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How to Choose Apparel to Extend Your Boating Season

We regularly get inquiries like this: “I’ve been boating during the summer. I’m really enjoying it, and want to start earlier and boat longer. What gear do I need in order to do that?”

Terry ready for some spring paddling – Endurance Jacket over a 3-mm wetsuit, neoprene gloves and booties, and a Mystery Sea Hood. © Pam Rogers

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. However, there is one common element to consider: in most areas, boating outside of the warm summer months means dealing with colder air and water temperatures. Colder temperatures bring the real possibility of hypothermia. This is a condition where heat loss causes your body’s core temperature to drop below the point where you can function normally. Hypothermia is a killer.

To prevent excessive heat loss, you need to protect and insulate your body. The best rule of thumb to keep in mind is “dress for the swim.” This prepares you for the worst case scenario. Water is a very efficient thermal conductor; it draws heat away from your body some 25 times faster than air. You may say, “I’m skilled enough that I don’t swim.” Ah, pride goeth before the fall – to paraphrase an ancient proverb. Let’s face it – outdoors, kaka occurs. To throw in another proverb (pardon us) – better safe than sorry. Hopefully you won’t swim, but if you do… will you be prepared to survive it? And what if one of your boating companions gets in trouble? Will you be able to stay in the water for a lengthy period of time offering assistance?

Laura and Pam are wearing sun protective MicroLite Shirts as they commune with a Bighorn Sheep on Idaho’s Lower Salmon. © Stacy Jensen

Also, consider that you don’t have to be immersed in water to suffer severe body heat loss. Splash, spray and rain can soak inadequately protected insulating layers. Also, rapid cooling can take place when wind evaporates moisture that soaks your outer layers.

As with dressing for any outdoor activity, layering various apparel pieces is the key to matching your protection and insulation to the weather and your activity level. With layering, you add and subtract pieces to match changing conditions.

Today’s boaters are the fortunate recipients of all the innovations in technology that have occurred in the past 20 years. Lightweight sun-protective fabrics block harmful UV rays while wicking away body moisture and keeping you cool and comfortable. Synthetic “fleece” fabrics in base-layer garments don’t absorb water, but still provide warmth when wet and dry quickly.

NRS people in drysuits practicing swiftwater rescue techniques in icy January water. © Keli Keach

Neoprene rubber was developed in the 1930s and has been used in wetsuits ever since. Today, new formulations make the rubber itself stretchier. New fabrics that are bonded to the neoprene allow more unrestricted mobility. New adhesives used to bond the rubber and fabrics contain fine particles of shiny titanium metal that reflects back body heat to significantly improve warmth retention.

Modern materials in technical outerwear give us waterproof garments that also “breathe.” Microporous membranes and coatings block liquid water, while allowing perspiration moisture to pass through. These garments let us layer fleece and other wicking fabrics underneath them for warm, dry comfort.

What’s the ultimate cold weather/water garment? For more extreme conditions, it has to be the modern drysuit. Everything but your head and hands can be covered in waterproof, breathable material. US Coast Guard regulations require their small boat crews to wear drysuits whenever water temperature is 50 degrees or lower.

What’s the best combination of clothing for your boating conditions? As we said at the beginning, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. However, there are individual answers for you. If you still have questions, contact us by phone or email. We'd love to help you find the apparel you need to extend your season safely and comfortably.