As the spring thaw FINALLY shows up in the northern states, paddlers of all levels want to hit the water. Many of these paddlers, have no concept of the dangers of early season kayaking. Every year, we all hear various news reports of poor decision-making instances or worse yet, fatalities. Majority of these recorded kayak related events happen to paddlers who don’t have the knowledge, the safety gear, or the proper kayak. The most dishearten aspect to these occurrences – it could have been avoided. Today, I will cover cold weather-related injuries and proper paddle clothing for the late winter/early spring season.
Let’s take a look at a typical day these problematic events take place. It’s early March, the snow is melting, the rivers are up, ice is slowly leaving the launches/shorelines. The air temps are in the 40’s bright and sunny day, little winds, and calm waters….. So, where is the harm in that? Well, as mentioned in a previous blog about trip planning – one also must take in consideration another other factor – Water Temperature. Without proper paddle clothing, cold water can and will KILL. Even with the proper paddling clothing, one can feel the chill of the water – but it extends the survival time and increases chances surviving the cold water. This is assuming one has a 100% effective self-rescue technique, or their paddle buddy can provide an assisted rescue – and has practiced these rescues in this type of environment.
How cold is too cold to paddle and what should I wear?
That is really best answered with this thought perspective – dress as if you WILL have to do a wet exit, and be in the water for at least 10 minutes. Plus, the additional time paddling back to your car – or a place to get out of those wet clothes. One of the best items to extend your paddling season – as well as survivability – is to wear a dry suit. Dry suits are basically a full body suit which has [usually] latex gaskets at the neck and wrists. These are designed to be fairly tight against the skin – and act as a water barrier from touching the rest of your body (or one can think of them as a human sized Ziplock bag). Dry suits work by keeping the water out and off your body – but offer no real insulating properties. To help insulate, one wears base layers (think fleece-like materials, Morino wool, or long johns made from polypropylene). One way to grasp if you are going to be under dressed for the water temperature is to actually stand chest deep in the water you are going to paddle. You will quickly realize if you are under dressed, for the conditions – but close to the shoreline to make adjustments before you paddle. One can over dress for the occasion just as easily – frequent stops or a slower paddle pace will aid in the heat build-up (along with consumption of hydrating fluids).
Dry suits will offer the protection to your core body and most of those vital organs… but, what about the hands, head and feet? There is numerous specific paddling clothing out there for the cooler weather. Many scuba dive shops have these items in stock. Materials made out of neoprene is usually the first choice to offer protection from the water, since it has some repelling factors (the skin can still get wet and cool – but it offers a level of protection). There are thickness levels from the lowest 0.5 mm (65 to 75 degree water), 6 mm (water from 45 to 50 degrees) and upwards to 10 mm (scuba cold water dives). As the thickness increases, the more protection they offer, but mobility is restricted. For some ideas of what to wear besides a dry or a wet suit, may I offer reading this?
What happens if I do fall into cold water?
Cold water injuries can happen in any water below 60 degrees. Living in Wisconsin, the water in smaller inland lakes, and rivers will may reach 60 degrees around May (sometimes), Lake Michigan usually gets to that temperature early July, sometimes late June – Yes, there have been ice floats in the waters on Memorial Day. This is all weather dependent and many continuous days above 70 will aid in warming that water.
What are some types of Cold weather injuries:
- Chilblain is a non-freezing injury that can occur after 1-5 hours in cold-wet conditions when skin temperature is > 32°F/0°C. The most commonly affected areas are the dorsal surface of the fingers, but the ears, face, and other exposed skin are also areas of occurrence. There are no lasting effects from chilblains.
- Frostbite accounts for the largest number of injuries each year and occurs when tissue temperature falls below ~28-30°F. Frostbite can occur suddenly due to contact to cold metal or super-cooled liquids such as alcohol, fuel or antifreeze or can develop over time due to prolonged cold exposure. Frostbite is most common in exposed skin such as the hands, nose, ears, and cheeks but can also occur in the feet or in the hands while wearing gloves due to inadequate insulation and reduced skin blood flow.
- Hypothermia is defined as a body core temperature below 95°F/35°C. Hypothermia is usually characterized as mild, moderate, or severe, based on body core temperature. Hypothermia occurs when heat loss is greater than heat production. This can occur suddenly, such as during partial or total immersion in cold water, or over hours or days, such as during extended operations or survival situations.
- Vigorous shivering is typically present. Shivering may decrease or cease as core temperature continues to fall.
- Onset of hypothermia is typically associated with the so-called “umbles”, the grumbles, mumbles, stumbles and fumbles that increase as cold affects muscle and nerve function.
- Symptoms of hypothermia consist of confusion, sleepiness, slurred speech, shallow breathing, weak pulse, low blood pressure, change in behavior and/or poor control over body movements/slow reactions.
Stress upon the body:
Let’s understand what happens when a paddler falls into the cold water. There is a simple concept called the 1-10-1 rule, which is the current thought process among instructors. The first thing which will commonly happen is a cold shock reflex – a gasp from the mouth and the escaping of precious oxygen. We all have been there, when the water temperature in the shower goes from warm to bitter cold. We jump back, shriek, and say a few choice words. Instinctually, we move away from this, and luckily, we are in an oxygen rich environment while in the shower. However, many times when one falls into the water it is not intentional and preparations to hold your breath are seldom. Within the first minute, your body reacts violently to this immense temperature change. In order to conserve the vital organs, the body works in overdrive. The brain reacts by releasing various chemicals into the blood steam. Blood vessels begin constricting to the extremities. Hyperventilation (excessive breathing) takes place to aid the increased heart rate which is attempting to pump the blood to your body. If one is not wearing a life jacket (which aids in keeping your head afloat the water), the amount of energy expended -attempting to keep your head above the water- during this initial minute can enhance preexisting health problems (heart/lungs/circulation).
If healthy enough, had previously practiced cold weather wet exits (controlled environment), and wearing proper paddle clothing/life vest- your chances for surviving increase dramatically, However as I mentioned previously, even with this proper clothing, one can still feel the coolness of the water, but at least we are not completely wet and cold. After that initial one minute of cold shock, your body goes into survival mode. This is your window for getting back into the kayak. If alone, whatever solid self-rescue skill you have, you must pick that one – this is not the time to test out a new rescue. Concentrate on the task at hand, make this quick and effective use of your time. The longer you are in that cold water your ability to concentrate, effective use of your fingers, arms and legs decreases. If you can not get back into your kayak after two attempts, call for help! If the shoreline is close enough for a two minute or less swim – swim to shore without your kayak. These are critical minutes before the body goes into the next stages. If paddling with a buddy the dry one must remain calm, provide clear, concise, and simple instructions during an assisted rescue.
Depending on what paddle clothing you are wearing, water temperature, and how long you have been in the cold water will dictate your survival rate. Hypothermia will begin shortly after that second stage (the 10-minute window). If separated from your kayak (or you can’t see it) get into a fetal position to help conserve energy and loss of body heat. A person has approximately one hour to remain conscious before extreme hypothermia leads to death.
Once able to rescue yourself from the above, seek warm shelter, get out of the wet clothing immediately and into dry clothing. If needed, seek additional professional medical attention. When paddling with friends – have them help you get out of those clothes and warm up. Have a buddy system ‘group hug’ to increase the body heat of the victim.
Early season paddling can be just as enjoyable as any other time of the year, when extra precautions are taken. Taking those precautions are not totally infallible, but offers additional time and protection when in the elements – and future experiences on the water.Stay safe, my friends.
For the Paddler Within….