The Risks of Cold Water Kayaking and Canoeing

Kayaking on cold water.

I recently wrote an article for Northern Wilds about how to dress for cold water kayaking on Lake Superior, where even in the summer the water almost never gets warmer than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I interviewed American Canoe Association Coastal Kayaking Level 5 Advanced Open Water Instructor Trainer Educator Sam Crowley for the article. Sam runs Sea Kayak Specialists in Marquette, Michigan and is one of the best instructors that I’ve taken lessons from. Sam has paddled extensively on the cold waters of Lake Superior and on cold ocean waters. In 2007, he circumnavigated Ireland solo. Sam gave me so much great material that I couldn’t include in a 600-word article, so what I couldn’t use, I’m posting here as a question and answer.

Me: What are the primary dangers of paddling in cold water?

Sam: Hypothermia, the lowering of your body core temperature to a dangerous level is always talked about. Immersion into cold water can cause a very quick onset of hypothermia. That is the bigegst danger for the unprepared.

Biggest danger for someone properly dressed is slow onset of hypothermia. You don’t necessarily need to go into the water. Just being cold can cause your hands go numb. If they get numb enough, they don’t work. Without your hands you cannot rescue yourself or a buddy. This necessitates someone else needing to be there to help you.

Slow onset of hypothermia can also affect your thinking and cause you to make mistakes. You would think it would be obvious when it is happening, but it is not.

Me: How do you reduce the risks of cold water paddling?

Sam: Proper clothing. That means synthetic or wool clothing. Also means a wetsuit, wetsuit & drytop or a drysuit. Depends on the water temperature what I wear. Summer padling on Lake Superior I am always in a wetsuit. Spring and mid to late fall and into winter, is where I wear the drysuit or wetsuit & drytop combination.

From the stats I have seen, a wetsuit will give you an hour of functional time in Lake Superior in the summer. Without it you have less than 10-20 minutes being conscious. One’s hands will have even less functional time.

I bring along neoprene mittens and pogies. Usually the mittens work for me to around 35-40 degrees. Below that, the pogies work better.

I also bring along extra hats, a thermos, snacks and a waterproof jacket that will go over a life jacket. All of this is accessible on the water so if someone gets cold or has capsized we can address it then.

I also bring along a change of clothes for myself and a change to give to someone else. Stored in drybags in my main hatches, I can adjust my layers and loan clothes to someone who needs another layer.

Highly, very highly recommend having practiced rescues. A warm summer day gives you a chance to make mistakes and still do a successful rescue. A cold summer day or any day in the winter or spring, a mistake can be fatal. Having a practiced rescue can help you quickly get someone back into their boat, the best thing you can do for them.

It is important to know how well your gear will work so jump into the water to test it. Work with your paddling buddy and you can see how a rescue maybe impacted. Finding out during practice is better than finding out later on when you need your rescue to work quickly.

Years ago in the Detroit area, a few paddlers did a New Year’s Day paddle. A capsize occurred. Instead of getting the person back into their boat, the rescuer had the person hang onto their boat and pull them back to shore through the water. 40 minutes later, they arrived. Fortunately someone called a ambulance because the person, despite wearing a drysuit, ended up being treated for hypothermia. Why did they do the rescue that way? Didn’t know if we could do a rescue with a drysuit!?! If you don’t know, don’t go.

There is also judgment. Just recently we had some great surf, waves were 6-9′. I didn’t go out. Why? Temperatures were in the mid 30s F and the wind was blowing at 30+ mph. Given the time of year and the amount I have been on the water, my skills aren’t ready for the winds and waves. Throw in the temperatures, it was too much. Just the winds and temperatures made it too much. Last fall, we were went out in similar conditions. The difference? Skills were high after a season of paddling including as the temperatures dropped.

