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Kayaking Safely – Planning and Gearing-Up

Avoiding trouble on the water is always our goal. Propper trip planning can help us there – and having the right gear for conditions can save the day; keeping us paddling and comfortable when things go right, and keeping us safe should things get tricky!

Articles –
     • Winter Wear for Paddlers
     • Planning for Paddling Success
     • ACA Cold Water Brochure    
     • VHF Communication Channels
     • Chart: Cold Water & It's Effects

Float Plan PDF for download

Winter Wear for Paddlers

What to wear during Fall, Winter, and Spring paddling in coastal South Carolina?  We can start with a few basics:

We’ve all heard the adage “Cotton Kills” and a twist on that – “Cotton is Rotten.”  Cotton clothing absorbs a lot of water, holding it against your skin and leading to hypothermia.  Synthetic clothing is the answer…

We’ll look at three components for cold weather/cold water paddling:  a base layer, an insulating layer, and a shell.

A base layer can be a synthetic t-shirt or a kayak specific rash guard.  A good base layer will do double-duty, providing sun protection in the Summer.

Base Layer
An insulating layer may be fleece, neoprene or other paddling specific materials.  I have found that neoprene is best if you are likely to be IN the water . Neoprene is my usual choice as an insulating layer for rescue class, rolling and surfing.  I do find fleece a bit more comfortable than neoprene, and it will help keep you warm if it gets wet.

              layer example
The shell – A paddle jacket is a must for all seasons.  Many types and styles are available, but they all serve the same purpose…creating a “micro-environment” keeping the wind, splash and spray, and rain off of the paddler. Paddlers in more protected areas, without sprayskirts, are best served with a single-tunnel paddle jacket, with adjustable closures at the wrists and neck. Folks wearing skirts should consider a double tunnel paddle jacket, to layer the skirt tunnel between the jacket tunnels. Latex wrist seals and more aggressive necks can be more effective at keeping the water out for surfing and rolling.

Shell layer
Dressing Our Head, Feet and Hands
The Wilderness Medicine Newsletter reports that heat loss through the head is at about 7% of total body heat loss in normal conditions, and up to 55% of total body heat loss if you are shivering. A warm hat can make a huge difference on a cold day. A hat with a brim always makes good sense to shade your face and eyes from the sun.
Feet can be insulated in neoprene or fleece socks, inside a paddling shoe. For colder water, or folks whose feet are always cold, there are some paddle specific boots.

Paddle shoes
I’ve never been a glove guy, some folks swear by them. I don’t like them as they decrease my “feel” of the paddle shaft. I prefer pogies, which attach to the paddle shaft, and let me put my hand inside them to make direct contact with the paddle.


Finally, consider some warm back-up clothing in a drybag.  This “hypothermia kit” can be a back up for you, or serve as a help to some less equipped friends.  Stay warm!

Scott, ready to
           — Scott happily geared-up and ready to paddle.

Planning for a Successful Paddle

Cold Weather and/or Water Paddling

A little advance planning, and a few tips about how to be prepared can go a long way toward making any (and every) paddle safer for you and those you go kayaking with — and therefore more enjoyable.

First and foremost - Do not paddle alone!
Most fatalities occur with one or two people who were unprepared for immersion and experienced cold shock.. (Current Charleston Harbor water temperature.) Good article in Sea Kayaker Magazine on Cold Shock and Swimming Failure.

Second: What to Wear
Dress for Immersion - not the air temperature . Review our Winter Wear for Paddlers. Be prepared for hyperthermia and to take action. Have a reliable and practiced self-rescue and assisted rescue and equipment. Like to watch video? Here's one that will keep you riveted.

An All too Familiar News Article: Volunteer fire fighter, Kendall Bryant, 32, died on the Etowah river, Georgia, on Saturday, February 28, 1998 (air 65 degrees F, water 45 degrees F, class 0-1 water, but very powerful high-water current). He capsized on a small wave, came out of his kayak, struggled to get on it for a few seconds and then disappeared. Cold shock undoubtedly caused gasping while he was submerged. Mr. Bryant went under for the last time less than 30 seconds after capsizing. Last I heard, his body had not been recovered. The extreme danger of submerged snags precluded the use of dive teams. His friends described him to the press as experienced. He was wearing a T-shirt, cotton pants and no PFD. He refused to wear a PFD, leaving it in his truck the day he died. He had no flotation in his boat, hence it could not support him when he initially surfaced. His submerged craft was recovered with grappling hooks four days after the accident. Unfortunately, every year there are many more.

• Kayak (15' or longer, bow and stern floatation and sealed compartments)
• Paddle and spare paddle
• Lifejacket (on and zipped up)
• Sprayskirt
• Snacks
• Drinking water
• Thermos of hot tea (or water)
• Change of clothes and extra layers in a drybag
• Bilge pump
• Paddle float
• Boat sponge
• Cell phone in Pelican box in sealed hatch
• Sunscreen
• Fire starter (matches or lighter)
• First aid kit
• Bivvy bag
• Space blanket
• Nylon shelter and/or Cag

More experience paddlers will also want to carry:
• Rescue tow belt
• Spare paddle
• VHF radio
• Flares & other signalling devices
• Boat repair kit (duct tape, multi-plier, etc.)
• Stirrup
• Compass
• Charts and maps in waterproof case

Options to wear based on water temperature :
• Drysuit
• Wetsuit
• Paddling Jacket or Drytop
• Neoprene hood, gloves, socks
• Heavy neoprene boots
• Fleece undergarment for Drysuit
• Warm paddling hat
• Rashguard or wicking under layer