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Dressing for Cold Water

Posted by Darren Bush on 5/5/2013 to What to Wear

Cold-water paddling is a fact of life to us Midwesterners, Lake Superior is one of our favorite paddling destinations. To make things clearer for our customers (and ourselves), we categorize things loosely in three basic levels of protection; wet, semi-dry, and dry.

The point I always consider is the Likelihood of Immersion (LOI). This means that I can paddle in cold water with little protective gear so long as I am convinced that through a combination of my boat, the water conditions, and my skill level, the LOI is low. For example, if the water is calm and likely to stay that way, the air temperature is warm, and I am paddling a stable boat in conditions that I have seen for hundreds of hours, I can accurately predict that I will not swim.

Does this mean that I am taking a risk by not dressing for immersion? Yes, I am taking a risk. I also take a risk when I walk across the street in an uncontrolled intersection, take a commercial flight to Atlanta, or eat anything at a fast food restaurant. I choose that risk, and the consequences that may result from taking the chance. I am a very conservative person, so I minimize risk whenever possible, but I refuse to not do anything because there may be risk involved. That said, I don’t skydive, I don’t drink downstream from a beaver lodge, and I don’t ride motorcycles in city traffic.

Okay, enough about LOI and risk, on to the three levels of protection.

Wet Protection


Level I Protection is what we call wet protection. This means that you will not stop water from reaching your body, but will warm the water next to your skin and keep evaporative cooling to a minimum once you are out of the water.

The upside of Level I is that it is the most economical and also the most versatile. You can mix and match pieces of paddle clothing with other pieces to accommodate changes in weather as the day progresses. A full-on paddle jacket in the morning may be great, but after a late morning snack you might decide to go with a short-sleeve top or just a piece of fleece if the water is warm. The downside is that there may be water against your skin, but it’s a water sport so most of us don’t mind unless the water is extremely cold. That discomfort, however, will probably be temporary.

There is also a product line called Hydroskin from NRS that combines a soft, warm plush liner and a 0.5 mm neoprene outer shell, fused together to give you the warmth of 3 mm neoprene without the bulk. Hydroskin has all but replaced neoprene in our store and our hearts – it’s just much less confining than thicker neoprene. Hydroskin is also constructed with the addition of millions of titanium particles to help reflect your body heat back to you. It is rocket science.

Hydroskin pieces also work great as layering pieces underneath dry tops and paddling pants for more severe weather. All in all it’s nice stuff, I think it’s more comfortable than a wet suit, almost as warm, and is much easier to paddle in.

A good piece to combine with a wet suit or fleece is a paddle jacket. Paddle jackets are made of waterproof material, but with leak-resistant (neoprene or lycra) rather than leak-proof (latex) cuffs and neck gasket. They do not provide as much resistance against immersion as dry clothing, but they cost about half as much. Paddle jackets cost from about $70-$200.

Neoprene booties work well to protect the feet and keep them warm. Booties are about $25 to $40 dollars. You can also wear a polypropylene liner sock if you want more warmth. Many of our staff wear their knee-high mukluks year round to keep their feet dry when getting in and out of their boats. The Chota – Mukluk Light is very comfortable (even in the summer months) and can be rolled down to the ankles to allow your feet to breath a little better.

Semi-Dry Protection


Level II Protection is a compromise. All compromises aren’t bad though, this is a good one.

We define Level II Protection as a semi-dry environment. What this means in a nutshell is that if you stay in your kayak, you will stay dry. If you have an Eskimo roll, you’re a good candidate for Level II Protection. If you do come out of your boat, you will essentially have Level I Protection.

This level consists of replacing a Level I paddle jacket with a dry top that has latex gaskets instead of neoprene. This is a watertight seal that will keep you dry even if you capsize and do an Eskimo roll or Eskimo rescue.

You should consider breathable fabrics if you are contemplating purchasing a dry top. Because it is impossible to ventilate a dry top through the neck and wrist gaskets, you are prone to moisture build-up. This is true if you are paddling hard, or paddling in warm weather with cold water (like Lake Superior in August; 80 degree air temperature, 40 degree water). Breathable fabrics cost slightly more, but will be worth it in the long run if you paddle in these conditions.

A great compliment to a dry top is a pair of paddling pants or bibs with either latex gaskets at the ankles or nylon booties. These will keep you almost 100% dry when matched with a dry top, and by mixing and matching these pieces with neoprene you can paddle comfortably in any condition.

Dry Protection


Level III Protection is the ultimate level of protection from the elements. If you paddle in bad weather, cold water, ocean surf environments, etc., you would want to have Level III Protection to be safe and comfortable.

Level III Protection consists of dry technology. This means that even if fully immersed (assuming equipment does not fail), you will still stay warm and dry. There is no moisture against your skin other than that which you produce.

There are two ways to achieve Level III Protection. One way is with a dry suit, which is a one-piece unit that has latex gaskets at the wrists, ankles, and neck. You will want appropriate insulation (fleece is a good choice) under your dry suit for warmth, since the suit itself provides only nominal insulation. We find that natural fibers like merino wool are great to wear under dry suits because they absorb perspiration without odor buildup, even after repeated wearings. I once wore an Icebreaker – Skin 200 Oasis Crew under a dry top for several days in a row and it was fine, even after some hard paddling.

GORE-TEX™ and other breathable fabric dry suits are expensive, but provide the best protection and breathability, they are a must in the combination of hot weather with cold water.

The second way to achieve a virtually dry environment when immersed is by combining a dry top with a pair of dry bibs or paddling pants that have latex ankle gaskets or nylon booties sewn in and taped directly to the pants. There can be some leakage at the waist but with a good double-tubed dry top, a neoprene skirt, and an adjustable waist on your pants, you can achieve a 99.9% dry environment. Once again using separate pieces allows you to mix and match based on the weather and water conditions.

If you want more information about specific products and how they fit into the picture, feel free to give us a call. We live in this stuff, so we will probably be able to answer any questions you may have.


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