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Dressing for the Transition

Posted by Darren Bush on 4/16/2013 to What to Wear

It’s spring. The water is getting soft, Canoecopia is over, and on the first warm, sunny day in Madison, paddlers are drawn to put blade to water. This annual spring rite always brings with it news reports like the one in the Wisconsin State Journal on April 15th that began: “Three Madison men are lucky to be alive after their canoe capsized Monday evening on Lake Mendota.” The paddlers had only one PFD. in the boat and were fortunate enough that a resident saw them from shore, called 9-1-1, and paddled a kayak out to help. One of the men was taken to the hospital to be treated for hypothermia.

This time, good luck allowed the canoeists to avoid tragedy, but this situation could easily have turned into a fatal experience. While the air temperature was comfortable that day, the water was still only 49 degrees. It is an ongoing source of concern to me that I often see spring paddlers in cotton T-shirts, enjoying the sun and trusting that they will keep their boats right-side up.

The problem is that no matter what your skill level, a surprise boat or Jet Ski, a disruptive wake, or a sudden crosswind can swamp or dump you. Once you are in the water (or even upright again but still soaked to the skin), you are extremely vulnerable to hypothermia. A person in the water loses heat at a rate thirty times faster than they do in the air. Swimming increases heat loss by 35-50%. These statistics are from, a website well worth visiting for anyone who spends time around the water.

Still, after a cold winter spent cooped up indoors, there is no better tonic for the soul than your first paddle in the spring. But it is also a time to pay particular attention to circumstances before and after you hit the water. There are many things that you can do to minimize your risks. It is always a good idea to paddle with others, but buddying-up is especially important when you are dealing with cold water beneath you. Carry a cell phone or a VHF marine radio in a waterproof case that allows use without removal. Don’t assume that because the air is warm that the water is also. Water temperatures can change with the wind direction, since offshore winds push warm surface water away from shore, drawing up the colder water from the deeper parts of the lake. As always, the most important safety tool is knowledge and skill. The best hypothermia solution is to stay out of the water, so a strong brace will go a long way towards keeping your boat upright and dry. This should go without saying: always wear your PFD. If you do take a swim, the shock of cold water can leave you incapacitated. Your PFD can save your life, plus it adds extra insulation.

Lastly, always dress for the water temperature rather than the air. Cotton is rarely a good choice for paddling. Cotton dries slowly and promotes evaporative cooling, which can contribute to hypothermia even if you are not in the water. Wicking synthetic or wool base layers dry faster and will maintain some insulating value even when wet. There are a variety of options and combinations of insulation and outer layers that can add anywhere from a light to a serious degree of cold water benefit.

I think that every paddler should own a paddling jacket with neoprene or latex closures at the neck, wrist, and waist. I take one with me every time I get into a canoe or kayak. Even in the summer a front can roll in, and as the temperature drops and the wind picks up, pulling on the paddling jacket will add significant protection. With the closures fastened, though you might get a little leakage in the water, it will minimize the exchange of body heat with the water. If you add a pair of paddling pants with waist and ankle closures, you extend the same protection to your lower body. This is my favorite combination, because it is so versatile. You can start out the season with the tops and bottoms over a base layer and a light- or medium-weight fleece layer. As the water temperatures change, you can gradually add or reduce the insulation. We carry a large selection of paddle jackets and pants from Kokatat and NRS. The price of waterproof-breathable fabrics has become so competitive that I see little point in buying the traditional coated fabrics. The breathable fabrics will also be much more comfortable as the temperatures get warmer.

Another great combination introduces wetsuits to the equation: a neoprene “Farmer John” wetsuit (a one-piece that zips up the front) with a long sleeve base-layer top and a paddling jacket provide great core insulation while keeping the wind off of your arms. We carry neoprene products from NRS. Neoprene comes in a variety of weights. The 5-8mm varieties are designed for diving but are pretty constricting for paddlers. The NRS traditional-style wetsuit designed for paddlers is constructed of 3mm neoprene. They also produce a variety of products in what they call HydroSkin, which is a ˝mm neoprene outer layer bonded to a heat reflective layer with a MicroPlush inner layer that is soft and fleecy next to the skin. It is very flexible and solves many of the comfort issues involved with traditional neoprene. The underarm is lycra instead of neoprene, eliminating the annoyance of bunching and binding under your arms. However, HydroSkins are not quite as insulating as the traditional 3mm-style wetsuits.

A drysuit is overkill in the spring, unless you expect to spend a lot of time in the water or paddle very large, very cold bodies of water. A dry top, though, can be used in place of a paddling jacket and can be mated to a pair of bibs in the winter.

The most important thing to remember about spring paddling is to dress for the water, not the weather. It doesn’t matter if you are paddling a canoe or a kayak – if you swim, your hypothermia risks are the same. With an appropriate investment in the right layers, you can significantly reduce your risk without being uncomfortable in the process. Layering allows you to modify your dress to the environment. You can start with a couple of key pieces and then add more to expand your season. The paddle wear that is available today is both comfortable and flexible, and the values just keep getting better. Spring paddling is a delight, but you have to prepare for it.

If you have any questions, please call us at 1-800-I-PADDLE.

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