Cold Water Paddle Boarding | The Critical Guide
Paddling in cold water is something you will consider as your SUP skills progress and you are looking for more time and opportunities on the water. This article examines the unique challenges and opportunities cold water paddle boarding presents and gives advice on staying safe.
Staying Safe While Keeping Your Cool
Everyone loves to paddle when the sun is out and the water is warm, but unfortunately that's not always possible all year round. To keep on paddling into the cooler fall and winter months, you need to really change what you wear and put an even greater emphasis on safety. For more advanced riders taking part in either surf or whitewater stand up paddle boarding, the best paddling conditions can often be when the water is at its coolest, so a different approach is needed.
Cold Water Shock
Most stand up paddle board riders will have had some experience with cooler water and also have a good idea of what to expect when water is colder than expected. This is until you find yourself in really cold water. The experiences are not relatable.
"The sudden lowering of skin temperature on immersion in cold water represents one of the most profound stimuli that the body can encounter." - Golden and Tipton in Essentials of Sea Survival
That feeling of being hit by a bus, as the cold water passes over the thousands of receptors in your body has an intensity that can quite literally take your breath away. This can present a serious and lightning-quick danger - cold water immersion.
The shock of cold water can cause people to completely lose control of their breathing, leaving them gasping and even hyperventilating. In water, this can be extremely dangerous, leading to water entering the lungs and potential drowning. After the initial shock, the next stage of cold water immersion can lead to physical incapacitation whereby you will become increasingly tired and fatigued, leading to slower movements and increased shivering. This is ultimately followed by hypothermia whereby your core temperature will drop to life-threatening levels. This can happen within minutes.
These are some facts from the National Weather Service regarding cold water immersion -
- Roughly 20 percent of those who fall into cold water die in the first minute of immersion due to cold water shock.
- Even strong swimmers will lose muscle control in about 10 minutes.
- Body heat can be lost 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air.
- Wearing a life jacket significantly increases your chances of survival.
Air vs Water Temperature
Water temperatures below 70F need to be treated with caution. This doesn't sound cold but there is a big difference between water and air temperature and how it affects our bodies.
We spend our entire lives acclimating to air temperatures. Air temperature is something our bodies are used to and we get very good at adjusting as required. Air temperatures can create a false sense of security when it comes to water temperatures, and this is a particular problem, especially at the start of the paddling season.
- Water temperatures between 60-70F will create difficulty breathing and potential immediate shock.
- Water temperatures between 50F-60F are extremely dangerous and represent a significant risk from rapid cold water immersion. You should not be paddling in water this cold unless you are very experienced, have a solid plan, and understand the risks involved.
- Water temperatures under 40F will be very painful on contact with your skin and will result in immediate progression through the stages of cold water immersion.
During the winter months, you will have to deal with not only cold water, but exposure to lower ambient temperatures, potential cold winds, and weather effects that can lower the effective temperature even further. From the outside, winter or cold water paddleboarding doesn't really seem like a fun option. But with the right gear and safety precautions it can provide a unique and thrilling paddling experience that can dramatically increase your opportunities to get on the water.
Dress for the Occasion
Think of turning up at a black tie ball, in jeans and a t-shirt. You would feel both uncomfortable and look out of place. It's exactly the same dressing for cold water. You wouldn't wear board shorts and a rash vest and think you can get away with it.
Your chosen discipline or background will influence what you will wear, but if you are unsure, then certainly look around at what others are doing or visit a local store for advice. This is one area of paddling where you should never be going out alone, so sharing advice about gear and clothing is a common occurrence.
The simplest rule to follow with cold water paddling is to assume you may end up in the water. No amount of paddling skill can defeat cold water immersion or hypothermia, so dress assuming you will end up in the water at some point. Have a solid and well thought out plan for when that occurs, and wear suitable clothing for the water and air temperatures.
If you are a surf-oriented stand up paddler, you should already be accustomed to wearing wetsuits. For winter use, the main difference will be its thickness. Using a 5MM suit with a lining will generally keep you warm without overheating yourself. In really cold water, you will add a hood, gloves, and boots. This will keep most of your body insulated from the cold water and avoid the flushing sensation of thinner suits, keeping you warm in even the coldest water.
A wetsuit works better for surfing because of the amount of time actually spent in the water. The skin-tight neoprene will provide a level of buoyancy, insulation and be more comfortable for being in the water, which you will be doing a lot more of when surfing.
