January/February 2008

Zen and the art of paddling cold

Everyone has their moment when they desire above all else to be floating away into a state of blissful ignorance. Sometimes paddling is just about leaving it all behind, and trying not to think of anything…except when you are paddling cold. When it comes to paddling in cold water, attention and knowledge is paramount. Can you ever know too much about cold water paddling? Never!

Whether you are an arm-chair paddler in the winter or one of the adventurous few who dare to challenge this new environment, when the temperatures drop you need to pay attention more than ever before. I’d like to review here some of the threats we all face when out paddling cold and then some of the solutions which are available to help our experience on the water be the most pleasurable and rewarding, and not dangerous.

As the water drops below 60 degrees in the fall and winter in our area, many kayakers will face new threats that are physical as well as psychological. The physical threats are obvious; the cold water, the cold air, stronger winds and shorter days. The psychological threats, or how you cope with the new environments may need more consideration.

Let’s look at cold water. Everyone has heard of hypothermia. We all know what this is; the dropping of the body’s core temperature. Do you know what some of the milder symptoms are? It is not feeling cold and shivering. It is instead irritability to your paddling partner, difficulty in removing your gloves and spray skirt, confusion about what to do, and faster breathing. Have you experienced any of these symptoms while paddling in the winter? I have. Knowing what they may indicate helps me change my paddle plans to make myself more comfortable if not safer. As hypothermia gets more severe, a sort of cold-water anesthesia can develop, making a person’s mental processing disconnect with their bodily functionality. One can forget where they are and loose control of limbs and fine motor skills.

Another cold water factor we have all heard of is cold shock. This is the surprise of your head going under cold water, right? Well, it is more than that. It is a physical reaction of your whole body to quick exposure to cold water. In this situation, the human body often responds by forcing more air into the system. Uncontrollably fast breathing is often too much for someone who suddenly finds them self swimming in freezing water to cope with.

Physical factors are not the only thing that face us and challenge us when we go paddling cold. Let’s bring up a few psychological factors that we should be thinking about as we venture farther into the winter season.

All humans are equipped with an automatic psychological protective mechanism which helps us cope with our surroundings. We call it self-denial. Don’t deny it! How often have you read of a kayaking fatality and said “Oh, but that would not happen to me because I would have done…”? Me?…every time I read one. We do not need to laugh off this common malady, we can use it to help us plan more effectively when venturing out into more dangerous environments. Plan through you trip in your head more completely ahead of time. Leave no eventuality unexplored.

Paddling in groups. Peer support can work against you as well as with you. If everyone you are paddling with has chosen to ignore dangers facing the group when paddling cold, you will be highly likely to fall in with your peers. When paddling in numbers there is safety, but you need to protect yourself first.

One last psychological factor is our inability to process emergency factors in great numbers. When things get important, all else seems to fade away, right? So in an emergency situation, will you be able to focus on the wind, waves, boat traffic, your friend yelling instructions to you, and that darned complicated paddle float rescue maneuver? Practicing helps to build pathways in our cognitive processing which we will go to faster and more regularly. That is why people who get CPR training, always go back to re-read the emergency procedures. When the time comes to jump into action, give your unconscious something to jump into action with as well.

So what should you do about all of this, now that you have thought it over? You should know your enemy. Yes, cold water is your enemy. As much as we all love the idea of getting in touch with nature, we still need to face the fact that water is not our natural environment and cold water even more so.

This part of the equation is very simple; protecting yourself. We have all though about what we should do and what we should have with us when paddling cold, the only thing left is to address our doubts and take the extra precautions that are available to us. If you think you should do it, then do it.

First of all, dress appropriately. The old kayaker’s adage “Dress for the water” cannot be stated too much in this case. The best piece of paddling gear in cold water is a dry suit. It will keep a little or a lot of cold water off of your skin whether it is from rain or from an accidental swim. Is this too much to wear? I like to think of the benefits of a dry suit instead of the cost or the bulk. Even if it never “saves” my life, it will keep me warm on a cold day when I paddle longer or farther than I would have originally planned. I would rather be slightly wet from perspiration, than very wet from an accidental dunking. It is also amazing easy it is to slip into a dry suit. You can drive to the put-in wearing the same clothes you will wear under your dry suit. Then slide right into that dry suit in no time. Everything stays dry! Lastly, the security that I feel and display while wearing my dry suit is well worth it. I find that just for simplicity, my dry suit has replaced all other cold water gear more each year. It seems to go on earlier and earlier as the cold weather approaches.

Don’t forget layering. Just like any other sport in the wintertime. Layering is important, even under a dry suit. Wear synthetic materials that will wick perspiration away from your skin, and layers which can form pockets of warm air against your body. Fleece is a great option for a warm cozy layer.

Protect your extremities. Experiment with and wear protection on your hands, head and feet. You can loose a lot of body heat through your extremities. And you will be more comfortable and happy if you cover these well. I like “mitts” or “pogies” for my hands which allow my fingers to stay together, sharing warmth. I usually take at least two options for head protection. As the paddle progresses, I have the choice for a heaver hood or a lighter hat. For my feet, the best thing that I have found yet is booties added to the dry suit. This way my feet never get wet. Of course fluffy synthetic socks help to keep the warmth in my toes too.

Don’t forget to take extra water and snacks when paddling cold. Sometimes the best answer for many of those early symptoms of hypothermia is to fuel the body. Your body does burn more energy in colder temperatures. Be prepared with an extra bottle and a couple of extra peanut butter bars.

Plan your trips differently when paddling cold. If you are concerned for the conditions you may be paddling, then heed those warning thoughts. Change your game plan for the day. Paddle less distance, paddle closer to shore. Paddle closer to more populated surroundings, take extra safety gear. Any wise choice which changes your paddle plans to a safer option will make your day more enjoyable. Always pay attention to those doubts you have about whether you should stay out longer or go farther when you get cold.

Friends are probably the best option to take advantage of when paddling cold. Take the time to discus the paddle plan for the day with friends. Should someone get cold, what can your group do? Can everyone recognize the symptoms of being cold in themselves and others? Does everyone know what to do if the worst happens, such as a capsize and a swim in cold water? Don’t be afraid to go to the heart of the matter with your buddies before you go out. If everyone is on the same page about the expectations of the day, then everyone will have warm feelings about the group and hopefully have more hopes of everyone staying warm and happy throughout the paddle.

Too much knowledge is not a bad thing when it comes to paddling cold. Are you are trying to understand how you react to the cold and how you can be warmer, safer, and happier? Are you trying to make your paddling group more prepared for the dangers of cold water paddling? Address the factors that will face you when you are out on the cold water and explore the ways to play it safe physically and mentally. There is lots of cold water information available to kayakers willing to expand their paddling season. Read the information and process the knowledge, and then go look for suitable gear to help you enjoy and work together with your buddies to make it safer and more enjoyable.

Some places that I have found recently to read about cold water paddling are at:

Some of the more recent online places to find reduced price gear which I have heard talk of may be at:

(CPA has no affiliation with any of these organizations. They are just good deals.)

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