Proper Clothing For Spring Paddling: Air 50-70, Water 50s

What’s the proper way to be dressed when the air temps are in the 50s to the 70s degrees F, but the water temperature is in the low to mid 50s?

Typical of spring conditions in the northeast

I go with drysuit with water in the 50’s, or at least semi-dry separates. Dump water on your head if you get hot.

Depends on were your paddling. If your paddling down a creek were if you go over you can get out change into spare cloths you brought with you then not much. Now if your in open water no getting out and are quick with re-entry a 3mm wetsuit would be ok’ish at mid 50’s F. I myself were a dry suit BUT not everyone can afford one.

Quick story, I was paddling with 3 others Lake Erie. Waves were about 3 feet. 3 of the 4 were surfing waves. Other person was told to stay behind break wall. They didn’t listen went out and went right over. Now they were over weight by about 60 pounds. Water was about 55F air about 65F. Took us about 5 minutes to get person back in boat and they were fine not even wearing any real protection. I would have been frozen solid, I was wearing drysuit. So I guess it depends on person and amount of fat for insulation. Oh had they stayed were they were told they would have been fine. I was by no means in charge of this paddle because I didn’t think this person should even get on the water that day.

Lengthy, but excellent advice.

Don’t have much body fat (BMI of 18.5) so I’ll wear a drysuit in water temps 65F and below. Surfskin pants, rashguard, and a neoprene paddling jacket for 66-70F (presuming the air temps are warm and it’s sunny).

Couple of summers ago I did a capsize exercise in Lake Michigan’s 62F water wearing a shorty wetsuit and a couple of rashguards. Took 10 minutes sitting in the sun to stop shivering.

@PoconosTom said:
What’s the proper way to be dressed when the air temps are in the 50s to the 70s degrees F, but the water temperature is in the low to mid 50s?

First off, you get bonus points for even asking the question. I sound like a broken record every time I say this: spring is the most dangerous time of the year for paddling. I see lots of people out in canoes and kayaks (of all sorts) on hot spring days when the water is still barely above freezing. Many of them aren’t even wearing a PFD.

Forget anything that won’t keep you warm after a complete prolonged immersion. Toque & mitts, winter jacket, snowmobile suit, that sweater Grandma gave you at Christmas, they’re all useless in the water or after you’ve reentered or gotten out on shore. Some fabrics are better at retaining heat while wet but that only helps after you’ve gotten to land and wrung them out.

You’ve received great advice from others so far, and the only thing I could think of to expand on is that there’s lots more to think about than just what you’re wearing. Also, what you’re wearing will be influenced by more than just the water and air temperatures.

Other important factors in the decision are:

  • Your group/self-rescue skills, ability and speed, in the prevailing conditions
  • Cold tolerance and body fat
  • Caloric intake and the ability to generate body heat
  • Wind conditions (wind cools you faster than still air temperatures)
  • Distance from shore and a place to get emergency warmth
  • Whether your boat is “sea worthy” (excludes boats that don’t properly float after capsize)
  • Other warm/dry gear carried and the time/ability to get it on and stay dry afterward
  • Other sources of water: snow, rain, mist, spray, fog (and don’t forget SWEAT. If you’re overheating your state can quickly turn from hyperthermic to hypothermic)
  • All of the above considered for others in your group as well (eg. If I’m with a group of “high risk” paddlers I’ll dress for riskier conditions because I might become involved in a situation involving one or more of them. Although I’d be more likely just to avoid paddling with them altogether.)

It’s a difficult thing that time and experience can assist with but mistakes are still made. Have a backup plan.

Go out and SWIM in the conditions you’re going to paddle in. Test it out with a safety net, like having a buddy or two around and a pre-warmed vehicle with a sleeping bag ready for you to get in. Try it out in stages. Fall works well for this because the water gets progressively cooler and the air is also colder. Keep going out and doing test swims until you’re getting uncomfortable and you’ve gotten pretty close to the limit for those conditions.

Thanks for the advice, and that weblink which had good information. I was on the fence about whether I needed a wetsuit now since I think the water temps have probably reached 60 in the small lakes here in Northeast Pa. It seems I do. I got thrown off by seeing and knowing about paddlers out in shorts and T-Shirts as far back as early May. I don’t think they were being safe.

I actually have a farmer john and a full wetsuit, but they are from sea kayaking 10 years and 50 lbs ago, so I need a bigger one now. The booties, gloves, and hood still fit.

Good idea to swim it first. I’ll do that. I was in up to my knees the other day and it was chilly but not too bad; but that is different than swimming for 20 minutes.

I’ll do some near shore exit/re-entries also with a tether to shore to see how that goes. I’m sure to need some work on that.

I got a lot of that natural insulation on me, but I also haven’t canoed in about 30 years or kayaked in 10, and I’ll be going out mostly on my own. I’ll stay close to shore at first, too.

Being safe and being comfortable are two different things. My BMI is closer these days to 30 than 20 … but I still wear a drysuit until the water hits 65 and switch to a Farmer John or Hydroskin tops and bottoms until after the water is well over 70, which is only a few short weeks in New England (ocean at least).

Sure - I’m fat enough to bob around in the North Atlantic without succumbing to hypothermia for a long time, but that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable or that my fingers won’t get too stiff to use much more quickly. I paddle for fun and enjoyment so I tend to dress one level warmer than most charts suggest. They represent the minimum for safety. I’m after comfort, even if I have to take an unexpected swim.

I read many years ago (I have no memory of the source) that most hypothermia cases occur in relatively warm water (mid to low 70’s). It seems that if the weather is warm, people don’t seem to think that it will be cold enough to warrant immersion protection. While the article may or may not have been right about the statistics, it was certainly right about human behavior.

Since the waters I paddle are never as warm as the mid 70’s, I wear a wetsuit for pretty much all of my paddling. When I get over-warm, which happens, but not as much as one might think, I practice a roll or two and cool off rather dramatically. I think the trips from Red Bluff to Redding here in N. Cal. in July required several rolls/day to stay cool enough. Despite the heat, I was surprisingly comfortable. Boy scouts with water canons helped with the heat, too. The only time I was close to being overheated, even though the temperature approached three digits, was shortly after launch. I was perfectly happy after rolling and I made a point of keeping the wetsuit wet and the dry top in the boat so the whatever wind there was cold penetrate to the skin.


If you have to buy new clothing anyway due to size changes, don’t waste your money on more than just-enough-to-get-started basic paddling wet wear. Like a couple of decent hydroskin separates. Because at some point you will try dry wear, or semi-dry (separates), and you won’t go back. Unless you also plan to surf or do other things where getting the better quality wet wear, the stuff that costs more than a farmer john, is worth the money. Or go for a few basics in wet wear now if you plan of going on a major diet.