Kayaking in really cold water

Take a cold shower
Seriously. let the water run cold for a minute and then get under it.

And stay under it for 5 minutes.

I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but cold water is a killer.

There is an audience here.
Several folks like to post news of paddliing fatalities so others can read and discuss them. It’s even better if they have a personal connection. Go for it, if that’s your thing !

dry suit
There is one on the classified ads for like $400 or so. Can also get them on ebay. Does not need to be a top of the line model.

If a kayaker is a novice then their liklihood of a capsize is greater. If they can’t roll then liklihood of immersion is greater. All the more reason to get a dry suit.

One thing you left out
Historically, inuit villages lost as many as 1/3 of their hunters to capsizes where rolling or rescue where the paddler did not exit the cockpit couldn’t save them, and that included Greenland.

And keep in mind that it was mostly Greenlanders that rolled. Most other (But not all) arctic cultures did not. There was one famous interview from the late 1800’s or early 1900’s where an old kayaker was asked what to do in the event of a capsize, and the answer roughly translated to “You shouldn’t do that”.

Wear some cold water immersion clothing. The stories about inuit being immune to cold water are total bunk.

Too far from shore
I’ve been hypothermic more than once, and curiously always in temps much warmer than upstate winters. I suspect it is because once things start freezing I don’t make the mistake of underestimating the situation.

Anyway, 100 feet plus a run to shore or the house to get your stuff is too far tin sub-40 degree water and air temps in the 20’s or worse before wind chill factors. Hypothermia can come on much faster than the time it would take to make that distance and render you unable to use your hands to help yourself.

There is a very common mistake people make when looking at the hypothermia charts - and there are many copies of it out there on sites from kayaking to power boating. They look at the time before death, rather than the significantly shorter time to where consciousness or physical processed like using your hands to get the wet clothing off are affected. In upstate NY winter temps, the time to the first part runs no longer than 15 minutes. And you, like me, could find in actual experience that you had an individually lower tolerance.

Be Very Careful…

– Last Updated: Dec-09-12 9:56 AM EST –

...even if you stick close to shore in relatively shallow water.

Early last spring, while I was visiting relatives who live near Lake St. Clair, a young couple took a canoe out into the lake on a quiet 70 degree sunny day, and managed to flip it in shallow water perhaps 250' feet from shore. The man waded in, but the young woman, whom he thought was close behind him, didn't make it. He was so disoriented that he didn't realize she wasn't there.

For me, cold water paddling equals full immersion gear - drysuit, fleece and merino underlayers, cold water hood and gloves, a drybag packed with a complete - and I mean complete from polypro underwear to a good wind blocking outer layer with lots of wool and fleece in between - change of warm clothing, and most importantly, a companion or two who know what they're doing.

Final thought - wetsuit vs. drysuit - in this neck of the North Atlantic, it's drysuit all the way. A decent used drysuit need not be expensive - if you were here, I've got two Kokatat SuperNova suits hanging in the closet I'd be pleased to get $200 for. Perfect? - no, the booties leak a little, but some Aquaseal could fix that. I've upgraded by buying two used Reed ChillCheaters for about $250 each...and that's a hell of a lot less for all four suits than your survivors would pay for a coffin...

All I can do here
is reinforce what others have already said.

  1. Surfboards, boats, ships all capsize in the right conditions. Anything that floats can encounter conditions that exceed the performance envelope of your craft. Frankly, if you think you won’t capsize, you don’t have enough experience to understand the dangers you are in.

  2. Prepare for immersion. You will probably find a drysuit more serviceable, comfortable, and warmer, than a wetsuit. Wear wool, not cotton.

  3. Read some first hand accounts on hypothermia onset after a capsize. It happens quickly and can overcome the best in a shockingly short time. Judgement and the lost of hand control can occur in less than a minute in some people, over 5 minutes in others. Find out which end of the spectrum you are in and try to do a self rescue in the conditions where you paddle. If you can easily do it, fine. Just remember than any conditions that make cause a capsize will still exist after you rescue and that you will be weaker after each successive capsize.

    You ask, “So… am I being an idiot for not wearing a wetsuit, or is it a reasonable thing to do,” and the answer to this isn’t that cut and dried. I feel you are taking unnecessary risks by paddling alone in conditions where immersion could well be fatal. That you are not taking some reasonable precautions to prevent hypothermia suggests that you are more confident in your boat than paddlers with a great many more years of experience than you. In truth, you are exactly the type of paddler that I would NEVER go on the water with because you endanger everyone around you.

    If your lake can produce 2.5 foot waves (which are NOTHING by the way), it can also produce larger waves. Unless you’ve been out in the worst possible conditions (and no matter what conditions you’ve been out in, something worse can come along), don’t assume that any body of water can’t outperform either your boat or your skills.

