Dressing for Paddling (Part 3)

by Sherri ~ September 7th, 2009. Filed under: Clothing, Kayaking Equipment, Paddling Safety.

In my last post, I mentioned a garment called a “rash guard”.  Apparently, this is not a piece of clothing that everyone is familiar with.  I think it might be wise to include some definitions in  my post today.

Rash Guard – a short or long sleeve shirt made of relatively light-weight lycra material intended to provide protection from chafing against the armholes of a wetsuit or PFD, and/or to provide UV protection.  It is often worn under a farmer john wetsuit or as a top over shorts or Hydroskins pants in warmer conditions.

Paddle Jacket – windproof and mostly waterproof jacket made to wear over a wetsuit to provide splash protection from waves and rain.  It helps to keep a paddler warm in the same way that a windbreaker or a rain jacket might keep someone warm on a windy or wet day.  Most paddle jackets today are made from waterproof/breathable fabrics.  Many older paddle jackets were made of non-breathable fabrics which made them less comfortable on warm days.  A paddle jacket is a pretty useful and important part of any paddler’s wardrobe.  It can be worn over a rash guard for wind protections even when the water temperatures are not dangerous.  It is most useful at reducing the danger of hypothermia brought on by the slow gradual cooling you might experience on a windy or rainy day.

Drysuit – for colder water temperatures (say below about 50 degrees) the drysuit is a much better, safer option than most wetsuits.  While there are wetsuits thick enough to protect someone at these lower temperatures (5mm thickness), they are usually too thick and bulky to be comfortable for paddling.  Drysuits work differently than wetsuits when it comes to keeping you warm.  A wetsuit traps a very thin layer of water next to your skin.  Your body warms up the water, and as long as that thin layer of water stays in place, you begin to feel more comfortable even when the water is cool.  A drysuit completely protects your body from coming in contact with the water except for the head, hands, and sometimes feet.  There are latex gaskets at the neck, wrists, and sometimes ankles to keep water from entering the suit.  A better option than ankle gaskets (in my opinion) is to get the sewn in socks or booties on the drysuit.  The entry zippers are completely waterproof.  The fabric of the suit is generally some kind of waterproof/breathable fabric, the better suits being made of Goretex.  The drysuit does not actually provide much warmth.  You must layer clothing under the suit to do that – usually synthetic wicking clothing like polypropylene or Capilene long underwear, polyester fleece, nylon, lycra, etc.   How much clothing you wear under the drysuit depends on how cold the water temperature and the air temperature is.  Drysuits are practically a must for those who paddle in places where the water temperature is below 50 degrees (Lake Michigan in the winter for example).  Drysuits tend to be rather expensive, so typically only more serious paddlers invest in them.  Once you have one, though, you will wear it instead of your wetsuit whenever you can since it is much more comfortable.  The latex gaskets do tend to tear, especially the neck gasket, so you will need to periodically replace gaskets.  This can be done by sending the suit back to the manufacturer, or finding a local business that does it, or it can be a do-it-yourself project.  I have replaced several neck gaskets and have done a successful temporary repair to prolong the life a gasket that tore and will need to be replaced eventually.  To prolong the life of your gaskets, treat them with “303” spray-on UV protectant and be careful when putting your drysuit on or taking it off so that you do not catch the gasket on jewelry, fingernails, etc.

Paddling Footwear – Most kayakers tend to wear some kind of neoprene booties.  The neoprene gives some thermal protection in cold water.  The soles of the booties are thinner than tennis shoes, river sandals, etc. and the neoprene fits very closely to the foot.  This is especially important for guys with larger feet and just about all whitewater kayakers.  Many sea kayaks and most whitewater kayaks have very little room in the area of the cockpit where the feet are located.  There is little or no extra room for bulky footwear.  However, do not be tempted to go barefoot.  Pushing against foot braces without a shoe sole to help distribute the pressure can often lead to foot cramps.  More important, there is a lot of stuff on shore and inside your cockpit that can cause you to cut your foot.  This can ruin a fun day on the water, lead to serious infections, and compromise the safety of the group.  On an extended trip, a foot injury leaves you less able to help out with necessary chores.  You will be hindered from being able to hop out of your kayak quickly during a surf landing, and in a whitewater situation, you may be unable to jump out of your kayak, run along shore, and render assistance to a fellow paddler if your foot has been injured or if you are not wearing shoes.  There are special designs made that will fit in just about the tightest space inside your cockpit, so wear something on your feet.  Just make sure that nothing on your footwear is likely to get caught on anything in the cockpit that would hinder you from performing a wet exit.

Gloves – I recommend wearing gloves for protecting your hands from the cold.  I do not recommend gloves for blister protection.  If you are experiencing blisters on your hands, it is a sign that you are probably gripping your paddle too tightly.  Relaxing your grip should fix the problem.    If you are paddling in colder temperatures and are using gloves, make sure that all your equipment can be operated while wearing the gloves.  Can you grab hold of your sprayskirt grab loop with gloves?  Can you work the carabiners on your tow belt while wearing gloves?  You may need to make some adjustments to your equipment if the answer to these questions is not a resounding “YES”.

Pogies – These are like mittens that get attached to the shaft of your paddle.  You put your hands inside the pogies and you can grab the shaft of the paddle directly.  In cold temperatures, I prefer to use a slightly lighter glove inside pogies.  The pogies keep your hands much warmer than the gloves, and the lighter glove gives me better manual dexterity with my equipment.  While I could probably get away without wearing any gloves inside my pogies, I like to have gloves to protect my hands at those times when I have to remove my hands from the pogies.  An example of this would be when I am assisting another paddler back into his/her kayak following a capsize.  Pogies come in neoprene or nylon versions.  The neoprene is a little stiffer making it easier to slide your hands in and out.  Neoprene also gives some additional warmth.  However, the nylon pogies are easier to wrap and strap around your paddle shaft when you aren’t using them, so they don’t flop around and get in the way.  Any pogey is better than no pogey.

Headwear – Since heat is lost through the capillaries in your head fster than any other part of your body, and because immersing the head in cold water brings on more severe symptoms of cold shock, you need to wear something on your head in cold weather/water temperatures.  A wool knit hat or polyester fleece hat works well in many situations.  A better option as it gets colder and windier is to get a skull cap or neoprene hood like those used by divers.  These pieces of gear fit much more closely to the head and are less likely to come off in the wind or if you capsize.  Neoprene and other rubberized materials also shed water better.  Wool will absorb water and get heavy and soggy.  For those sea kayakers and whitewater paddlers who are practicing rolls or may be capsizing in cold water, it is also very important to protect your ear canals from the development of bony growths called extoses.  These growths can actually start to block off your ear canal and cause hearing loss.  They have to be removed surgically.  For people who paddle regularly in cold water, it would be wise to get some ear plugs that will keep water out of your ears.

I’m going to let you digest all of this for awhile before posting another blog.  Once again, if anything I have said is not clear, or it spurs another question, please post a comment or send me an e-mail and I will do my best to try to answer.  Now is a really good time to take stock of your paddling wardrobe if you want to extend your paddling season as the water and air begin to cool.  You can keep  paddling well into the fall, IF you are dressed properly.  Stay safe!


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