.

I appreciate the help
My intention is to stay within 100’ of shore. The water is no more than 5’ deep there, and I can run home from wherever in 10 minutes. (however I know from my one icy capsize that it would be an extremely long 10 minutes)

I appreciated everyone’s advice and I get it; bad idea.

The explanation of how lakes freeze was interesting; I didn’t know that, but it makes sense. The lake is 250’ deep and I am told it never freezes in the middle. I am talking about near the shore though; my neighbors claim it remains open from waves. I used to have a place on the opposite side and it sure froze there. We’ll see in a month or two.

Get a $300 dry suit like I did.

Or… stay off the water in the winter and ride a bike instead.

100 feet might be too far
Even if you can stand in the water it might take you too long to get out of it.

My personal experience and information gleaned from personal accounts here and elsewhere suggests that individuals response and resistance to sudden cold water immersion varies quite a bit. Unless you are certain you can be out of the water in 2 minutes or so, I wouldn’t risk it.

You can read and read about the effects of cold water immersion but until you experience it you really don’t understand it or know how you personally will react.

My personal experience in paddling in sub 35 degree water is the same as what ByronWalter said above. Even with a dry top and a reliable roll I found that sudden upper body immersion was nearly instantly debilitating.

One of the effects of immersion in water of that temperature is very sudden and dramatic vasoconstriction of the blood supply to the extremities. Blood supply slows to a bare trickle. As a result, your arms and legs can become near useless as soon as your muscles consume the oxygen supply they have at hand, which is pretty quickly if you have been exercising.

I lived in Minneapolis for a decade or so. Every winter typically one would read about a drowning or a few drownings that occurred on one of the small local lakes, often very close to shore (within 6 feet). It was not uncommon to hear the victim described as “a good swimmer”, and I remember a couple of instances in which a good Samaritan standing on the bank who witnessed someone struggling to get to shore jumped in to try to save them and wound up drowning also.