Guide To Cold Water Paddling Gear
There are lots of different products on the market, and this guide will help you choose gear that’s appropriate for cold water paddling.
Kayak Fishing Guide Chuck Earls
"Thermal protection is Survival Gear. But it isn't a magic charm. It has limitations and it won't keep you alive indefinitely. What it does is prevent cold shock, and delay incapacitation and hypothermia. In other words, it buys you time. The real issue is whether your gear buys you enough time to either fix your own problem or to be rescued."
- Moulton Avery
Why You Need Cold Water Gear
With very few exceptions, immersion in cold water is immediately life-threatening if you’re not wearing thermal protection like a wetsuit or drysuit. The biggest danger is inhaling water and drowning - even if the water is flat calm and you know how to swim. If you go paddling when the water temperature is below 70F, cold water gear is essential to your safety. The 9-minute video below tells you why.
Click To Start Watching
It's not enough to simply buy a wetsuit or drysuit. Because your survival can depend on it, it's important to take the time to make sure you understand exactly how it works - and also that it's working properly. That's why two of our Five Golden Rules recommend that you Field-Test and Swim-Test your gear.
What Cold Water Gear Does
The purpose of cold water gear is to keep you warm while paddling in cold weather, but more importantly, to protect you from life-threatening issues like cold shock, swimming failure, incapacitation, and hypothermia in case you wind up in cold water. You should think of it as Survival Gear and take it just as seriously.
Manufacturers go out of their way to advertise the stability of kayaks, but the reality is that any kayak can capsize - even the really stable sit-on-top fishing kayaks. When that happens and you suddenly wind up in cold water, the only thing that really matters is whether you're properly dressed for immersion. That means wearing a well-secured PFD and thermal protection like a wetsuit or drysuit'
By itself, a drysuit offers as much insulation as a shower curtain, but it does keep cold water off your skin and therefore it can delay the immediate effects of cold shock. For example, delay gasping long enough for you to get your head above water. However, to really protect yourself you have to wear layers of clothing underneath the drysuit. That clothing insulates you by trapping a layer of warm air around your body.
Thickness = Warmth
The thicker the layer of air, the more insulation it provides. The key point here is that Thickness = Warmth. In other words, the colder the water, the thicker your insulation has to be - and you need a lot more insulation in 40F (4.4C) water than you do at 55F (12.7C).
One of the big virtues of a drysuit is that you can add or subtract layers depending on the water temperature. It’s a lot easier to do that before you start paddling because unlike hikers, kayakers have to go ashore to change layers. That’s another reason why swim-testing your gear before each paddle is so important.
Burping Your Drysuit
Having too much air in a drysuit can make it feel cumbersome. The solution to excess air is to “burp the suit” by pulling the neck seal open with a finger while squatting down or wading into the water. This forces air out through the neck.
However, when you “burp” excess air out of a drysuit, you compress your layers of clothing and reduce the insulation that they provide. So your goal is not to burp the suit too much. That’s another good reason to Swim-Test your gear. You may find out that you need to burp the suit less or else add more insulation to compensate for the burping.
Raingear vs Immersion Gear
Raingear is fine for trail hiking in wet weather, but it offers no protection once you're actually in the water. That’s because it’s waterproof but not watertight. Manufacturers and retailers often blur this distinction and make it sound like there’s no difference between drytops, semi-drytops, and paddling jackets, but they definitely aren’t equal when it comes to cold water safety.
The difference between a drytop and a semi-drytop is that the latter has a neoprene gasket at the neck rather than a latex one. Neo gaskets aren’t as watertight as latex and may leak some - or a lot - around the neck.
Paddling Jackets - A Poor Choice For Immersion
A “paddling jacket” or “splash top” is made out of waterproof material, but it’s definitely not watertight. It works fine as raingear, or to shed an occasional splash of water, but it’s totally inadequate as immersion protection - because if you capsize, water immediately floods in.
The amount of insulation a wetsuit provides depends entirely on the thickness of the neoprene. If the water temperature is 50F (10C), a 2mm wetsuit will protect you from cold shock, but it won't delay incapacitation for very long. If you wear a wetsuit, be sure it provides you with enough protection for the conditions in which you paddle. That's why we advise you to swim-test and field-test your gear.
Do Wetsuits Work In Very Cold Water?
A lot of people will tell you that wetsuits don’t work in very cold water. That’s incorrect. Long before we had drysuits, safety-conscious paddlers wore wetsuits - even when paddling on freezing cold water. The bottom line is thickness. The neo has to be thick enough to handle the water temperature. Ask any surfer who heads out on Lake Michigan or Lake Superior in winter.
Why Fit Is Important
In order to work properly, wetsuits must be snug-fitting. A snug wetsuit allows only a very thin layer of water to enter. Once that space is filled up, the layer of water prevents any additional cold water from entering the wetsuit.
