Water Temp

At what water temp does everyone stop their summertime routine and break out their cold gear?

We have planned a float on the Missouri River this Thursday, the outside air temp is going to spike to 73 degrees, and the water temp is lower than I have experienced, at 53 degrees.

I did a float just a few weeks ago and the water temp was at 60 degrees, it didn't seem that bad with my feet in the water, but I'm sure total submergence would be a different story. I've looked at the hypothermia charts online and looks like you have a good hour or two before hypothermia exhaustion sets in.

This is planned to be the last float of the season as I am not a cold water paddler nor do I own any cold water gear. While we know this stretch of the river very well, we also know it's not an easy swim to shore. What are your opinions on water temp of 53 without gear?

62F water temp is when I switch to

– Last Updated: Nov-15-16 9:58 AM EST –

cold water gear, regardless of air temp.

There was a post today about a NH kayaker who died in 53F water - she was wearing a PFD. http://wgme.com/news/local/new-hampshire-woman-drowns-in-fatal-kayaking-accident

A good site: http://www.coldwatersafety.org/nccwsRules3.html

Are there any places in your area that rent drysuits or neoprene diving gear?

River vs Lake

– Last Updated: Nov-15-16 10:39 AM EST –

Thanks for the info! As far as I know we don't have rental like that here in Missouri. I guess I should mention we should be able to swim to shore in twenty minutes or so, I'm just worried about the initial shock and crippling effect of the water.

Age might make a difference.
I used to paddle year round in shorts and at most a light jacket over my pfd. For the last few years, I’ve begun wearing a wet suit when it seems prudent, but I don’t check the temperature of the water. My plan is to stay out of the water anyway, but now that I’m over 70 (73), I guess I’m not so sure about my tolerance for being dumped in cold water. In my younger years I got hypothermia a few times and finally decided that was not a good thing, those occasions had nothing to do with paddling.

My best judgment is that for this time of year, it’s a good idea to at least consider a wet, or dry suit and all the more so if you think you might have a 20 minute swim.

dress for the water temp
or don’t go. That’s how I approach it. I don’t rely on rewarming or count on low immersion times for my survivability.

I do drop things down a notch, and do try to lower immersion times by boating smaller streams, and shorten overall trip lengths, and sometimes bring dry clothes or sleeping bag for rewarming, but I ALWAYS dress for the swim.

Because I do this stuff I actually enjoy winter boating, not just survive it. Get some winter gear (drsuit, pogies, balaclava, booties, pile insulation) if you really want to winter boat.

60F water
Ok, this is what do for coastal kayaking (so often not within your 20 minute swim time to shore).

Water temps under 60F, always wearing wet suit or dry suit

Water temp over 70F, not wearing.

Water temps between the two, then looking at other factors like air temp, chance of swimming, whether there are others around to speed my getting back into a boat, etc.

Do keep in mind that you may be able to swim to shore in 20 minutes in normal circumstances, being cold, having conditions that cause you to flip, etc. may make the swim take longer.

1 Like

not "hypothermia exhaustion"
Most people that die from immersion drown long before hypothermia is a factor --hypothermia is when your core temp drops below a specific level, which does not happen immediately. They drown due to other factors such as inhaling water from the gasp reflex, from losing muscle control and grip strength due to cold response, from cardiac stress that can trigger arhythymia and even heart attacks and from the inability to swim or regain their boat due to the mental panic that ensues from any of those affects.

I wish I knew a link to stream a video that our local paddle shop screened at an outdoor sports convention last year. It was the best illustration of cold water response and survival I have ever seen. A team of researchers and rescue crews set up actual immersion situations in a range of water temperatures (from the 70’s to the 40’s I believe), using volunteers of varying fitness and age, all wearing a range of clothing, from nothing but street clothes and a PFD through semi dry wear, wet suit, drysuits and even military grade survival gear. They closely monitored and timed the reactions, comfort level and physical function of the volunteers – a lot of it was hard to watch because some of them were clearly in agony during the demonstrations. Once they got to the colder conditions (and by colder I mean starting in the mid 50’s) they had to extract some people who were in such obvious distress that they required rescue rewarming and medical intervention to recover. It was a real eye-opener, even though I have always been aware of the danger of cold exposure and immersion (used to teach cold weather camping skills and have PADI scuba training). But I have never seen the dangers illustrated so starkly as in that video.

53 and dropping
Time to wear at least a wetsuit. For that temperature and a long swim which would be longer in cold water, I would consider anything less than 3mm to be inadequate.