    You say the boat was , “a bit difficult to control,” in those conditions. This suggests that a capsize is a WHOLE lot more likely to occur than you think. And by the way, it isn’t the boat that capsizes, it’s the paddler. The only way a kayak can stay upright in virtually all conditions is because the paddler knows what to do and when to do it. Any boat can, and will, capsize.

    I’ll be honest and say that I feel you are taking unnecessary risks here, but if you are comfortable with those risks, go out on the water alone, dress in cotton, paddle during storms, wrap your boat with aluminum foil so it conducts electricity better, or whatever else you wish to do. I’ll probably say something like, “it was an event just waiting to happen,” when I read the incident report.

    If you feel that I am being harsh or rude, I don’t really care. I’ve had to many experiences on the water where I’ve rescued others from their lousy choices and seen what can happen in even warmer water than those you plan to paddle.

    I’ve been in waters cold enough to defeat (to some degree) the thermal protection of a wetsuit and even performed a rescue in those waters. It wasn’t fun, and the two scouts we rescued both had mild hypothermia after only about a minute of immersion.

    Pardon the wall of text, and either take what I write under advisement or not. Your choice.


You’re bucking for…
…a Darwin award. Get proper immersion gear and wear it. While you’re at it, learn some bracing and rescue skills. If you can’t do that, stay off the water!

I’m tired of reading about people who do what you’re doing and wind up in a morgue. Irresponsible paddlers are the main reason we have fight off ridiculous legislation every year that’s aimed at protecting us from ourselves.

Yes, this is harsh, but so is reality. In cold water conditions, you have very little margin for error and water doesn’t care how good your intentions are. If you don’t believe that, buy a copy of “Sea Kayaker, Deep Trouble” and read it.

I hope Toller comes back and posts
his game plan after he has thought it out. Otherwise this conversation, while well meaning, is one sided.

It would be nice to know if our advice had any affect. If the decision is not to paddle that is fine.

At this time
I don’t even know if I CAN paddle this winter. If the shore freezes, I won’t even be able to get to the water, so the whole thing is academic. Launching from the ice seems a bit dicey. I will have to see how it goes.

A few years back I bought a canoe in February and had to try it out. The only open water was a large creek that flowed too fast to freeze over. I took the canoe out, dressed wholly inappropriately, and immediately capsized. I took the time to save the canoe and the paddle and ran home. It was a horrible experience that I hope not to go through again, but it was a huge distance from a Darwin Award!

Changing the question a bit, the water is now 46*. How deadly do you figure that is; bearing in mind that I will be in 4’ of water 80’ from shore.

Depth isn’t that big a factor
It’s the temperature. While it is unikely that you’ll be capsized irrecoverably in 4" of water, you’ll still be wet. If you get back into the boat and have a wet or drysuit on, you’ll probably be fine, unless:

  • you are wearing cotton in contact with your skin - it will not warm up and will sap your body of warmth and energy
  • you are injured in some way - many lakes have rocks and in shallow water such as this, striking one’s head is a real possibility
  • you capsize in deeper water (a hole, soft muddy bottom) and are fully wet with the added problem of having to re-enter the kayak
  • the kayak fails in some way (which can happen, though it is an admittedly rare event)

    The key here is that if you are not dressed for immersion, you are at risk. You sound a tad hardier than most and can tolerate the cold more than others may, but that does not mean one’s tolerance can’t be exceeded.

    If you want to know whether you can stand being in the water, the best option is to test it. Full immersion in whatever gear you use and then make the call as to how much risk you wish to take. I do this whenever I teach someone to kayak. I put them in the water and have them splash around a bit. If they can’t take the temperature, we adjust the gear and make recommendations.

    It’s a wet sport and is, I feel, as much about getting wet at times as it is keeping the boat on an even keel (so to speak, since kayaking is not about keeping the keel parallel to the bottom).

    The last thing I want to see is someone getting injured because they didn’t take reasonable precautions (either due to a lack of knowledge or an excess of arrogance). However, if you intend to paddle in water below 50 degrees, you should be informed what to expect. Read the following:


    Note that these are survival times (30 minutes max. in sub 50F water). Sea Kayaker did these tests with experienced sea kayakers and found that many of them were so cold in sub 50F water that they pretty much lost the use of hands in as little as 5 minutes. If one is so cold they cannot re-enter the kayak and paddle, the issue becomes one of whether or not the paddler can be found within such short timeframes.


Honestly - swim it

– Last Updated: Dec-10-12 12:15 PM EST –

We can't decide for you, only provide advice.

I actually ran experiments, with various clothing on.
Waded into the water till I was floating,
hung around a few minutes, then returned to my apartment.
My neighbors thought I was crazy, they were right :-)
One neighbor insisted I tether myself to a tree,
so I tied two throw bags together for 100 ft of line.

It's damn tough to swim the first 30 seconds
when all muscles clench the body into fetal position
in an attempt to preserve heat at the core.
Dunking head under water - filling that wetsuit full -
not fun at all, the first few seconds, but it can be done.