The water in the wetsuit then warms up to the temperature of your skin - about 91F (32.7C). Contrary to popular opinion, that layer of water doesn’t warm you. But because it’s the same temperature as your skin, it doesn’t feel cold or conduct heat away from your body.
When the water is really cold, I "prime" my wetsuit with some warm water from a thermos so that I don't get gold water entering the suit. If your wetsuit is snug, it doesn't take a lot of water to create that thin layer next to your skin.
Avoid Loose-Fitting Wetsuits
A loose-fitting wetsuit allows cold water to flush in and out of the suit, destroying your insulation and robbing you of precious body heat. You should also avoid wearing any item of clothing under a wetsuit. It's not designed for that, and adding an undergarment may compromise the fit and allow cold water to more easily enter the suit.
If your wetsuit doesn’t keep you warm enough when you're out of the water, you should wear something on top of it. If it's snug-fitting but doesn’t keep you warm enough when you’re in the water, you probably need thicker neoprene.
The Problem With Farmer Johns
The problem with Farmer John - or Farmer Jane - wetsuits is that they offer no protection for your arms and shoulders.
Read a Classic Case: Big strong guy gets quickly trashed by 50F water - even though he’s wearing a 7mm farmer john with a wool sweater and a paddling jacket.
If you’re going to wear a farmer john, Swim-Test it. If you find that it’s not enough protection, you can wear a long-sleeve neo shorty over the top of it.
That two-piece combination works very well and gives you double neo thickness over your core area. You can also wear the shorty by itself.
Alternately, you can wear fleece on top of the farmer john and cover that with a drytop. Just make sure that the waist seal on the drytop is watertight.
The Case Against Waders
Learn about the danger of using bibs / waders for thermal protection. Here's a 2021 Special Report on a recent close call and a fatality.
The two incidents in that report, one of which was fatal, illustrate why fishing waders are a questionable choice for protecting paddlers against cold water. As soon as they capsized, the waders filled with water, making it impossible for the paddlers to reboard their sit-on-top kayaks.
While it's possible that waders could be used safely if they were paired with a very snug drytop that prevented any water for entering the waders, such a system should be thoroughly tested – with partners as backup, and in safe conditions very close to shore - to make absolutely sure that the combination is watertight.
It's been suggested that having a compression strap on waders will be sufficient to keep water out. Perhaps, but that seems very unlikely when the person is actually in the water. After all, both paddlers in the report I mentioned earlier wore PFDs over their waders, and they still filled with water. It’s also worth pointing out that these garments are called “waders”. They weren’t designed for paddling or protection against a full-body cold water immersion.
The bottom line is that it's very difficult, if not impossible, to keep water from entering your clothing system by using compression straps. The main reason why drysuits are so expensive is because they have to be watertight in order to protect you.
Protecting Your Head
Neoprene is the gold standard for protecting your head when cold water kayaking. Hats that work just fine for hiking are a particularly bad choice for cold water or cold weather kayaking. They don’t work well in cold rain, they come off easily if you capsize, and they provide very little insulation when you’re in the water.
Another advantage of neo head protection is that it prevents cold water from rushing into your ears - something that can cause vertigo (an instant loss of balance). This loss of equilibrium is a well-known cause of failed rolls and can be dangerously disorienting if you suddenly find yourself upside down and underwater.
Protecting Your Hands
Protecting your hands becomes critical as air and water temps fall. Once again, neo offers the best protection against cold water.
Even if you’re wearing a top of the line dry suit with all the appropriate layers underneath, you’ll be completely helpless in the water if your hands become numb and useless. This can happen in minutes.. If your hands are numb, you can’t hold a paddle, attach a sprayskirt, operate a VHF radio or a cell phone.
Neo mittens are warmer than gloves, but they should be paired with a lightweight neo glove in case you have to remove them temporarily - for example to use your phone.
It’s wise to avoid neo gloves that fit too tightly. They can reduce the flow of warm blood to your hands, and make it harder to keep them warm.
Pogies are like a neo mitten that attaches to the paddle shaft. This unique design lets you comfortably hold the paddle with your bare hands and still keep them warm because they're protected inside the pogies. That’s their chief selling point.
The problem with pogies is that if you have to remove your hands to do anything from scratching your nose to completing a kayak rescue, your bare hands are completely exposed.
So if you insist on using pogies, wear a lightweight neo glove underneath them so at least you'll have some protection when you remove your hands.
Classic case: Guy wearing pogies with a perfectly good drysuit loses the use of his hands.
Testing & Practicing
No matter what cold water gear you choose to wear, you should Swim-Test and Field-Test it to make sure that it works.
Self and Group Rescues
Cold water gear allows you to comfortably spend time in the water doing things like rescue practice - capsizing and getting back into your kayak in a safe environment. This is a really important safety skill and should be practiced until you can do it quickly and smoothly.
