As the weather gets colder, the demands for dressing increase accordingly. There is still a lot of fun to be had on the water after summer’s end, so it’s worth acquiring or repurposing some basic gear to keep you paddling comfortably in lower temperatures. Selecting the right gear for colder temperatures usually is dictated between a core garment being a wetsuit or a drysuit and will depend on a number of circumstances. It should be noted that cold water paddling is for trained and experienced paddlers only. Exposure to freezing cold water can be lethal so it is not something that should be approached casually.
For those coming from a surf background, a wetsuit is the go-to garment for cold water protection. A wetsuit traps a layer of water which is warmed by your body heat to keep you feeling warm, even when the water is cold. A good winter wetsuit can be combined with neoprene booties, gloves and a hood to get you on the water during the coldest of days.
Wetsuit technologies have vastly improved over the years with softer materials and thermal linings to allow you the maximum comfort and range of movement.
Many suits are available on the market, so you’ll need to choose one based of the conditions you will be paddling in. Summer 3/2 suits (3mm body material and 2 mm in the arms and legs) are lightweight and ideal to take away the chill on days when the air temperature is warm but the water is cold. These are available in long and short sleeve options for comfort in different temperatures. A short sleeved wetsuit, also knows as a shorty, can help bridge the gap when it isn’t quite cold enough for a full wetsuit. The heavier autumn and winter suits are usually between 4-6mm thick, yet very soft and pliable. Neoprene always stretches when wet, so if you are trying on a wetsuit for the first time, you want it fit snugly to keep you as warm as possible in the water.
If you come from a kayaking or scuba diving background, you may already be familiar with dry suits. As the name suggests, a drysuit is designed to keep your body completely dry, with the exception of your head and hands. Most dry suits are fitted with built-in socks, but you will need to wear a set of boots or shoes over the socks to protect them and provide better grip on your board. A drysuit won’t provide any insulation, so you should also wear thermal clothing layers and wool socks underneath the suit to keep you warm. A disadvantage of a drysuit is that the suit traps some air, making it more difficult to swim. But for glacial fed rivers or for paddling when the air or water temperatures are below 50 degrees (or higher depending on your cold sensitivity), it is really the only option for keeping you warm and protected.
In cold conditions, a winter hat or neoprene hood is essential to reduce heat loss. The head can be extremely sensitive, especially to cold water immersion and the dreaded brain freeze.