Rolling practice in cool (heading into cold) water

Over the past month or so we’ve been going out and practicing rolling and paddling a bit as the water has grown colder. So far the coldest we’ve been in has been about 57 or 58 degrees, and with 3mm neoprene and a tuilik on top that’s OK. We can paddle a little whenever we want to warm up (not going too far from the shore) and then each practice a few rolls, alternating like that until we’re tired.

Now the water is 55. I’m not sure how cold is too cold. Do we just have to go and see what we can tolerate? Or is there any more objective moment when sane people with no drysuit say, that’s too cold?

Also a related question: even with a drysuit, when rolling in cold water, how do you keep from gasping/freaking out/ otherwise doing something dangerous when the water hits your face?

The coldest water that floats your boat is the most important water temperature in which to have a solid roll. Nice job to all of you for keeping it real with the water temperatures! A well-fitting surf hood will do the trick in all liquid water.
I’ve been to polar plunges with 100’s taking their turns jumping into a cleared hole of otherwise ice covered water. I think expectations - the lack of it being a total surprise - plays a large role in gasp reflex for most. I also think the more exposed to it you are in general, the less likely a gasp reflex will take over. I actually don’t think I’ve ever heard of an incident of a kayaker dressed for the cold water experiencing a gasp reflex and sucking in cold water when practicing rolling. Has anyone else?


My understanding is the less areas you have that are directly impacted by the cold water, and the more that are insulated from it, the less cold shock and gasp reflex one would have. So dry suit and hoody should do a lot to reduce this from happening.

You need to try “how cold” for yourself, assuming you already have some idea of that and appropriate clothing. People’s individual levels of cold tolerance vary too much for somebody on the ‘net to know what is too cold for you.

Testing for the head’s reaction to cold water is simple. Put your head in the water while standing in shallow water. Or you can first just put your face in the water. At the very least, that lets you know if it is ice cream headache time.

Using a snug neoprene hood, nose clips and earplugs helps also.

As both a swim team member and open water swimmer (including SF Bay and in Rhode Island) in younger years, I was taught to exhale upon hitting the water, especially in colder water to counter the gasp reflex. The exhale action has served me well when doing wet exits and rolls no matter the water temp.

I will also use swimmers ear plugs when practicing intentional wet exits/rolls in water below 60F - some people seem to experience being balance disoriented with cold water in the ear. Since most people do not have need for swimmers ear plugs, the sqwishy foam ear plugs work fine if allowed to expand for a couple minutes after being inserted into the ear - have used them many times when I forget the others.


Yup. Consistent practice in conditions leads to physical adaptation and tolerance. Right now, water is in the mid 50s, which I experience as no big deal. When water drops below 50, I start to splash water on my face before the first rolls. I take some rolls before heading too far from shore.

Right now, I wear a 1 mm or synthethic baseball cap underneath my helmet. When water goes below 50, I wear wetsuits with integrated hoodie (2-3 mm). At some point, if water temp is nearing mid 40s and/or air temps below freezing, I will have on a layer of silicone grease on my exposed face.

Have good braces and rolls, you can keep playing as long as the water is liquid! For me, this is the begining of the welcomed quiet but fun seasons.


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At 60 degree water temp, or less. there’s a drysuit under my tuilik. I’ve gotten very comfortable paddling and rolling like that, and adjust the layers beneath the
drysuit as appropriate for surviving a wet exit.
Regards the gasp reflex, I’ve not had a problem when wearing a thick tuilik. Rolling in ~40 degree water is a bit of a slap in the face the first time in a practice session, but you get used to it esp. when focusing on technique.
I definitely recommend rolling in colder and colder water as the season progresses, so you can get used to the feeling. Similar to what CapeFear said, learning what to expect will avoid surprises.
Glad to hear you two are extending your paddling season; time to buy drysuits.
Pic taken with 32 degree water.

Thanks, this all is helpful. Drysuits will come eventually, I’m guessing. One thing leads to another!

In my earlier and more aggressive days l picked up a diving hood that also covers an amount of your face. Did not decrease the claustrophobia, but l felt warm enough to be able to contemplate my dilemma. That was at water temps down to 40 or so.
I don’t do winter paddling these days, so l only need to keep my wits down to midfifties. That does not need a 3 or 4 mm dive hood.

A lot of people recommend a hood for water temperatures below about 50° to go along with your wetsuit or drysuit. Dive shops carry them in addition to being found online. Search “SCUBA hood”. Some will protect part of you face as well as neck. A well fitting hood will slow or prevent cold water from getting in your ears, which can induce vertigo in some people. Of course the temperature tolerance varies with the individual.

A roll is a good skill to have with cold water, but you should also practice rescues to insure that your techniques will work with the extra cold water gear.

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I find rolling less painful than performing a wet exit demo in the same temp water (quicker). As a trainer, each May I get to demo a wet exit to a new group of guides, just before they get to try it. It is either on Lake Superior or a lake 1/4 mile inland. I’m lucky since I own a drysuit. Sometimes there is ice on the shoreline.

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