Written by Beth Poliquin, Team Grey Duck
It has been approximately six months since my last paddle. The last time I went this long without being on the water was years ago. You can probably imagine how I'm feeling. I'm ready to get back out there! The lakes around where we live in northern Maine are just starting to break free from winter's icy grasp and the river is finally navigable with melt-off.
Spring is springing in most parts of the US. However, water is slower to heat up (and cool down) than air which can yield a sixty degree, sunny spring day with a lake temperature of 45 degrees or lower. No matter your skill level, a paddler should always be prepared for immersion because the body will lose heat in water four times faster than in air of the same temperature. That doesn't mean you need to wait until summer to enjoy the water, it just means cold water paddling requires extra considerations even as the air starts to warm up.
Different people have different definitions of cold. When I lived in Hawaii, I got pretty used to the 80 degree ocean and it didn't have to be much colder than that for me to be uncomfortable. Personal preferences aside, water that is 60 degrees or below can quickly lower body temperature to a dangerous level. Falling in the water can literally take your breath away as your nervous system automatically responds to the cold. Gasping for air can make it harder to stay calm and get back on your board quickly. Wearing your properly fitting personal floatation device (PFD) will make this easier and it also provides some insulation for your core. If it is tucked in the bungies on your deck, or somewhere on shore, it won't help you. If the water is cold, wear it.
Wearing a wetsuit or dry suit is the best way to safely paddle on cold water. A wetsuit is made of neoprene and comes in various thicknesses, measured in millimeters. As the name suggests, wetsuits let you get wet, but the snug fit keeps a little bit of water close to your skin where it gets warmed by your body. A common style for paddlers is called a Farmer John or Farmer Jane, which is a wetsuit without sleeves allowing for excellent shoulder mobility, usually 2-3mm thick. You can also find neoprene pants or capris and long or short sleeved tops to fit your preference for coverage. I always wear a sun shirt under my neoprene vest to wick moisture away from my skin. Unless both the air and water are hot, cotton clothing shouldn't be worn on the water because when it gets wet, it stays wet and cold. A dry suit, on the other hand, is a waterproof suit with latex gaskets at the wrists and neck to keep water out completely. These are specialized for more extreme conditions, and mine was a game changer for me on Lake Superior with water temperatures below 40 degrees. Neoprene boots and gloves can be worn with both wetsuits and dry suits.
Make sure to have warm clothes handy. Wool socks, a fleece and a towel will fit in a dry bag. As with any outdoor activity, a buddy can make an outing safer and more enjoyable. Always let someone know where you're going and when you expect to be back. Know your limits and have fun!