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How to Choose Cold-Water Apparel for Paddling

ArticleJune 13, 2011

It’s early October. We’re past the autumnal equinox, and fall is officially here. At NRS, we’re already getting the phone calls and emails… “I want to start boating in the colder months of the year. What kind of gear do I need?”

Hmm, that’s a darn good question. But you know what? It’s hard to give you a darn good answer.

It would be a lot different if you told us, “I have an NRS 14' Otter. What kind of frame should I get that would allow me to carry a cooler and a dry box and a set-up for a friend fishing in the front of the raft?” With that much info, we can dial in your needs very easily.

So why can’t we easily do the same for the protective apparel you need to wear when boating in the colder months? Because the question is much more complex, and it involves your safety – something we take a very personal interest in. Here are some of the factors, in no particular order, that figure into what you need to wear:

  • Water temperature. Water conducts heat away from your body 25 times more efficiently than air. The best advice is “dress for the swim.” The colder the water, the faster your body will lose heat.
  • Personal comfort range. Here at NRS, in northern Idaho, we have some folks that wear shorts even in the winter. And, we have others that have heaters running under their desks in the summer months. Only you know how your body works.
  • Water conditions. Are you fishing from a raft, in Class I-II waters or running a remote Class IV river? Are you paddling the inlets of a lazy river or lake observing wildlife or on a multiday trip making open ocean crossings?
  • If you do go for a swim, how long are you likely to be in the water? Are you in conditions where you won’t be in the water long and can get to shore easily to warm up and get into dry clothes? Or are you on that open ocean crossing, in heavy seas?

The bottom line is: cold water kills. As internationally recognized water safety expert Charlie Walbridge points out in Cold Water Protection and Hypothermia, as the body’s internal temperature drops, automatic responses begin in the attempt to keep the major organs and functions protected. These responses rapidly lead to loss of manual dexterity, uncontrollable shivering and diminished mental facilities. These inhibit your ability to self-rescue and make the decisions necessary for your survival.

And while a cold-water swim is probably the worst case scenario, you don’t have to go in the drink to suffer hypothermia. If you get wet from splash or rain and don’t have on the proper clothing, evaporative cooling can also rapidly draw heat from your body.

In addition to protective clothing, proper nutrition and hydration play an important role in keeping you warm and safe. Fueling the Fires Within lays out guidelines for the food and beverage needs your body has.

Okay, so at this point you’re probably saying, “Alright, I hear all that, but my original question still stands. What kind of gear do I need for cold water boating?” If you call or email us with the question, we’ll do our best to help you get outfitted.

Here’s some “homework” you can do that will also help you make the best choices in gear and at the same time possibly lead to some new boating buddies!

First read Layering for Cold Water Boating. It describes the various types of apparel that you need to consider: base layers, insulating layers and protective outer layers.

Next, become informed about local conditions. Talk to your local boating shop, you can find them by using our Dealer Locator feature. They’re familiar with conditions in your area and have our apparel in their store that you can try on and purchase.

Talk to other boaters. Look for a boating club in your area. Go to boating forums like BoaterTalk. Paddling.com, MountainBuzz and Playak.com to find other boaters. Find out what other boaters are wearing.

If there’s no boating shop in your area, give us a call, 877.677.4327, and we’ll help you get outfitted for safe and enjoyable boating. Help us out by having answers to the questions we posed earlier: local water temperatures, boating conditions, etc.

Here are some hints to assist you:

  • Just as with outfitting yourself for other outdoor activities in cold weather, plan your boating apparel with layers. If you’re wearing a wetsuit, consider adding a HydroSkin shirt for extra body core and arm warmth. With a drysuit you can add and subtract insulating base layers to match the boating temperature conditions.
  • Pay attention to your extremities. The head is a major source of heat loss. Mystery Helmet Liners and Hoods are a great addition to your gear bag. Insulated footwear and neoprene socks protect your feet from the cold and neoprene gloves keep your hands warm.
  • Each of our product pages has a sizing guide. Always look at them to find the best size for you. In snug fitting items like wetsuits, if some of your measurements fall in two different sizes, usually your weight is the best determiner of a good fit.
  • You need more than the right apparel to be safe on the water. Don’t forget safety items like PFDs, helmets, rescue throw bags, paddle floats, tow tethers and tow lines. They’re important any time of the year, but even more so when the water’s cold and the margins of safety are even narrower. And with these safety items, as well as your protective clothing, practice with them in realistic conditions. Put on your boating apparel and get in the water to see what it feels like to go for a swim in cold water. Practice with your throw bag, tow lines and other rescue gear. Search out rescue and safety training instructional courses in your area.
  • Find more information on choosing apparel, boating skills and safety in the Learn links in the column to the left of this article.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to order your gear. If something doesn’t fit properly, just send it back with our Hassle Free Returns process for a size exchange. We’ll ship the new size out at no additional expense to you.

Boating apparel has come a long way in the past few years. We have a wide range of excellent choices to outfit you, no matter where and when you’re boating. Don’t go out on the water without the proper protective gear; it’s not safe and it won’t be as enjoyable.

Boat Often and Boat Safe!