hether canoe or kayak, the number of paddling enthusiasts grows every year. The reasons for paddling are as diverse as the people who take up paddles and venture into streams and oceans. Exercise is the goal of many paddlers but others enjoy the peace and quiet they find away from more traditional outdoor activities. Photographers and anglers can get to difficult to reach areas and families find paddling an activity that all members can take part in as they enjoy the togetherness that is so rare in today’s busy world. Paddling is fun, relaxing, and exciting but the thrill can turn to danger when paddling in cold water.
You already know the basics of paddling, hopefully from instructors who know what they’re doing. You know how to swim and have practiced self rescue. You have a personal flotation device (PFD), a paddle, and another person with you. But do you know how to prepare for cold water paddling and how to survive if you land in the water?
Hypothermia is the greatest risk in cold water paddling. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s internal temperature falls below 98.6 degrees to 95 degrees or less. The body’s vital organs and nervous system are at risk of shutting down. Cold temperatures and exposure to cold water are the most common reasons for hypothermia. In 50 degree water an adult dressed in regular clothes could hold on to consciousness for about two hours but drop that water temperature by ten degrees and survival could be less than an hour. The colder the water temperature, the shorter the survival time. Be proactive if you plan to do cold water paddling… plan ahead.
In case of immersion, wearing a PFD will keep your head out of the water and keep you afloat. Wearing the right clothing will give further protection and increase your chance of survival. Layers of outdoor clothing only create dead weight when wet. A wet suit is good for water temperatures of 50 degrees or warmer. A dry suit is the only real protection in colder water temperatures. Latex gaskets at openings keep water out of the dry suit, which is made of waterproof fabric. A dry suit is comfortable in most temperatures and offers protection in very cold water, the only gear that will. A dry suit is expensive but it could save your life.
Hands and feet also need protection from icy water. High top neoprene booties are first choice for cold water paddling. The over the ankle design helps keep water out and feet warm. Gloves are a personal choice but do wear them, preferably waterproof. Hands can become numb within minutes when exposed to 40 degree water and waterproof gloves will offer some protection.
Head coverings are essential when cold water paddling. The preferred headgear is a waterproof hood that fits snugly over the head, keeps out water, and holds in heat.
Not everyone enjoys cold water paddling, so fewer people are going to be around if an emergency happens. Be prepared.
* Remember that without a PFD, survival in cold water can be just minutes. Attach a whistle to it.
* Learn more about what to do in case of immersion in cold water and how best to survive.
* Know what lies on your route.
* Always let someone know where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone. Let that person know when you’ve returned.
* Have a way to contact help… cellphone, flares, or a loud horn.
* Have a bailer, a battery operated radio, dry clothes, food, and water with you.
* Check the weather forecast before you start out.
* Warm air does not mean warm water.
* No alcohol allowed.
* Keep your dry suit closed. Opening it to allow a breeze defeats the purpose
* Know your limitations and those of your companions.
* Have a plan in mind in case of emergency. Put one person in charge of decision making and abide by those decisions.
Cold water paddling is an adventure not to be taken lightly but knowing the risks ahead of time will greatly reduce the chance of them actually happening. Be prepared, be safe, have fun.