safe cold water temp?

I’m anxious to get back out on the water here in PA and was wondering what a safe water temperature is (assuming I fall in with no drysuit/wetsuit). I looked through the archives and I’m sure the answer is there but I didn’t see it. Thanks.

For what it is worth
I swam about ten strokes in thirty eight degree water in Alaska.

I think if a person keeps their head, does not panic,has confidence in themself and is proficient in self rescue as long as the water is not too rough for a self rescue almost any tempeature water is doable.

when I was on the shore, my eyes were throbing, and my head felt like I just gulped some ice cream too quick.



Many factors
You can die in 70 degrees and you can die in 30 degrees. It is all about time in the water and protection.

I went in a pond to rescue my dog last year. She fell through the ice. I was in for about 2 minutes and only went waiste deep. I couldn’t walk when I got out. A self rescue would have been impossible without proper clothing.

The same can be said in varying degrees of dress all the way up to warm water. Experience and practice also means a lot. The colder the water the fewer chances you have at a rescue.

In short, be prepaired. Invest in clothing, training, planning and practice. Do all you can to take water temperature out of the equation.

Being even shorter, 70 degrees.

If you are healthy and fit
you likely can swim in 60 F water for a few hours

but you are not going to be very comfortable, you may also have poor tolerance and drown because of hypothermia. A Farmer John wet suit costs about 100 bucks. How much is your life worth?

what ar your skills? what is your

– Last Updated: Mar-22-05 7:31 PM EST –

exposure. Some folks here can roll well and would almost never come out of their boat. Some can empty and re-enter their canoe in less than a minute. Some have the sense to carry a dry bag full of warm clothes with them; some never get more than 50 feet fron shore. Some have heart conditions. Some are built like whales with incredible cold water resistance. some have 2% body fat and chill easily. All these factors go into consideration.

General rule for me: exposure to water below 50 degrees without immersion gear is pretty risky in my book. For any length of time. I'd use my wetsuit in anything below 60. and my drysuit when I can tolerate it. Places like campmor can sell you a cheap wetsuit. a big help in water from 50 to 65, in the short term.

Folks in Massachusetts die in ponds every year in 75 degree air temps and 50 degree water temps. Many here have had very different experiences from Jack L who is a well respected paddler. Why don't you try splashing some water on yourself then gradual immersion, then standing in the water you want ot go in for about 5 minutes or so and see how you feel. You will lose heat much faster while swimming to shore and the you still have to get someplace warm.

Search the archives for reflex and learn about the gasp reflex. Wait till the water is above 60 and you will almost certainly be fine. Under that and, depending on other factors, you risk discomfort or worse.

Common ground & facts
Peter’s advice is well grounded. As you see, experienced paddlers have some disagreements, however, despite this there is common ground, and established knowledge.

Below 50 there is a rapidly increasing cascade of dangers, gasp reflex and drown in less than minute, severe panic and dizziness causing inability to control oneself, loss of hand and arm dexterity in 2-10 minutes. It is not hypothermia that kills so fast as most think.

Below 40 these things are markedly worse. As Peter says, you see people out there you think it is OK, but it is not. It is like at the race track only the winners shout, the losing tickets are silent.

So when you say safe, remember that even 50-60 degree water can cause some of these things in some people even those who it did not before. Wear wetsuit 60’s and below, wear more than a simple wetsuit below that, as just a farmer john is only 30% effective by itself. Even above 60 remember that synthetic clothes that dry out immediately are a must since natural fibers will stay wet and remove warmth 25 times faster.

Some college rowers were going by the other day with 32 degree water in shorts and t-shirts, air temps in 40’s. I asked one of them why no protection. One said, dunno, last year they went in and two of them almost died! Hmmmmm?

Inital Shock
When you fall in very cold water initially you will experience breathing problems, this wiill subside within approximately 2 minutes, during this 2 minute period it is important not to panic as to use up too much energy. After the intial shock you can consentrate on proper procedures on rentry.

there are a few other factors
i live on a river fed lake that is always cool in the summer temps get into the 70 max alot of times i’m in the 60’s to 50’s all summer but i’ve lived on the lake all my life so i feel i’m use to the cooler water. you should know your own limits an dont exceed them. easier said than done but the truth.


