Don't Go "Hoppin" on your board just yet...
You may have seen some of our YouTube videos, Facebook, or Instagram posts extolling the virtues of cold water paddling. This year, we introduced winter paddle tours and made them available to anybody, even if they didn't have experience paddling. We were able to do so by providing appropriate equipment and a small guest-to-guide ratio for each tour, ensuring that safety remained our top priority. The response has been fantastic; people have embraced cold water paddling more than we ever thought they would, many coming back for repeated trips into Beverly and Salem Harbors. Yet as the weather starts to warm, we feel we have a responsibility to remind would-be paddlers that, though this time of year has us shedding our winter wardrobes, it's not quite time to shed our wetsuits or drysuits.
Signs of spring are everywhere. Trees are beginning to bud, birds are chirping (at an ungodly early hour :) ), and an energetic buzz accompanies each customer that walks through our doors to ask about buying new boards, purchasing season passes, or signing up for summer programs. The water is warming up too, but very slowly, and that is exactly what makes this time of year so dangerous.
I love winter paddling, but I don't love wearing all of the gear for winter paddling. As soon as those temps start to rise, the gloves go away and the booties follow soon after. But the wetsuit or drysuit hangs on a little longer. The rule in paddling is to dress for the water temperature. We got our first taste of air temperatures in the 70's, but the water temperature is still hovering around a cold 41 degrees. 41 degrees in the water is very different than 41 degrees in the air. If you fall in and aren't wearing appropriate gear, hypothermia becomes a very real threat. The cold water will draw heat from your body quickly, and could lead to disorientation, memory loss, exhaustion, and loss of consciousness within fifteen minutes. Even if you are layered in clothes meant to protect you against cool spring air temperatures, they'll do next to nothing if you end up in the water. If you become separated from your board or are unable to get back into your kayak, prolonged exposure could lead to loss of life in as little as forty five minutes.
Of course, there are other things you can do to lower the risk of paddling in cold water. Wearing a PFD is a no brainer, and a leash connecting yourself to your board is a great secondary safety measure. Having a solid self-rescue in a kayak is great (If your "Plan A" in the event of a capsize is to swim for shore, then paddling by yourself, especially in the winter, might not be your best bet.) Staying close to shore and paddling with a group are all good safety measures. Yet none of these are replacements for experience and proper cold water gear.
So what are we looking at for gear? Your main options for cold water paddling are drysuits or wetsuits. Dry suits are made of a waterproof material and seal tightly around your wrists and neck with latex gaskets. They have very little insulation, but by sealing out water completely, it allows you to dress in dry layers underneath. By changing the number and thickness of the layers, you can more easily adjust to changing temperatures. Wetsuits are made of neoprene, which is also (contrary to what many people believe) a waterproof material. However, wetsuits do not seal quite as tightly around the wrists, neck, and ankles, and so rely on billions of nitrogen bubbles trapped in the neoprene to create a buffer of "dead air" between your body and the surrounding cold. Though they let water in, the heat from your body quickly warms that water, and the neoprene keeps that heat from being immediately lost to the cold air or water. Wetsuits work best when they are next to skin, so wearing layers underneath is less effective.
We won't go into full detail about the advantages and disadvantages of each, but we'll summarize them here. Drysuits give you more protection against the cold, but are significantly more expensive and have a lot of excess fabric that can serve as a hindrance when immersed in water. Wetsuits are less expensive and easier to swim with, but do not provide as much protection against the cold. Also, because they allow water to infiltrate, they can lead to more of a "clammy" feeling once wet, especially if they don't have something like NRS's Vapor Loft fleece lining. Whichever way you decide to go, the cost can seem prohibitive. Keep in mind, you can often get used or discontinued gear at significantly reduced cost. At the Adventure Gear Exchange, we've got several options for wetsuits, dry suits, and dry tops, and are taking in more all the time.
Our passion is sharing our love for the water with our customers, but we're committed to doing so in a responsible way. We encourage everyone to consider paddling a four season sport, but it is important you are fully prepared when paddling, especially in the colder weather. If you have any questions about how to fully prepare for the season, please call or email us, or stop in the shop, and we'll help any way we can!