When it’s cold out and the water temperature starts dropping, dressing for immersion might mean the difference between surviving a swim and succumbing to cold shock, cold incapacitation and eventually hypothermia. At a base level, paddlers should dress to survive a swim of any length and still function in the canoe or kayak afterward. This means dressing in a wetsuit or drysuit when the water gets cold. The ultimate question: what’s the difference between a wetsuit vs. drysuit for kayaking.
Defining Cold Water Paddling
According to the American Canoe Association, a cold water situation occurs anytime the water temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) or when the combined air and water temperature is less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius). In temperatures such as these paddlers need to dress for the water temperature, because an accidental swim could quickly kill.
There are two rules that apply to these temperatures when unprotected. The first is the 5-50-50 rule and the second is the 1-10-1 rule. In the first rule, a paddler has about five minutes to swim 50 yards in 50 degree water, and he has 50/50 chance of surviving. The second rule states that an unprotected swimmer will suffer cold shock for about one minute, then have about 10 minutes until he can no longer function until finally succumbing to hypothermia an hour later assuming he doesn’t drown before then.
Lifesaving Society Facts
According to the Cold Water Boot Camp, in 2004, of the 130 people who died during boating in Canada, a nation that has cold water almost year round:
94 percent died in cold water.
- 60% drowned in water under 50 degree Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius)
- 34% drowned in water between 50 to 68 degree Fahrenheit (10 to 20 degrees Celsius)
86 percent didn’t wear a lifevest.
- Only 12% were properly wearing a lifejacket
- 2% were improperly wearing a lifejacket
Most were within swimming distance from the shore or safety.
- 43% were less than 7 feet from safety*
- 66% were less than 50 feet from safety*
*shore, boat, dock, etc.
74 percent ended up in the water when thrown over or when the boat capsized.
- 26% fell or were thrown overboard
- 48% were in a boat that capsized or was swamped
Of those identified more swimmers died than non-swimmers.
- Non-swimmer = 29%
- Weak = 15%
- Average = 12%
- Strong = 10%
- Not identified = 34%
It’s clear that swimming ability and proximity to the shore doesn’t guarantee survival, but dressing for immersion and wearing a lifevest can increase the odds of survival. Always wear a lifevest.
Layering for Cold Water
Like in other outdoor sports, paddling utilizes clothing layering to regulate body temperatures. Layering is thinking of clothing as a system that works to transport moisture away from the skin (neoprene works differently), to keep warmth near the body and to protect from the elements. Layers are added or subtracted as needed to account for varied temperatures. There are three different types of layers.
Base layer: A synthetic or wool layer that moves sweat away from the skin and keeps the body dry. Think long underwear. When using a wetsuit, this layer is skipped, because a wetsuit works best when directly against the skin.
Mid layer: A warm garment that doesn’t retain water, such as fleece. Vary the thickness or number of garments based on conditions.
Outer layer: A layer designed to keep wind and water away from the other layers. Think a paddling jacket. A drysuit is an outer layer.
Dress For Immersion
Dressing for immersion is the practice of wearing clothing designed to handle the water temperature over the air temperature. The water temperature is more risky, because it saps warmth away from the body quicker than air, so the paddler manages the greater risk by dressing for it. For example, if the water is 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the air is 80, a paddler would wear a drysuit and enough insulation to handle a long swim in the cold water.
A wetsuit uses neoprene to trap and hold a thin layer of water near the body. The body heats up this layer, which keeps the paddler warm. The thicker the neoprene the warmer and less flexible it is. Full-body wetsuits are rated by two numbers, which looks like 4/3 or 3/2. The first number represents how thick the wetsuit’s torso is, and the second shows the thickness of the neoprene on the extremities.
Generally, paddling wetsuits come without arms, such as the NRS Ultra John. The advantage is that the neoprene doesn’t restrict arm movement. The disadvantage is that they’re not as warm and cold fresh water can easily penetrate the arm holes. A full wetsuit, such as XCEL’s Infinity Full Wetsuit, keeps more water out and stays warmer at the expense of more restricted arm movements. Read about Keith Wikle’s experience using a full wetsuit for paddling.
A drysuit combines a waterproof fabric with neck, wrist and sometime ankle gaskets to keep the water completely away from the body. The gaskets seal tightly against body and keep the water from coming in. Most gaskets are latex, so paddlers allergic to latex need to stay away, and latex gaskets can fail catastrophically in the field — I had it happen on two expeditions.
A drysuit acts as a outer layer. It isn’t warm by itself. To make it warm, wear a base and mid layer. Drysuits tend to cost much more than a wetsuit. A quality drysuit, such as Kokatat’s Meridian drysuit, runs from $600 to $1100 while a wetsuit runs $100 to $400. After getting used to the gaskets, most paddlers find drysuits more comfortable.
Dressing for 70 Degree Water
Above 70 degree water doesn’t require a wetsuit or a drysuit unless the air is under 50 degrees. Wear a rash guard and have a paddling jacket or drytop ready if it gets chilly.
Dressing for 50 Degree to 70 Degree Water
At this range, a Farmer John or Jane wetsuit, one without arms, will be the most comfortable. Near the lower temperatures, especially when combined with colder air temps use a full body wetsuit or a drysuit. Over the wetsuit wear a paddling jacket or drytop. Have several mid layers available in a drybag to put on when it starts to get cold. In warm air temperatures, a drysuit will feel hot, and because it requires layers to keep the paddler warm when in the water, it tends to get very hot. In lower air temperatures, the drysuit feels like heaven. Consider carrying extra clothing in preparation for weather changes.
Dressing for 45 Degree to 55 Degree Water
Things get a bit more complicated at this level. A full 4/3 wetsuit or a drysuit will both suffice. Combine a paddling jacket or drytop with mid layers to make the wetsuit warm enough. With a drysuit, add base and mid layers to keep warm. Once in the water, the coldness will easily penetrate to the bone when lighter mid layers are worn. Also, at this temp, the hands, feet and head need protection. Many of the same items used for winter kayaking work at this temp.
Below 45 Degree Water
Wear a drysuit with a base layer and multiple mid layers, plus protect the hands, feet and head with items listed in the above linked winter kayaking article. Additionally, take time to read this winter kayaking article. Even if it isn’t winter, water temperatures below 45 feels brutal. Cold shock is a distinct possibility. Protect against it by wearing a diving hood. On a personal level, I’ve taught and guided for years on 45 degree water (Lake Superior). I’ve seen lots of panic after a person hits the water. I’ve seen cold shock. I’ve seen people quickly shut down. I’ve even had to pull a person out of a boat after he panicked and forgot how to get out by pulling a sprayskirt. Even with a drysuit and multiple layers, the cold water saps energy quickly. It kills quickly. Dress warm and paddle with friends who know how to quickly react to a capsize.