Layering for Cold Water Kayaking
I can hardly make myself do it. As I turn my salt incrusted dry top right side out I contemplate dawning a second under layer before throwing it on. The sun beats down on us from above turning the boat ramp into an open-air sweat lounge. Burrowing my way into yet another fleece is the last thing I want to do, but I know it's a must. I've spent my life discovering new places from the cockpit of my kayak and canoes. It's always a battle to strike the balance between preventing hypothermia in the event of an unexpected swim and remaining comfortable above the surface where most of our time is spent. The duality and contrast of environments is staggering. Paddling down mountain streams or in the Pacific Ocean's impressive swell during the warm summer months means simultaneously enjoying the warm air above while preventing disaster in the water below. The need to exist in these two very different environments puts high demands on our gear and our bodies.
With cold water immersion can come cold shock, hypothermia, and an increase risk of drowning. The Mammalian diving reflex can cause a person to reflexively inhale cold water when their face is immersed. We have a choice when preparing for our time on the water. While too many layers can make you a little sweaty, too few can be detrimental to your health or worse. Dressing for the air temperature is tempting since we spend a vast majority of our time above water, but it's critical to dress for the swim. Sure it's a bit warm as you prepare to launch, but it's EASY to cool down in cold water. Dress to swim and take a dip to cool off. Non-cotton layers will hold body heat even when wet and will dry out much faster than cotton. Around the river it's important to manage the moisture that is all around. Use the layer system. A close fitting base layer will help pull moisture from the surface of your skin. A thin second layer is often enough to provide some insulation and keep your core temperature up in the event of a swim. Whatever you do, avoid cotton in the water. Cotton kills!
For truly adventurous aquatic experiences that could likely result in prolonged periods of time in the water, you are faced with a choice. The great wetsuit vs. drysuit debate has been long fought over the years. Drysuits, with their latex gaskets and breathable membrane materials, have made significant gains in comfort and versatility because of their impressive comfort range and ability to alter warmth by adjusting layers underneath. Synthetic tops and bottoms are perfect for layering under your suit for maximum comfort and temperature control.
Not sure you need to sport so many layers and protection on your late summer paddling trip? Be sure to pack them along in some durable dry bags. I always pack an extra layer or two in a small, "hypothermia kit" along with emergency fire starter, a reflective heat blanket, and some fast snacks. During a long and sudden swim, proper protection can be the difference between an enjoyable summer outing and suddenly fighting for your life. Prevention is far better than cure when it comes to cold water, so wrestle on that extra layer and dress for the swim this summer!