Wind whipping over a wet body as you get out
can be a huge kick-in-the-rear as well.

A simple cheap digital fever thermometer can easily
show you if that core temp dropped a few tenths of a degree.

Fear can be overcome by understanding and learning.
Controlling fear/panic is crucial to survival.

you will find

– Last Updated: Dec-10-12 12:17 PM EST –

a drysuit opens up a whole new world of paddling. My first time wearing a drysuit on my local run, I swam 20 minutes into the run. First thought was "wow, I'm warm...and dry." Level was high, cl. 2 pushing cl. 3, a run I was paddling with sneak routes and trepidation previously in cold weather/water. A bit later my buddy also ended up swimming. At the takeout we both laughed about our "losing it"....and did another run. Winter turned into my favorite season after that.
I use a $500 NRS, as do several friends. I'm usually paddling a canoe that cost nothing/ $300. Safety is more important than a new boat.

For myself
I am pretty confident that I could get back on shore from 46 degree water if I had to wet exit a kayak 80’ off shore, but I would be pretty miserable.

I can tolerate exposure to water of that temperature dramatically better than I can water of 35 degrees or less. But you might be different.

Depth seems to be allowing open water
Four feet deep ought to have ice on it. Is your lake one of the Finger Lakes where temps are indeed milder as its ?

If you can stay close to shore and dump, you will lose your finger dexterity first. That may mean that even within 80 feet, shunting of blood from your extremities to your core can lead to a loss of being able to use your fingers and feet normally.

So try to keep those warm. Remember, forget your boat. Get yourself out first.

Your specific question of 46 degrees being deadly is hard to answer. That is in some places our normal summertime paddling water temp. I have seen a person totally incapacitated in that water and require hospitalization. I cant tell you if that is a common response or not.

I dump in 33 degree water. I do wear a drysuit and I think head protection is paramount too. I wear an ugly fleece lined neoprene skull cap to prevent heat loss. Your head loses a disproportiate amount of heat.

Every winter we lose a few
Here in Washington the water temp drops to 38-40. Every winter a few people die on the big lake next to seattle. Universally they are in a ‘stable’ boat and not dressed for immersion. Many die on relatively calm day. Every Jan 1 a friend of mine does a dress for immersion ‘polar plunge’. He invites people to float for 20 mins in the lake in their chosen kayaking gear. I imagine there is small spike in sales of drysuits and pile after these sessions.

Same as before…
walk/swim 80 along the shore - but no 80 feet out - with a change of clothing, a car with a good heater and preferably a friend nearby.

You lose body heat 25 times faster in water than in air. Colder is worse - whether it be colder water, colder air, more wind chill or a combination thereof.

The bottom line is that you are hearing from people who have found out by personal experience what temperatures start getting dangerous for them. You are talking about temps that are within that range for some, or colder in my case.

You are getting good advice to avoid paddling as things get colder without some solid experimentation to see what is safe for you. You should be embarking on that, rather than trying to get a magic number at which folks here will advise you it is safe to paddle.

Sidenote to all

– Last Updated: Dec-10-12 2:36 PM EST –

Coast Guard and SAR teams rescues humans, not kayaks.
- be prepared to loose your kayak and ALL gear.
They will not "tow it" via boat or "lift it" via helicopter.
If the wind blows it away from shore, they will not chase it.

Tagging your boat and equipment/gear might be a good idea;
any time of year, to increase chances of recovery.

Personal ID - on your body - also a good idea - all year playing outside.

get in the water

– Last Updated: Dec-10-12 2:36 PM EST –

I agree with Willi. Get in the water with someone nearby ready to help, and try it out.

Comfort is a pretty relative term when you're discussing comfort of a dry wetsuit vs. comfort of cold clothing. And once you're in the water your strength fades quickly. I can guarantee you the choice will be made for you once you've spent some time in cold water with and without a wetsuit or drysuit, and some time warming up afterwards.

I think if you're planning on learning anything in a boat more capable than you are right now, you ought to plan on getting wet. Which means preparing as if you're going to get wet. In conditions that kayak would be easy to capsize. And if nothing else, wear one for the people on shore who care about you.

no one can answer
"how deadly"

On the face of it a ridiculous question. Not meant as a slam. You seem to be searching for some kind of ‘go ahead and do it, no problem’ answer from ppl who are relating good bio science and actual experience w. hypothermia and its effects.

Go and try it for yourself with whatever you plan paddling in. Don’t go too far from shore: 20 feet at most. Capsize and fully immerse, head and all. See how prone you are to gasp reflex. Stay in the water at least 10 minutes. See how that affects your mobility and awareness. Try to get back in your boat. Do have a witness/friend with the ability to warm you up.

This way you can answer it for yourself. Lots of people here have given your answers based on experience and scientific data re hypothermia and its effects. If you want anything more specific then it needs to get specific to you and your paddling venue - and there’s only one way to get to that.