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What To Wear Kayaking: Best Materials To Face The Winter Cold

Summer is coming to a close, and fall is upon us. This will be followed by Old Man Winter. But this is no reason to hang up your boats. In fact, fall and winter paddling can be some of the most fun of the year.

In the late season, there will be fewer boats on the water, and certainly less water skiers and jet skis. Your paddling can be much more quiet and civilized. Since the lakes and rivers are less active, you can see more wildlife, and fish are not as spooked. And let’s not forget the beautiful foliage as it turns to it’s autumn colors. There is something almost mystical about a snow-covered shoreline. Fall and winter are my favorite times to hit the water.

Signs of Hypothermia While Kayaking in The Cold

Hypothermia is a real danger, and one many do not take into account. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops to 95⁰F or below. This can occur at temperatures as high as 60⁰F depending on the wind and humidity, or in water as warm as 70⁰F, given enough time. Being wet increases your body’s heat loss by as much as 40%, and in a canoe or kayak, you are going to get wet. Wind Chill increases these values exponentially.

You should pay close attention to how you feel in cooler weather, especially on the water. You should head for shore at the first signs of hypothermia. Early warning signs are:

  • Numb feet and/or hands, which can make performing tasks more difficult
  • Apathy (lack of interest or concern)
  • Bad judgement
  • Becoming unsteady
  • Slurred speech
  • Shivering
  • Cold, pale skin

As hypothermia increases, so do the symptoms:

  • Slowing pulse
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Drowsiness or becoming sleepy
  • Shivering stops
  • Stiff muscles
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Unconsciousness

If you run across anyone with any of these symptoms, remove them to a warm place and get medical help ASAP. Wrap them in blankets and cover their head with a cap, or wraps. Do not give them alcohol under any circumstances. Alcohol actually lowers the body’s temperature. If they are conscious and appear to be able to drink without choking, warm beverages are OK. The main thing is to get them to medical help as soon as possible. This is nothing to play around with. Hypothermia can be fatal, and has been for way too many people.

If you prepare properly, hypothermia should not be an issue.

Always keep in mind what the weather conditions are, and may be for the area you are in. In the South, your preparations may be easier due to the milder climates. Up North, be prepared for anything.  Never go out without checking the forecasts for where you plan to paddle.

Dress For Success: The Best Clothing Materials For Kayaking

It’s difficult to change clothes in a kayak. So you need to be judicious in what you wear. The first consideration is the materials.

Kayaking in the cold requires the correct gear and preparation.

Cotton

Unless it is summertime, cotton is out. Cotton breathes, but it also does not hold in heat, and when wet, can actually suck heat from your body, as well as become very heavy. It also does nothing to stop the wind. Save the cotton stuff for the dog days of summer. As far as outdoors are concerned…Cotton Kills.

Wool

Wool is outstanding for outdoor wear. It breathes, wicks moisture away from your skin, and will hold in body heat even when wet. The outside layer of wool is water-repellent, and wool can hold up to 30% of its weight in water without feeling damp or clammy. If your afraid wool might be itchy, then use it as an insulation layer. For insulation, it’s hard to beat.

Silk

Silk is a very comfortable and light material that wicks moisture away from your skin, but is surprisingly warm. Silk long handles (underwear) are a good choice as a base layer. Nothing feels quite as good as silk against your skin. Sleep under some silk sheets sometime and you’ll know what I mean.

Synthetics

Synthetics are the new go to clothing for active wear nowadays. And for good reason. Polypropylene has many of the same qualities as silk and more, at a fraction of the cost. It feels great, is light and comfortable, wicks moisture, is somewhat water-repellent, and also stops wind. It would be hard to find a better base layer. Microfiber is as warm as wool, lighter, more water-repellent, still keeps you warm even when wet, and is washable. It makes a great insulation layer. Modern Fleece is a synthetic with all the properties of sheep fleece, but it is washable and odor-free. And lastly, the king of outdoor materials-Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex is water-proof (and I did say waterproof, not water-repellant), wind-proof, and breathable. There is a reason why they use Gore-Tex to make space suits. It is a little more expensive than other materials, but more than worth it.

Neoprene

The last material to consider is neoprene, which is a type of rubber. Neoprene rubber is used to make wetsuits. They are called wetsuits because they keep you warm by letting in just a little water and allows your body heat to warm it. Wetsuits work surprisingly well down to around water temperatures of below 45⁰F, but If the water is colder than 45⁰F, I would recommend a dry, or immersion suit instead. Believe it or not, a good pair of neoprene chest waders works really well in a kayak to keep you warm. I use them all the time. And don’t worry. The idea of your neoprene waders filling with water if you go into the drink is a myth. I have tested this myself. The water pressure squeezes the fabric against your skin so very little water gets in, and if you wear a chest belt, it limits it even further. And or course, you will be wearing a life jacket, so there is no danger of your waders drowning you.

Facing the Cold: Putting On The Layers

Any outdoor enthusiast with experience will tell you that the best thing is to dress in layers. There are a few reasons for this. The first is storage space, which is limited for hikers and paddlers. In fact, you can just think of yourself as an aquatic hiker. All the same rules apply. Instead of carrying extra clothes, you just wear them. The next reason is that if it gets warm, you can peel the layers down, and put them back on if it gets cooler later.

There are three layers you need to wear (I am not counting underwear. On that you can wear what you want….). The layer next to your skin is the Base Layer. It needs to be breathable and wick moisture away from your skin. The next layer will be the Insulating Layer, and needs to be warm, wick moisture, and be able to keep you warm even when wet. The last layer is the Shell Layer, and needs to be water-repellent, and wind-proof.

Waterproof fabric is essential.

A good example would be a Base Layer of silk, an Insulating Layer of fleece, and a Shell Layer of nylon. This is just an example, and there are many choices for each layer. Just do a little research and find what suits you the best.

There is one more layer that I highly recommend. I call it the Head Layer, and it one of the most overlooked, yet important areas. Your body loses 40-50% of its heat through your head, no matter what the temperature is. Are your feet cold? Don’t bother putting on heavier socks. It won’t help. When you lose heat, your body sets priorities, with the head being first. Your brain will slow down blood flow to the extremities if it needs to conserve heat. The way to fix this is to slow down the heat loss through the head by putting on a cap or hat. This is why in the Olden Days, people wore Nightcaps to bed…to keep their feet warm. Most of us old-timers have always known this, but if any of you doubt it, next time your feet are cold, put on a cap and you will be amazed at the almost immediate effect. I also knit, so I make a lot of beanie hats (which are the best outdoor hat there is). Of course, cotton is out, but any good acrylic hat works great, and the best of all is…you guessed it, wool. Wool caps feel wonderful, are warm and cozy, still work when wet, are washable if you use SuperWash Wool, and is very easy to work with. If you don’t knit, beanie hats are very reasonably priced, and you should have several. They can be wadded up and stuffed in a pocket, stored in a glovebox or dry box, and even used as a hand warmer and carrying bag. Everyone needs a couple of good beanie hats.

If you use a little good judgement in preparing for your paddle trip, no matter what time of year, you should be alright. Remember, people never plan to fail …they just fail to plan!

Happy paddling

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