Perhaps this site will save your life?
This is an extraordinary site…

Read carefully…may just save your or someone else’s life…


My favorite resource for
this subject is a book that I commented on in 2002. I couldn’t figure out how to give you the link to the thread, so I just copied the message:

Reading a new book, “Essentials of Sea Survival,” I have been amazed at how much information I (a physician, at that!) didn’t know about the body’s response to water and cold. Three interesting points:

  1. The “gasp reflex” that we’ve been discussing is indeed real, and very powerful. It consists of “an initial ‘gasp’ of… 2 to 3 quarts [of air] in adults [which] precedes uncontrollable rapid overbreathing (hyperventilation).” The rate at which you move air during the reflex is ten times that of normal breathing, which rapidly causes dizziness and other symptoms of hyperventilation. It also feels horrible, as we do not normally expand and contract our chests so completely (if you want a fun experience, try breathing in as far as you possibly can, and then breathing out as far as possible, as fast as you can). The gasp reflex reaches its maximum in 59 degree water… below that it is no stronger (!)

    The gasp, and the other uncontrollable physiological effects of sudden immersion in water, can apparently be reduced by acclimatizing yourself through regular, brief immersion. Strangely, the positive results of acclimatization last a year or more. This suggests that in the fall, all of us who plan to venture out in the winter should take some good cold swims in 59 degree water (they suggest 40 minutes 8 days in a row), and make ourselves safer for the rest of the season.

  2. When I first found a year ago or so (and that was a good day), Scottb was defending his opinion that hypothermia is overrated as a cause of boating deaths compared with drowning (i.e. getting too much water in your lungs). The experts have given Scottb’s opinion solid support. It takes very little water in the lungs to cause drowning (a pint or two, which can easily get in your airway from gasp reflex, blown salt spray, wave foam, or an accidental gulp or two as you try a re-entry in rough water). They specifically state that the risk of hypothermia is overrated while that of simple or delayed drowning is underrated (delayed drowning occurs when the lungs eventually can no longer maintain adequate air exchange because of the water that’s irritating them and causing swelling).

  3. Loss of manual dexterity occurs when the arms cool down by only a few degrees, which happens quickly as part of the body’s attempts to conserve heat. Many people fail to rescue themselves because they cannot open flare packages, undo knots, etc. “Swim failure” is also dramatic. “Many people who are classed as ‘good swimmers’ when swimming in warm water appear to be unable to swim distances of as little as … 6 to 10 feet, even to save their lives.”

    The book contains tons of useful information of this sort. It’s written by Frank Golden and Michael Tipton, and published (2002) by Human Kinetics. Although it’s morbid reading, I’ve been glued to the pages and recommend it to anyone here who’s heading out in the cold. I’m sure it will make me a safer paddler.


For the person suggesting farmer john
suit unless it is a full suit forget it. For less than 150 you can get a one peice wet suit which will be so much better than just a bottoms. I dive and use one in the winter in 30 degree water and it works fine. I have a 3mm that I used for paddling with a try top over it and it is nice. But this year my wife and I bought drysuits and we love them. But if you are short on cash get a one peice wetsuit not a farmer john.

Cold water
can be fatal. Even in 50-60 degree F water expect to loose dexterity in hands/fingers in 10-15 minutes, loss of conciousness in 1-2 hours. Not a pleasant thought. Wet suits are a must, even if you are uncomfortable when “dry”, below 50, dry suits can save your life. What is your life worth? The cost of a drysuit is CHEAP insurance.


No such thing as safe cold water!!!

However if you wish to do cold water, education, preparation, experience, and mind set are what will keep you alive.

If you have not been in cold water or not prepared and willing to jump into it on your own you have absolutely no business paddling on it. Awareness and mind set are the very most important parts of your preparations for survival.

I have taught a lot of kids to paddle (no, not in overly cold water as their body cores are too small and the risks too big). The first thing we do is get into the canoes and turn them over. Then we rescue them and load the stuff into them for the trip. lesson, or whatever. This is to get that apprehension or fear out of the way and build some confidence so we can proceed. The point here is if you have apprehensions that are getting in the way of your safety you do not belong out there. If you do not have a firm respect for the cold and do not keep in mind that you are full well risking your life you do not belong out there.

I broke through the ice on the pond or the pool every winter and spring to swim in the cold water from about 12 years of age through 18 with just a bathing suit on. I occasionally still do this. I will normally paddle down to 10*F and love paddling when the snow falling. There are times I do not go even if well planned. When that little birdie says no or I have other apprehensions I just do not go.