Everyone has different conditions they can paddle in which varies during the season. Knowing when the risk gets to be too much is good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

On a fall multi-day trip on Lake Superior, I was cold because of the all-day rain and my soaking wet clothing & wetsuit. By lunch, paddling kept me just warm enough. Stopping for lunch and breaks, the wind and wet had me on that uncomfortable edge of shivering. A capsize would have been disastrous as could have been an unexpected stop. What did I learn? I now carry light layers such as silk weight. Throwing on one or two tops and even a bottom, has kept me warm in similar situations since then.

Me: How can you reduce the chance of cold shock occurring?

Sam: I haven’t seen cold shock occur despite all the cold water rescue practice I am involved with. Proper clothing goes a long way to prevent the involuntary gasp that defines cold shock. A few people have started to hyperventilate but getting them out of the water quickly or getting them to focus on their breathing stopped it.

The time I hyperventilated was when water just above freezing seeped into my wetsuit and hit my chest. That’s when I started using a wetsuit with a drytop.

Me: How important is a life vest?

Sam: Very. These different accidents tell the tale. Two different canoes capsized into water in the mid 30s. In the canoes were 18-20 year old males not wearing anything for immersion. Only two could swim to shore, the other two drowned. They were around 50′ from shore. A kayaker on Lake Superior capsized when he hit an iceberg. He remembers hitting the water and how cold it was. He wasn’t wearing anything for immersion but he was wearing his life jacket. His next memory was waking up in the hospital. Apparently a neighbor found him on the beach unconscious, very hypothermic and called 911.

A life jacket is like your car’s seat belt or air bags. Nobody expects to get into an accident but when you do, they make all the difference in minimizing potential injuries.

Me: Anything else a Lake Superior paddler should know about cold water paddling? What are some common mistakes that you’ve seen beginning paddlers make when it comes to cold water?

Sam: Not even be aware it is there. The amount of risk people unknowingly take is more risk than I will take. Knowingly taking risks means you are aware of the dangers. Risk management is avoiding, minimizing or addressing those dangers. Avoiding is simply not going or going someplace with warm water. Minimizing means having a backup or alternative plan if something goes wrong. Wearing a wetsuit is an example as is knowing how to do rescues. Addressing is knowing how to treat hypothermia and having spare clothes, an extra hat, snacks, etc are examples of this.

Someone who isn’t prepared for cold water risks is taking a huge gamble.

Me: It seems to me that people underestimate the danger of cold water paddling, is there anything that you can recommend doing to safely demonstrate the danger?

Sam: Take a bucket of Lake Superior water during the summer and put coins into it. Have someone put their hand in the water for 15 minutes. Their hands will have cooled enough to loose functioning so they cannot pick up the coins.

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  • In lieu of wearing a wet suit for cold fresh water paddling, I wear multiple layers. For my lower body, I always don two pairs of my old running tights: those spandex things, one medium weight and the other heavy weight (with fleece lining) for running in the cold Edmonton winters. Atop, I wear two layers of fleece lined long-sleeved nylon shirts with zippered necks. The zippers allow me to adjust the heat retained within my Kokatat dry top (neck and wrist gasketed). I have a wool hat that I wear when it gets really cold (<10C ambient air temp), full fingered neo gloves and ankle high neo booties. If my fingers feel cold, I use my neo pogies. I also add a layer of 1/2" closed-cell foam to the floor of the cockpit to insulate from the cold of the river. A full spray skirt compliments it all to keep me dry and warm. How warm is it if I fall into the river you ask? Warm! The dry top keeps my torso completely dry, the wool hat does its job nicely. The two layers of running tights works exactly like a wet suit and keeps me warm while I am in the water. Once I am out of the water, the story changes. I get cold fast. The one good thing I have working for me while paddling in the river here in Edmonton is that if I fall in the river during very cold weather, I am never more than 5-minutes away from warmth. I have considered a wetsuit for very cold weather paddling but I have not been able to justify the cost cosidering that I am in the kayak during very cold weather only a few times each year. I will also mention that I have no gasp response and a metabolic rate that always seems to kick into high gear when a potential panick situation occurs. For all the times I have been in very cold water (3 that I can remember), I was so busy rescuing myself that I never felt the cold. My high level of fitness really helps with cold water incidences but my sense of calm saves me every time. Panick probably kills as often as stupidity does: dress properly (doesn't always have to be high tech and expensive), act responsibly and paddle safely…that done, you will only rarely need your rescue/self-rescue skills

  • I’d recommend that you bite the bullet and buy a wetsuit. You won’t regret it. Just the other day, I spent an hour in Lake Superior practicing standing up in the kayak and reentry and rolls, plus other kayak trips. I wore a wetsuit and drytop. I wasn’t cold at all when I got out.