The sea where I have lived the last four years runs from summertime highs in the mid-50s to wintertime lows in the high 40s. It is wetsuit or drysuit season all year, and yes, that water is very cold without immersion wear.

This includes your feet. I once snorkeled in late summer (warmest water) wearing a 2mm full wetsuit. After only about 3 minutes my hands, feet, and face were cold. My ankle bones ACHED from the cold. People do vary in cold tolerance, but to go with no immersion wear without having gradually trained your body beforehand for the cold is foolish.

WL -
I know the video you mention. I thought I still had the link to it, but I can’t find it either. It’s quite impressive. Another excellent resource for anyone who wants to take the time, is the book by Laurence Gonzales - Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

Well, you could experiment
and try what the National Center for Cold Water suggested:

"If you’re in good physical shape and feeling adventurous, a very memorable way to find out about cold water is by conducting a personal experiment. First, make sure the tap water is as cold as it will get by running the faucet for a minute or two, then fill a glass and measure the temperature.

“When you’re feeling brave, get in the shower and turn it on full blast. No shower? No problem. Have a friend spray you with cold water from a garden hose while you’re wearing a bathing suit.”


– Last Updated: Nov-15-16 5:37 PM EST –

Willowleaf beat me to most of the good stuff. I'm in agreement with the majority of what she wrote.

If Darwin were alive today, he'd only need to point to those people that boat or do paddle sports without a PFD to prove his theory of natural selection.

Here's a great site with a bunch of videos to watch and peripheral information on cold water. It's pretty much my bible on the subject. Other than promoting PFD sales, I can't see much bias to the information.


I'm usually pretty cold tolerant - at least in the short term. Body size and type are huge factors here. I tend to overheat easily when dressing for the water temperature, which I do in most cases. My personal cutoff point for immersion protection is around 17 C (~63 F) water temp, though cold and wet conditions above water can bring out my equipment before that. Very warm air temperatures can also push this a bit lower, again depending on the situation. It is very much a judgement call that takes numerous factors into consideration. Essentially anything that affects your ability to get back in the boat, whether there are others around to help, or to call for help (not as good), how quickly you will be incapacitated (assuming you're still floating because you're wearing your PFD).

I paddle year round [edit: Southern Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada], and add progressively more insulation as the water temperature drops. Around 10 C (~50 F) I wear tights and fleece on the bottom and tights with optional fleece on top depending on air temperature and what I'm doing. Since I can roll confidently, I'll roll in 10 C water to regulate temperature but won't spend more time than I need to underneath. I put on a hood before going under too, otherwise the "brain freeze" can be painful. By the time the water gets down to about 2-4 C (~35 - 39 F) I'm typically wearing a double layer of fleece plus thermal underwear on the bottom, and a thermal top plus thicker fleece on top. Of course all of this is under a Goretex dry suit.

I've tested my cold setup floating fairly inactively for about 30 minutes in about 4 C water (next to 8" thick ice). My hands started to numb around 20 minutes despite neoprene gloves, and after 25 they'd be useless for anything but slapping myself in the face. Even that would require some real concentration.

Back to the original questions and comments from the OP, you are very wise to test this out for yourself. BUT do it in controlled conditions with someone else you can trust to help if you run into problems. Keep warming gear (hot water in thermos, warm dry clothes, sleeping bag, pre-warmed vehicle, etc) at the ready. Communicate with your assistant and if they detect signs of confusion or disorientation in you, they should intercede and stop the experiment.

The charts that you can find are good guidelines, but reality for each person and situation can vary considerably.

I had a scary situation a number of years back. It was a cool spring. I was in a drysuit with minimal insulation underneath because we were just going for a skills session at the beach for an hour or two. I was in the water a lot and felt myself getting chilled and tired. It was only when I tipped over accidentally that I began to realize that I wasn't 100% there mentally anymore. Fortunately I was paddling with someone else and I let them know right away. She watched me carefully as we paddled back to the beach, loaded the stuff, and headed home. She drove because I was feeling quite disoriented - almost drunk, though I had had nothing to ... hmmm ... anyone guess what the problem was? I was both dehydrated and very low on calories due to not eating very much that day. Use up the energy with doing re-entries and generally staying warm and it's a recipe for problems. Much was learned from this experience.

Too chilly for me without gear

– Last Updated: Nov-15-16 6:54 PM EST –

I know because that is only a few degrees cooler than the water in Maine in July. At 57 degrees I am in light goretex over middle warm layers if I plan on being wet. I do go out and swim when I am there, just to make sure I still have some chops. But it is very hard for me to stay in the water long enough to complete a couple of laps without a short sleeve neo top. I tried this last summer - really wanted to grit my way thru it - but had to concede and go in the next day with a lightweight neo layer.

