A couple of the students in my class today referred to my previous blog post as the “scary blog”. Well now that I have your attention, I’ll move on to the particulars of how to dress in order to avoid the kinds of problems I talked about in the “scary blog”.
The first thing you need to know is what the water temperature is going to be in the area you are going to paddle. On the Great Lakes, there are websites that will give you this kind of information. On smaller lakes, you may need to bring a thermometer. After many years of paddling in southeast Wisconsin, I often take an educated guess based on the time of year and the kind of weather we’ve had. On inland lakes in July and August, paddling attire is probably a swimsuit or synthetic shorts and t-shirt. When the water temperature is in the mid to upper 70’s or above, that is probably just fine. If you feel comfortable wading in and taking a 10 minute swim in whatever you are wearing, you are most likely dressed appropriately for the water temperature. (This does not include a polar bear swim.)
There is a “rule of thumb” out there that you may have heard. When the air and water temperature added together are less than 120 degrees, you should be wearing a wetsuit. Please keep in mind that this rule is really just a suggestion. If the air temperature is 85 degrees, but the water temperature is still 40 degrees, you need to be wearing a wetsuit or drysuit even though the combined temperature is 125. When water temperatures are below 70 degrees, you should be thinking about wearing some kind of thermal protection from the water temperature regardless of the air temperature. However, what you wear is going to depend on exactly how cold the water is, how cold the air temperature is, how easily you get cold in the water, how strong the wind is, and how quickly you are able to get out of the water following a capsize. In other words, the answer is not going to be the same for every paddler. A 250-pound guy is probably not going to need as much protection from the cold as a 90-pound woman even though the water temperature is the same. If the water is 60 degrees, you will dress differently on a 65-degree day than you would on an 80-degree day. 75-degree air temperatures will not feel as warm when there is a 15-mile-per-hour wind as it would on a calm, sunny day. A highly skilled paddler with a solid Eskimo roll will not need to dress as warmly as a novice paddler with limited rescue practice. Essentially, you are going to have to make some educated guesses about what to wear, and then start doing some careful experiments to see if you have guessed correctly. As I said in the previous paragraph, you should be dressed warmly enough that you could spend at least a comfortable 10 minutes in the water. If you are a beginner, you better make that more like a comfortable 20 minutes in the water since it may take you longer to get back into your kayak. To test out your clothing choices, get in the water near shore before going out to paddle and see how it feels. If you are not dressed warmly enough that you are prepared to do a swimming test, you probably aren’t dressed warmly enough to go paddling. Do your testing with dry clothes and a warm car nearby in case you have overestimated the water temperature.
So what are your clothing options? A common choice is to buy a 3mm farmer john-style wetsuit (sleeveless) and pair that with some kind of synthetic shirt and a paddle jacket for protection from wind chill when you are back in your kayak. This was my first purchase when I got started kayaking. A newer, and more comfortable option, is the NRS Hydroskins separates. You can get long pants, shorts, a long-sleeve shirt, and a short-sleeve shirt all made of a 0.5mm neoprene with a titanium coating. The advantage to this system is that you can mix and match the pieces for different air and water temperatures. These four pieces, along with a paddle jacket, will get you through most of the spring through fall paddling season and are much more comfortable to wear than your standard 1-piece wetsuit. They are, however, a bit more expensive. What you wear under your wetsuit or Hydroskins perhaps falls under the heading of “too much information”, but it is a question that I get asked. For women, it is usually a bathing suit. I recommend a 2-piece suit. For guys, it could be a speedo, a pair of lycra shorts, or synthetic underwear. Don’t wear the cotton “tidy whiteys”. They will get wet and uncomfortable in a hurry and they will stay wet for a very long time. You can go commando, but I don’t need to know about it, thank you very much.
I’m beginning to think I’m going to need a “Dressing for Paddling (Part 3)” blog post. So I will go into more specifics about the paddling jackets, footwear, gloves, head gear, and drysuits in the next edition. If you have questions about what I’ve talked about so far, I invite you to post a comment or send me an e-mail through the “Contact” page on this website. I would be happy to answer.