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Monday, January 17, 2011

Some cold facts on kayaking safety

Cold season kayaking in Northern California is easy, compared to many other parts of the country. Midwestern paddlers have been known to hook their kayaks up to sled dog teams and mush across the frozen tundra. But make no mistake, cold can be a killer anywhere.

The other night, three Sacramento area kayak groups met to discuss safety tips for cold season paddling and watch the following video. Most surprising point? Forget hypothermia – cold shock (hyperventilating) and cold incapacitation (nerve/muscle failure) pose the greatest dangers in the first few minutes after your boat tips over. It may take an hour for hypothermia to set in.

To me, the key safety points for cold weather paddling are (1) always wear a PFD, and (2) paddle with people who know how to rescue and treat a victim in cold water.

On a secondary level, consider cold season clothing. Dry suits are a logical first choice, but they’re very expensive, plus the neoprene gaskets must fit tightly and be maintained to remain watertight.

A wet suit, supplemented by appropriate outerwear, is one alternative for more casual paddlers. And recently, I’ve run across some other clothing with advice from NorCal Yak friend Stacey, a helpful rep at Outdoorplay. At her suggestion, I tried an Immersion Research “thick skin kayak shirt” (above). It’s made from light, stretchy fleece and, when worn with a base layer, provided exceptional warmth and comfort. On a calm, foggy day with temperatures in the low 50s, I didn’t need a splash jacket, though this pullover is designed as mid-layer wear.

 Another option is the “Hydro” clothing line from NRS. Think of “Hydroskin” as a very thin, neoprene-like material – not as warm as the regular stuff, but more flexible. There’s also “Hydrosilk,” a nylon base layer (at right). While these materials feel nice, their skintight fit may lead to blushing, if not claustrophobia. Of course, this  clothing fits tight for warmth, so you may or may not want to size-up, depending on your comfort zone.

Speaking of comfort, as Northern California weather begins to warm up, we’ll see days when the air feels balmy – though water temperatures will stay in Sierra snowmelt range. In other words, a perfect setup for cold shock and worse. So as the saying goes, “Dress for the water, not the weather.”

More tips on cold season paddling:
How to stay warm before you go out on the water.
Advice from a Northeastern outfitter.
A sea kayaking guide to cold hazards.
And a first-person story about a kayaker's close call with cold water.