As a whitewater rider, the aim is that you actually spend more time on top of the board than a surfer will, and you will likely also be spending some of your time walking and scouting from the river bank. This means that a wetsuit won't be as effective because air temperature is an equally important consideration.
For Whitewater SUP you need to follow the kayak route and wear a drysuit, which is a zipped suit with latex or neoprene gaskets on the wrists and neck. Socks are either fabric or latex and are encompassed within the suit. A drysuit is designed to keep you dry and won't provide any warmth on its own. Rather, warmth is provided by the thermal layers you wear underneath. The exact gear required will depend on the conditions, whether you prefer a full fleecy onesie to eliminate cold spots and ride-up, or separate articles of clothing. If using synthetic materials, it's helpful to choose fabrics that wick moisture, as this will draw sweat to the outside and keep you warmer. Personally, we are big fans of merino wool materials as they stay warm, are lighter weight, and don't soil as much as other fabrics, even after heavy use.
In addition to your drysuit, you can wear river boots designed to provide support and grip even on wet rocks, as well as gloves and a skull cap under your helmet. Hoods and hats are vital because you lose the most heat through your head, and they also help eliminate the dreaded ‘ice cream head’ feeling when you do fall in. Socks, boots, and gloves are the best way to keep the extremities warm and protected in extreme cold water. Being warm and comfortable will lengthen your time on the water and ensure a safer session.
Touring / Cruising
If you are touring you will certainly have a wider choice what you want to wear but again you should be spending more time on top of the water so dry-wear such as waterproof top and pants would be a better option.
Depending on the conditions, you may not need a full drysuit but certainly something that is breathable as well as wind-proof is advised. Check out the biking range of clothing to give some good examples, and then layer correctly for the conditions. Keeping the ability to add or remove layers is a good idea, as exertion can increase body heat and likewise you might find it colder than when you set out and require an additional layer to warm up.
Remember to assume you will end up in the water. Even if you choose to wear lighter clothing, make sure you have warmer clothing and other ways to warm up with you on your board.
There are a number of other ways that you can minimize risk when cold-water paddling. Simple planning can go a long way. Checking weather forecasts for both temperatures and wind conditions can easily determine whether it’s a good idea to even head out, or if choosing another location would offer better protection.
Never paddle in very cold water alone. This is one area where you will need a friend or a group, and you should have a clearly defined plan of what to do if someone ends up in the water unexpectedly.
It is also possible to train the body to better resist cold water immersion by using ice baths and cold water exposure training, but this should not be relied upon, especially in an open water situation. It is, however, good to familiarise yourself with the feelings you can encounter while in the safety of the summer's warm air to train yourself how to react in cooler weather. This won't account for the exposure you will face from cold winds, but for many, just coping with the initial shock of submersion is a useful skill to attain.
While you can train yourself to deal better with the initial cold water shock by acclimation, you cannot train yourself to overcome the advancing stages of immersion, such as muscle loss and hypothermia. These stages can advance very quickly, so acclimation is useful to quell panic, but cannot be relied on as a strategy for safety.
Reliable gear is critical. This applies to every piece of gear from your choice of SUP board, paddle, and auxiliary gear. Every piece of equipment needs to be checked and then rechecked before heading out each session, and maintaining your gear in between sessions is just as important. It’s important to discuss the session with fellow paddlers and have equipment such as tow ropes and a mylar/space blanket in your on-board kit. A spare paddle, screws, compass, whistle, and other safety equipmetn are all things you should consider depending on your paddling environment.
Paddle boarding is a fantastic activity for year-round participation, but the number one factor to consider is always safety. Your own ability and dressing correctly are two huge factors that can prevent turning a great day on the water into a very bad one in a few minutes. Following a few safety protocols such as having a plan, never paddling alone, and always telling a third party about your team’s planned session can really make a difference.
Plan for shorter sessions than you would in the summer, and be aware that conditions can change quickly. Whether it's larger waves on the ocean or a weather front pushing through and flooding a river, the winter can be one of the most challenging times to take part in any water sport. As a surfer or whitewater paddler, you can always consider using whitewater parks or standing river waves as an alternative to longer or more remote trips. Staying in one location can mean you are able to take frequent breaks to stay warm and are never far from inside warmth.
If touring or downwind is more your style, then you really need to pick out your locations and have options available for sheltered sessions, staying closer to the bank than you would normally. Carrying extra equipment with you will provide you an extra safety net in case of emergency.
Remember to approach each session assuming you may end up in the water, and take the appropriate measures to ensure you are prepared.