Educate yourself, test yourself first before you venture out to where you are literally “over your head”. Use your mind, keep your wits about you, and trust your intuition. NEVER GO IN OR ON COLD WATER ALONE!!! Never go with someone who is not prepared or you feel is not prepared enough!!! Remember that other person is the one that has to rescue you. The other person’s equipment in what is most likely going to save you. You want that other person to be equal or better prepared than you.

Just a little food for some thought.

Happy Paddl’n!



I can’t agree
While being calm and familiar with rescues is always worthwhile, it’s doesn’t change the fact that very cold water has effects that aren’t mediated by your state of mind or skill level. I might have different thresholds of pain if my thumb gets hit by a hammer,but low or high threshold the thumb will be damaged.

unprotected head and hands
in 38 degree water will become unusable when immersed for a couple minutes. Try it sometime,get a bucket of water and cool it to 38. Put your hand in and see how long it takes before pain takes over then in two minutes try and open a jar of peanut butter…or operate a radio.

I was surprised to find out how hard it is to blow whistle when paddling in 40degree 15mph wind for an hour. Lips had a hard time holding the whistle.

Jay Babina’s Farmer John fallacy article

is worth reading…

‘Be careful out there’…


I dunno where I heard this…

– Last Updated: Mar-23-05 5:50 PM EST –

one of my paddeling books I believe. I read that air and water temp should equal no less than 120 to go without a wetsuit or drysuit. Makes sense to me. I used to get out to the lake to swim EARLY spring and swam when the water was low 60's. I told my husband the water was fine so he jumped in and screamed! He thought I was crazy. The air was very warm mind you. Anyhow, I go with the 120 rule WITHOUT a wetsuit. With a wetsuit I won't paddle with the water temp under 55 and air temp under 55 (110). I just choose not to take the chance.
**** I knew there would be some responses like " 35 water, 85 air." that someone posted below, and I have to agree but rarely to never are you going to find 35 degree water on an 85 degree day. My point was simply that the 120 is a good number to keep in mind and anything below that would be considered INCREASED RISK. I am assumeing (ass u me) that people have common sense.

Principle may be better than rule
In general moderate approach AND instead of us paddlers swallowing rules without being told why, I vote for us having things explained to us! WE deserve it, at least I feel I do!

So I asked an instructor about this when told what you heard. He couldn’t, not really. So, like the National Enquirer, I looked it up.

IT works sometimes but has holes. LIke if the air is 85 and the water 32. Yes, if you can not suck in water while head is under, and you get out in 2 minutes before your hands won’t work, and etc. then if not wearing cotton, you will warm back up. The rule is trying to tell us that being chilled first by water and then by air you will progressively deteriorate without immersion gear. OK. That is helpful. But better to know that the reason Spring is so dangerous is that frigid water has unknown dangers for many of us, and that people routinely die of hypothermia on raining days in cotton clothes with wind and air temps in the 70’s.

Yea principles, we remember them better than the rule stuff.

Acclimation Matters Too
It also matters whether you have acclimated to the cooler temps. 55 degrees is downright comfy at the end of the season when I’ve regulary been going upside down - it is darned chilly in May when I have been doing my work in a heated pool for the last few months.

The rule of thumb in Maine water, which doesn’t usually get to 60 degrees until late July is under 60 wetsuit, under 50 drysuit. The inbetween (and cheaper) option used by some is wetsuit with drytop down to the 40’s, just that all bets are off if you actually end up swimming.

But, to echo the above - I have personally hit the early stages of hypothermia at temps in the 60’s and 70’s when there was a wind. There is no hard and fast rule that works for everyone

You can always get prior year’s drysuits etc from places like NRS at hugely reduced prices late Nov thru sometime in January. If you wear a very big or a very small size, you are good for these prices until much later. And a neoprene hood to handle your head - very important, is I think $30 or less.


Controlling Panic Isn’t Enough
According to the info published on Atlantic Kayak Tours website, there are involuntary factors:

I’ve also read that the initial shock could be very serious to a person with undiagnosed heart problems.

My personal conclusion is, if I can’t wait until the water gets warm, then I need to get a dry suit. I’ve opted to wait as I don’t like the cold much anyway.