Cold Water Layering
Year-round boating is the ideal for many of us. For most areas of the country, this means we will be boating at least part of the year in cold-water conditions. Boating is a water sport – let’s face it, getting wet happens and water is approximately 25-times more efficient than air at drawing heat away from your body. This means once you get wet, your body is more prone to excessive heat loss. This condition, known as hypothermia, causes more cold-water boating deaths each year than drowning. Check out Cold Water Protection & Hypothermia for more information on the effects of cold water heat loss.
The key to protecting yourself from that heat loss is the simple concept of wearing multiple layers that will retain your body heat when you get wet. Layering lets you add or remove pieces as the day’s conditions change, helping your body maintain a safe, comfortable temperature. Typically there are three main components of an efficient layering system – the base layers, insulating layers and the outer layers.
The Base Layer
Start with a moisture-wicking layer next to the skin. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon and polypropylene don’t absorb water and move moisture from your skin to outer layers. Merino wool wicks moisture and is comfortable against the skin, unlike traditional wool. Do not wear cotton, it's comfortable when dry but absorbs water and dries slowly, losing its insulating value when wet. We have base layer options for both men and women.
Over the base layer you want one or more garments to hold in your body heat. These can be synthetic or wool fabric pieces of varying weight and thickness or a neoprene garment, or any combination of these pieces. The synthetic and wool fabrics are breathable, light-weight, and afford good freedom of movement. The synthetic fibers won’t absorb moisture, but rather allow the water to radiate away from your body, keeping you more comfortable as you generate heat while paddling. Merino wool, on the other hand, absorbs up to 30% of its weight in water while still maintaining its insulating value. This characteristic of wool helps it keep you warm when conditions are cold and cool when it’s warm. Check out fabric insulating layers for men and women.
Another consideration for wool is that it’s a natural fiber that is renewable. Merino has the advantage over traditional wool of being a very fine fiber that does not prickle or itch when worn against the skin. And, it doesn’t hold odor, no stink! Any of the merino wool garments found in the Base Layer section can work well in your layering system.
Neoprene is a closed cell rubber material that is an excellent insulator. It also offers impact protection as well as extra body flotation. Thicker neoprene will be warmer but more restrictive to your body movements. If warmth is your main concern, you’ll be well covered in our men’s and women’s wetsuits. Thinner neoprene will stretch much more easily, but won’t be quite as warm. If your priority is mobility, check out our men’s and women’s HydroSkin, a line of thinner neoprene garments that give considerable warmth with the comfort and mobility of thinner layers. All NRS neoprene garments are made with glue layers between the inner and outer nylon fabrics and the neoprene foam that contains tiny particles of titanium metal. These shiny metal particles reflect back your body’s heat and significantly increase warmth.
Wind and waterproof outer garments round out your body core protection system. An outer layer made with a fabric featuring a breathable coating or laminate is definitely preferable. This will allow perspiration moisture to pass out of the garment, keeping the inner layers drier and significantly increasing your comfort and warmth levels.
Outer layers come in many shapes and sizes, but there are three main types: splash wear, dry wear and semi-dry wear. Splash wear is simply any waterproof outer layer that is designed to keep your under layers dry if you get splashed or rained on. If you’re using neoprene as your insulation layer, wearing a waterproof garment over it will cut down on evaporative cooling from the wet outer fabric of the wetsuit. If you go for a swim in splash wear, your inner layers will get wet. (Men’s jackets and pants; women’s jackets and pants.)
To keep water out during immersion, you need dry wear garments that have latex gaskets at the openings. Drysuits are the ultimate option for immersion protection. With their waterproof zippers and gaskets at the neck, wrist and ankles, they’ll keep water out of your inner layers. A number of our drysuits now come with waterproof socks. (Men’s drysuits and women’s drysuits.)
A drytop and dry pant combination may leak a very small amount at the waist juncture due to torso movement, but you’ll stay dry enough to be safe during a swim. (Men’s drytops and dry pants; women’s drytops and dry pants.)
Semi-drywear splits the difference between the other two styles. There are semi-dry tops and some semi-dry suits on the market. Typically, they will feature latex gaskets at the wrists (and ankles, on a suit) only. The neck usually features a punch through neoprene “gasket” or an adjustable neoprene cuff of some sort. Semi-dry wear is a great option for touring and recreational kayakers and rafters, who want to prevent water entering their inner layers at the wrist and ankle and don’t need quite such a water-tight seal at the neck. (Men’s semi-drywear and women’s semi-drywear.)
Don’t Forget the Extremities
You lose a lot of heat from your head. Caps or helmet liners made of neoprene or synthetic fibers can really keep you warmer. Footwear and gloves for boating are generally made with neoprene as the insulating material. If you find your fingers and toes getting really cold at times, a helmet liner will help cure this as much as gloves and booties will. Keeping your head warm creates a chain reaction that you’ll notice all the way through your body. Additionally, gloves and boots provide increased grip and traction while they insulate. You can add neoprene socks and glove liners for even more protection from the cold. (Men’s footwear and gloves; women’s footwear and gloves.)
Questions to ask yourself before boating on cold water:
- How cold will the water and air temperatures be?
- In the past, how comfortable have you been at those temperatures?
- What’s the weather forecast?
- How experienced are your boating companions?
- How reliable are your self-rescue skills?
- How easily can you get to land to warm up and change to dry clothing, if need be?
Things to consider when boating on cold water:
- You’re engaging in a water sport – exposure to water is going to occur.
- Dress for the worst-case scenario you may face, usually a long swim.
- Have apparel that you can layer together to adjust to changing conditions
- Don’t forget your PFD. It acts as an insulating layer and will keep you afloat while you’re recovering from a swim.
- Practice self-rescue techniques.
- Test your cold weather apparel by taking a dip in it.
- Check with local boaters, boating clubs and search and rescue organizations for gear recommendations.
- Bring high-energy snacks and lots of liquids. A thermos of something hot is good to have along.
- Remember – going out boating is optional, coming back safely from a trip is MANDATORY!