I know people who find that downright balmy. They are not the majority of the people I know.

Wear a wetsuit or don’t go.
A twenty minute swim in 53 degree water by a beginner is not going to end well.

You can purchase a decent quality 3 mm suit that would be fine for about $100 and expand your paddling season quite a bit. If you don’t paddle regularly in low 50s water you are going to have a strong gasp reflex when you go under; this is what does in a lot of inexperienced paddlers. The water saps your arm and leg strength quickly. When I took some rescue classes a long time ago the figure was quoted that you have a 50 percent chance of making a 100 yard swim in 50 degree water if you are inexperienced in cold water immersion.

Not enough info
What I hate about news articles is that they’re about the shock factor: “KAYAKER DIES IN LAKE SKOOCHIMOOCHINOG!” It makes the uninformed believe that kayaking is an inherently dangerous sport. Sure, there are some aspects of kayaking that can be but there are lots of ways to enjoy it safely.

There are never enough details to say whether it was a freak accident with someone who was well prepared for what they were doing, or whether that person really had no business being where they were at the time there were that doing what they were doing.

The article says 20-25 mph winds, gusting to 50. That’s 17 to 21 knots, or Beaufort Force 5. The article states there were “two-and-a-half foot swells” (perhaps misleading, as they were more likely steeper wind waves not gentle swells) but alas it does raise the suspicion that we’ve got a novice kayaker out there in a short rec boat with no bulkheads. Or at the least someone who wasn’t ready for those conditions.

Ultimately the water temperature and (possibly wind chill if they got out of the water) was what likely caused the person’s death but they would have still been in plenty of trouble with only the addition of immersion clothing.

The issue is compounding risk. They probably shouldn’t have been out there in the first place.

there are no variables

– Last Updated: Nov-15-16 11:31 PM EST –

skill, water conditions, alleged weather report, the snag, the unseen unexpected error...

for NOT wearing at least wet suit top n bottom with booties, available gloves n a helmet.

Swimmers here around Florida due from thermic in 70 degree

Sea kayaking condition requires cold showers.

Op Thank you
Thanks for the input guys, we decided just to call it off and go to a smaller local stream instead. I can’t justify the money for a wetsuit for one extra day of paddling, since the weather is going from 77 degrees down to 40 the next day. I am going to look into buying one for next year though.

You could rent a drysuit from kayak Academy.


I under-dressed for the water temp exactly one time in my life. Never again, lesson learned, etc.

Moulton Avery gave me the following advice once. Every time you go paddling, take a meat thermometer with you and record the water temp. Over time, you build good data on what is safe for you. This way you’ll know if the water is too cold for what you’re wearing instead of guessing.

warm gear need not be costly
I know people often give the “ick” response when I suggest shopping for used paddling clothing. “Eeew, don’t you know that people pee in their wetsuits” and all that. But, hey, there are no “cooties” that a good wash won’t remove and you can get excellent deals on used wetsuits all day long on Ebay. Lots of people try activities surfing, scuba or white water once or twice and never do it again, at least that was my impression during my years involved with outdoor sports instruction and equipment sales. When they liquidate the stuff they bought for those sports, those who will really use them benefit.

I got my perfect-fitting and super comfortable Exel 3/4mm full surfing wetsuit used on Ebay for $25, including shipping. My Kokatat Goretex drysuit was used and in like-new condition except for an easily patched tear in the neck gasket for $400.

Yes, you take a chance on fit, but wetsuits are so plentiful on Ebay that prices tend to be cheap enough to take the risk. I bought two used Farmer John wetsuits as a “package” a couple of years ago for $15 plus $8 shipping. Turned out that neither one fit me but I sold one to a fellow member of my outdoor club for $20 (and he was delighted to pay that for it) and gave the other to a friend who is slightly smaller than me who was happy to have it for her kayaking trip to the Channel Islands off California.

“surviving” doesn’t mean you’ll live
I would add to my earlier comments above that you should consider the recent death of the founder of premiere outdoor gear maker North Face due to cold water immersion as a cautionary tale. Just the fact that you make it out of a cold water immersion event, through your own efforts or due to rescue, does not mean you will survive if you were not adequately thermally protected during the capsize. Cold immersion can lead to a cascading domino physiological effect that can kill you minutes or hours after reaching “safety” even in spite of the best efforts of medical care.