There’s a lot of advice around as to when to wear specialized paddling clothing. But, you don’t need specialized clothing, and often the advice is not specific. Here I’ll tell you what I wear, when, and why.
The latest mantra is ‘dress for immersion’. To me that’s the equivalent of replacing speed limit signs on our roadways with ‘drive as fast as conditions allow’. I personally don’t always dress for immersion, but I prepare for it and I have a plan. I also still respect the ‘120 degree rule’ and I know it includes a 60 degree water temperature. I believe those specific limits provide value, just like having a speed limit provides a useful specificity rather than a reliance on personal judgement.
Also, how do you know what you’re wearing will really work? Try it. Go for a swim in conditions, maybe at the takeout at the end of the day. This also gives groups confidence in their members’ gear and skills. Remember too that your choices carry over to the other paddlers in your group, impacting their safety as well as their comfort.
When I paddle I have one of three strategies in mind for dealing with getting wet from immersion, waves, or precipitation:
1) The group is going to stop paddling while the wet paddlers change to dry clothes. It may be that the paddle ends. We’ll call this the Outdoor Clothing option.
2) The wet paddlers can continue paddling while wet because of their gear, and the group continues paddling once everyone is in their boats. We’ll call this the Wetsuit choice.
3) The paddlers don’t get wet because of their gear, and the group continues paddling once everyone is in their boats. We’ll call this the Drysuit option.
Groups paddle together better if they either all choose the same option or at least understand and support the options each member chooses. If one paddler changes clothing whenever they get wet forcing everyone wearing a dry suit to wait each time for that one paddler, there will be tension within the group. The majority may get cold because they aren’t moving, or concerned that the paddle might take longer than expected.
The key to wearing Outdoor Clothing is to avoid cotton. I’d only wear cotton if the air temperature was above 70 and the water temperature also above 70. Below that, the worst clothing choices are blue jeans, cotton hooded sweatshirts, and ‘puff’ down jackets. Have a towel and a spare set of paddling clothes in a dry bag, and a dry set of street clothes in a vehicle at the takeout. Synthetic pants, wool or polypropylene tops, and rain gear are already part of most outdoors people’s wardrobe. I’d choose Outdoor Clothing if I had high certainty that I was going to stay dry, and would be able to exit the water quickly to change or end the trip quickly.
For these water temperatures, I’d wear this Outdoor Clothing:
High 60s or above Head: Synthetic ball cap Hands: nothing Torso: Icebreaker 150 + Marmot rainjacket Lower: LL Bean Cresta hiker pants Feet: Smartwool hiker socks or nothing Shoes: Keene sandals, Chota Portage shoes or Merrill Moab without Goretex or NRS water shoes
Low 60s to high 50s Head: Polypropylene balaclava or wool watch cap Hands: Wool liner gloves + Spare pair Torso: Icebreaker 150 + Fleece pullover + Marmot rainjacket Lower: Patagonia Capilene or Icebreaker wool + Marmot rainpants Feet: Smartwool hiker socks Shoes: Keene sandals, NRS water shoes or NRS workboot
Remember how wetsuits work: they are designed to trap a little water inside them for your body to warm. If your wetsuit isn’t tight or you wear layers that are too thick underneath, your wetsuit won’t keep you warm as there will be too much water. NRS Hydroskin is great stuff to me as it can be tight but isn’t bulky or causing friction. The only thing I’ll wear under neoprene or Hydroskin is Icebreaker 150. Lycra rashguards are a personal choice but they make me colder. I’d choose a Wetsuit if the water was cold and the air was warm – say Lake Superior in August. Surfers might prefer a thick 6mm wetsuit on Lake Superior in February because it helps them stick to their board, but for paddling I’d go with Hydroskin or 3mm neoprene, and use a drysuit for the lowest water temperatures I’d paddle or when I’m spending a lot of time in the water such as rescue drills. If the air temperature was too warm for a drysuit, I’d choose a wetsuit.
For these water temperatures, I’d wear this clothing with my wetsuit:
High 50s to 70 Head: Synthetic ball cap Hands: nothing Torso: Icebreaker 150 + Hydroskin or 3mm Farmer John short wetsuit Lower: LL Bean Cresta hiker pants or 3mm Farmer John short wetsuit Feet: Smartwool hiker socks over hydroskin booties Shoes: Keene sandals Skirt Neoprene (kayak)
Low 40s to high 50s Head: Polypropylene balaclava or wool watch cap Hands: Wool liner gloves + Spare pair + nylon pogies Torso: Icebreaker 150 + 3mm Farmer John long wetsuit + Fleece pullover + splash top Lower: Icebreaker wool + Marmot rainpants Feet: Smartwool hiker socks over hydroskin booties Shoes: NRS workboot or Chota Nunavut boot or NRS Boundary shoe Skirt Neoprene (kayak)
Drysuits are the epitome of comfort to me. Once I finally got one my comfort increased considerably. It is difficult to add layers to stay warm though so I dress to be warm enough but not overheat while paddling and know that I must paddle and keep moving to stay warm. When I stop paddling I need ready access to a larger fleece jacket, a warm hat, and winter gloves when the temperature is at my lower limit. And, I really love the hood on my drysuit. If I need protection from both water and air temperatures, I’ll be most comfortable in a drysuit. I use a Kokatat Expedition myself but I’ll be considering a two piece suit, possibly semi-dry, when I wear that out.
For these water temperatures, I’d wear this clothing with my drysuit:
High 40s to low 60s Head: Synthetic ball cap + drysuit hood Hands: Wool liner gloves + Spare pair + nylon pogies Torso: Icebreaker 200+ fleece pullover + drysuit Lower: LL Bean Cresta hiker pants + Icebreaker wool Feet: Smartwool hiker socks over hydroskin booties Shoes: Keene sandals
Below freezing to high 40s Head: Polypropylene balaclava or wool watch cap + NRS mystery cap Hands: Neoprene pogies or Hydroskin gloves Torso: Icebreaker 200 + Pendleton wool shirt + fleece pullover + drysuit Lower: LL Bean Cresta hiker pants + polypropylene 200 Feet: 2 pair Smartwool hiker socks over hydroskin booties Shoes: NRS workboot or Chota Nunavut boot or NRS Boundary shoe
One constant throughout is your lifejacket. Many folks remove their lifejacket as soon as they are on shore, and start getting cold. I keep mine on for its warmth until the gear is loaded and ready to go, and only remove it when it’s time to change clothing or start driving. Wearing a drysuit, I can often just take off my lifejacket and drysuit, add a fleece or down jacket, and change to street shoes. Use a small piece of carpet to stand on while changing to add to your comfort and reduce wear on your drysuit booties.
Some other pieces of cold weather gear that you may neglect are an insulated bottle with a hot drink inside (I prefer Tang), and some food ready to eat such as a Clif bar. Its helpful to have a 12x12 piece of carpet padding, a Helinox chair or something to sit on (not your lifejacket!). Every life jacket I use includes a black contractor grade garbage bag for emergency wear and I’ll have ready access to a wind layer that will go over my life jacket for lunch and other stops.
There are an infinite number of choices for what to wear when, and what works for me might not work as well for you. My hands need less protection than some while my head might need more protection than others, and my temperature zones might not coincide with yours. Figure out what works for you, and enjoy your time on the water safely and comfortably.
The only reason to not paddle in colder times is if the water is frozen. If you’re going to be outside skiing or snowshoeing or hiking, you could also be paddling as long as you understand the risks and prepare for them.