  • It’s particularly important to distinguish between cold shock and hypothermia. Cold shock is an immediate life-threatening problem, whereas (for an average person) hypothermia will not occur until you’ve been in the water for at least 30 minutes – even in freezing water. A far more immediate concern is losing control of your muscles, which can occur in minutes at very cold water temps and render you completely helpless in the water.

    When comparing clothing like running tights to wetsuits, it’s helpful to note the thickness of the neoprene & the temperature of the water. Stating the water temp is also useful in discussing cold water immersion experiences. I personally prefer a drysuit when water temperatures are <10C (50F) because the sensation of very cold water entering the wetsuit is so unpleasant. The twin issues with drytops in cold water are that they provide no protection below the waist and most of them leak through the waist seal – the latter not an issue when covered by your sprayskirt, but it can be a real problem when you wet exit. If you get cold fast when out of the water, you aren't dressed appropriately for the conditions. Evaporation of water from the surface of wet neoprene causes rapid heat loss and can quickly chill you- particularly when there's some wind. Wearing a waterproof garment over the neoprene solves that problem. The old adage “thickness = warmth” still applies, and on a cool, cloudy, windy day, 3mm neoprene isn't enough to keep most folks warm.

    It's prudent to swim or float in the water for 10 or 15 minutes with whatever gear you're going to wear for cold water paddling – that will give you a good idea of how warm it will keep you. Pogies are fine until you have to remove your hands to re-attach your sprayskirt, inflate your paddle float, pump out your cockpit, use a VHF radio to summon help etc. etc.

    Cold shock consists of more than just the gasp response. It involves a number of potentially lethal responses that can result in rapid drowning. Loss of breathing control is the primary culprit here. Although the gasp response (which can result in more than one gasp) can be reduced in intensity or avoided by slowing the speed with which cold water contacts your skin surface, particularly your torso, the same cannot be said of hyperventilation, dyspnea, inability to hold your breath, a dramatic increase in blood pressure, and swimming failure – all of which will occur simultaneously as soon as cold water infiltrates your clothing. This is bad enough in flat calm water, let alone rough water. Metabolic rate has no bearing on cold shock, but level of fitness often does.

    If you are cold to begin with, you can lose the use of your hands in less than a minute – at which point you will be essentially helpless. To get a mental feel for this, imagine trying to use a paddle or manipulate objects to effect a rescue while wearing boxing gloves over your hands. How far away you are from warmth depends in large measure on how long it will take you to get out of the water and get to shore. We used to think that the intensity of the cold shock response increased as water temperature dropped, but this turns out not to be the case. Below 60F, your body responds at its maximum; the only difference is that immersion is very painful at lower temperatures. You may be able to reduce your tendency to panic in such situations, but the cold shock responses are involuntary; in other words, they are out of your conscious control.

    The bottom line in Cold Water Safety is to always dress for the water temperature – no exceptions. Stay warm and have fun on the water.

    Moulton Avery

  • Thanks, Moulton!

  • […] in the water. Anytime the water drops below 60 degree Fahrenheit (15.5 Celsius), you run into the risks of cold water paddling and need a wetsuit or a drysuit. And anytime you paddle beyond swimming distance from shore, you […]

  • […] ACA Instructor Trainer Sam Crowley talks about the types of risks in winter kayak, and he give you winter kayaking tips that will help you see the dangers of paddling cold water and plan to minimize those risks. Read it here: The Risks of Winter Kayaking. […]

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