Cold-Water Layering

ArticleMay 24, 2011

Cold-water layering: base layersYear-round boating is the ideal for many of us. In most areas of this country, and many other parts of the world, this means boating at least part of the year in cold-water conditions. Since water is approximately 25 times more efficient than air at drawing heat away from your body, you need protective apparel to prevent excessive heat loss.

Boaters, like other outdoor adventurers, are wise to adopt a layering system for that thermal protection. Layers allow you to add and remove pieces to match changing conditions, and help your body maintain a safe, comfortable temperature. These layers fall generally into three categories: base layers, insulating layers and outer layers.

Base Layers

Start with a moisture-wicking layer next to the skin. Synthetic fabrics such as nylon, polyester and polypropylene don’t absorb water and they 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 is comfortable when dry but absorbs water, dries slowly and loses its insulating value when wet.

The NRS sun protection apparel line is designed specifically for paddlers. Perfectly placed seams create friction-free zones where other clothing rubs paddlers wrong. The advanced fabrics wick moisture, dry quickly and protect from harmful UV rays. Wear them solo in warmer weather, and layer them when it’s colder.

The line is divided into the following weights:

  • Silkweight: 5.4 oz. polyester/spandex blend, regular fit, UPF 50+ sun protection.
  • Rashguard: 6.3 oz. nylon/spandex blend, form fit eliminates excess material under other layers, maximum UPF 50+ sun protection. Often worn under neoprene garments to prevent chaffing.
  • Lightweight: 5.2 oz. polyester/spandex blend, regular fit for layering underneath, UPF 50+ sun protection. Provides extra warmth.
  • Expedition Weight: 7.1 oz. polyester/spandex blend, ranges from regular to form fit depending on the apparel piece. Provides excellent warmth. Works especially well under drywear.

Insulating Layers

Fabric base-layer garments hold in your body’s heat, but need to be kept dry under splash or dry wear. On the other hand, neoprene garments work well in the wet. Neoprene rubber foam contains thousands of tiny gas bubbles that slow down heat transfer. Neoprene garments need to fit skin tight to minimize cold-water entry.

  • HydroSkin® in 0.5, 1.0 and 1.5 mm neoprene thicknesses, works great by itself in cooler water and can be layered with other HydroSkin pieces or thicker wetsuit garments.
  • Boaters need upper body mobility for paddling and rowing, so they usually limit neoprene thickness to 3-4 mm.
Cold-water layering: Insulating Layers

Outer Layers

Windproof and waterproof outer garments round out your body’s core protection system. An outer layer made with a material featuring a breathable coating or membrane is definitely preferable. This allows perspiration moisture to pass out of the garment, keeping the inner layers drier and significantly increasing your comfort and warmth levels.

  • 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.
  • Semi-dry wear is your next step-up in protection. These garments, in tops and full suits, use either neoprene gaskets, or a combination of neoprene and latex gaskets, to block water entry. Neoprene gaskets aren’t as efficient at keeping water out as latex, but they’re more comfortable and less expensive.
  • Drywear can be separate tops and pants, or full-coverage drysuits. These garments use latex gaskets and latex or fabric socks to totally block water entry. This totally dry system allows you to customize your comfort and protection level by adjusting your under layers to match weather and water conditions.

Your Extremities

These areas of your body lose heat quickly. Neoprene gloves, shoes and headwear are necessary to keep hands, feet and head warm.

Why You Really Need to Dress Based on Water Temperature

  • Always dress as though you expect to swim. Since water sucks heat away from your body 25 times faster than air, going into the water unprotected can be deadly.
  • Don’t think you will go for a swim? Ever hear of the Law of Unintended Consequences, or Murphy’s Law? “It will never happen to me” is simply denying reality.

Going for a swim inadequately protected is dangerous in several ways.

  • Flipping into cold water produces a gasp reflex and hyperventilation breathing that can cause you to suck in water and lead to quick drowning. This is often referred to as “cold shock drowning.”
  • Immersion in cold water rapidly cools the body causing a loss of muscle mobility and brain function. This makes it hard to self rescue and to keep your head out of the water. Wearing a life jacket helps keep you buoyant but in rough water as you become impaired you can still suck in water and drown.
  • And, with long term immersion in colder water, heat loss leads to hypothermia, where the body’s core temperature drops below the point where your metabolism and organs can maintain life.

There is no magic formula that answers the question, “When the water is xx-degrees, what should I wear to be safe?” Your tolerance to cold, physical condition, distance from land where you’re paddling, your self-rescue skills, skills of your boating companions, and other factors are variables that affect your choices.

How to Choose Your Layering System

  • Consult your local paddlesports dealer to find out what’s recommended for conditions in your area.
  • Seek out boating clubs in your area and learn from their experience.
  • Go to boating forums like Paddling.Net, BoaterTalk and MountainBuzz.
  • Call NRS at 877.677.4327 or email

Once You’ve Gotten Your Cold-Water Gear

  • Get in the water with it! Do this in safe conditions, close to shore, with buddies there to help if you get in trouble.
  • Experience what it feels like to plunge into cold water. Did your gear protect you from that gasp reflex? How long can you stay in the water dressed like this?
  • Learn from that experience. Adjust your layering accordingly.
  • Regularly repeat this experience. Practice self rescue in water temperatures you’re boating in.
  • Always boat with others; there’s safety in numbers.
  • Always wear your life jacket. Always.