Sea Kayaker Steve Bethke Rests After Completing a Solo Paddle Float Rescue in 40F (4.4C) Water
Both tandem and solo rescues involve a series of steps that must be accomplished in sequence. They take practice. If one step fails, the rescue often fails. What if the kayak sinks, or blows away. What if the paddle float fails or blows away. What if your hands become too numb to function. In this photo the paddler has a grip on the kayak but no tether. In rough water it could easily be knocked from her grasp. The water is cold enough for a drysuit, which has been purged of most of its air, and the paddler has no hand protection.
What If You're Chilled on The Beach or at The Takeout?
Some neoprene sheds water, and some soaks it up like a sponge. If your neo absorbs water, evaporation of that water from the surface of your wetsuit can chill you on a cool or cold day. Evaporation is why so many people get cold in a wetsuit while standing on a beach or paddling a sit-on-top kayak - especially if there’s a breeze.
Another issue is that when you stop for a lunch break or get to the takeout and are getting your gear ready to head home, you're no longer producing as much heat by exercising. This drop in heat production can be so dramatic that within 5 minutes a person can be cold enough to start shivering.
How fast you get chilled depends on your insulation and how warm you felt when you were exercising. If you were just barely warm enough or even a little cold, then you're going to feel a lot colder when you stop exercising.
Solving The Problem
The solution is to stop both the windchill and the evaporation. Any item of clothing that’s water resistant will do this and help to keep you warm. Wearing rain pants over the lower half of your wetsuit is also effective at eliminating windchill and evaporation when paddling a sit-on-top.
A contractor garbage bag will also do the job. I carry several of them in case I need to help other paddlers. They’re inexpensive, durable, and they don’t take up much room in a drybag. If you want head and neck as well as torso protection, you can quickly cut out a face hole - and holes for the person's arms as well.
What About Space Blankets?
You wouldn't know it from all the hype surrounding them - and also their inclusion in a lot of "survival kits" - but "space blankets" are a waste of money. They don't work as advertised with respect to reducing heat loss by radiation, and their design makes them a very poor choice for reducing heat loss by convection and evaporation. A far better and less expensive alternative is to use an inexpensive contractor garbage bag.
REI Space Blanket
Outdoor equipment retail giant REI advertises a space blanket with the following description:
“This reinforced fabric blanket reflects 80% of radiated body heat back to you. Use for warmth under a tent, bivy sack or for emergencies. Compact size makes it ideal in a day pack for emergencies, or as part of an emergency kit in your car or home. Made of layered polyethylene film, aluminum and Astrolar* reinforcing fabric.”
These claims are misleading at best. The idea that you can use a space blanket underneath a tent, bivy sack, sleeping bag, or your body to insulate yourself from the ground is complete nonsense. Your body loses heat to colder ground by conduction, not radiation, and the blanket offers no insulation against conduction. Furthermore, when moisture from insensible perspiration condenses on the inner surface of the blanket, it's reflectivity is reduced to zero.
Here's an article critical of space blankets from the journal Arctic Medical Research http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1463559
*Astrolar is a trade name for "Metallized Plastic Laminate Which Is Marketed As A Heat Reflective Fabric". Trademark expired in 1992.
What About Overheating?
A lot of people are under the misconception that you have to choose between dressing for the water temperature and overheating. That's a cold water myth.
When the air is warm, wearing a wetsuit or drysuit can definitely cause you to overheat – unless you take steps to keep yourself cool. There's a very easy and effective way to do this because you're surrounded by cold water.
If you know what you're doing, there's absolutely no reason why you can't wear thermal protection in hot weather.
The Bottom Line on Cold Water Gear
Cold water immersion is always a race against the clock, and people lose body heat at different rates depending on body type and insulation.
Regardless of whether the water is 70F (15.5C) or 35F (1.6C), your first goal is to get back in or on your watercraft without feeling chilled. Your gear should provide enough insulation to keep you functioning - physically and mentally - long enough for you to recover from the immersion and continue what you were doing as if nothing bad or unusual had happened. In other words, when you’re properly dressed for immersion, a sudden cold water immersion is no big deal.
One way to get a good reality-check on this is by spending 10 minutes in the water while wearing all your gear.
Your second goal is more complex: If you're unable to rescue yourself, you should be wearing enough insulation so that you can swim or get towed to shore - or survive long enough for someone to rescue you.
Floatation Suits, Rescue Suits, Survival Suits
In addition to the recreational wetsuits and drysuits mentioned above, there are a number of other garments designed to protect against cold water immersion. They include drysuits designed for offshore sailboat racing, specific search and rescue missions, military operations, and survival after abandoning ship. Floatation coats and coveralls are a hybrid design discussed in a separate section.
Ocean Racing Drysuits
Ice Rescue Suit