Reflections from the Cockpit April 2005
"Dressing for Immersion"

Spring is here and the weather is getting warm. When I lived in Santa Barbara it is even hot in the spring and even hotter in the summer. When the air temperature is warm &/or hot and the water is cold we have a practical dilemma as kayakers. How do we dress while we are kayaking? If it is cold air and cold water it is easy to dress. The same goes for warm air and warm water. The difficulty is trying not to overheat in warm air, while being properly dressed for immersion in cold water.

The best way to approach this challenge is to go back to our goals when it comes to capsize recoveries and more importantly the reasons behind our goals. The goals are: minimize your exposure to the elements and get you and your kayak sea-worthy again. The number one cause of death in kayak touring is exposure to the elements. If one is properly dressed, the water temperature does not become an immediate threat and you avoid becoming a statistic.

This is a good time to review what happens when we immerse a human body in cold water. Most folks answer hypothermia as the major cause of death question in kayaking. The final cause of death that is reported in most of these accidents is hypothermia combined with drowning. Keep in mind cold shock can be the forerunner to hypothermia. If a person is immersed in water that is 55 degrees F. or colder the likelihood of experiencing the symptoms of cold shock is highly probable if they are not wearing protective clothing. Jeans and a t-shirt are not protective clothing. Wetsuits or drysuits are considered protective clothing. Some of these drownings have been contributed to the initial gasping &/or hyperventilation one experiences when suddenly immersed in cold water (cold shock).  An excellent article on cold shock can be found in Sea Kayaker Magazine Spring 1991 (Volume 7, Number 4) "Cold Shock" by Moulton Avery.

When dressing for immersion you need to consider the initial exposure and long term exposure. If you wish to reduce the immediate effects of cold shock, I recommend you cover a good portion of your body with some form of protective clothing. Your goal is to reduce the shock of the cold water on your exposed skin. There is no exact formula for how much skin to cover, but I can safely say the colder the water the more skin you should cover.

The next concern is how long you anticipate being in the cold water. The longer the immersion time the more insulation you will need. If you are quick and efficient with your capsize recoveries the less long-term thermal protection you will need. The closer you are to accessible shore, again, the less long-term thermal protection you will need. If you were doing a major crossing in rough conditions, you would be wise to dress for a longer immersion time.

Let’s go back to the dilemma I alluded to earlier. What do you wear on a hot day when you are paddling in cold water? If you wear a dry suit anticipating long immersion time on this hot day, then you can possible suffer from over exposure (heat exhaustion of heat stroke.) It can be a challenge to find just the right clothing. I have helped solve this challenge by practicing my capsize recovery skills so I reduce my need for thicker clothing. Regardless of how good your skills become you will still end up getting warm on those hot days with cold water.

I always try to err on the side of dressing for immersion. When my dad and I would go fishing together, I would ask him what should I wear? His response was always, "you can always take it off, but you can never put it on." (Thanks Dad!)  Therefore I have looked for ways to keep cool on hot days while wearing protective clothing. The first cool off method I employ is a regular dunking in the cold water. I would perform a roll or ask for an Eskimo Recovery from my partner or just use my partner’s bow for support while I flipped over to cool off. Another cool off technique is pumping water over you to cool down (another good reason to have a hand pump.) A simple method I learned from a friend is keeping a wet cotton hat on your head. Since you can loose a good deal of body heat through your head, keeping a wet hat on your head can act as a thermal regulator. If you do not have a hat, try keeping your hair wet. Since I am a big fan of practicing capsize recovery techniques, I use the practice time as a way to cool down. You can also have your partner stabilize your kayak to allow you to hop in and hop out of the water. This could be a good time to practice using a stirrup to climb back in.  This way you can get wet without worrying about flooding your cockpit.

A good way to find out if your clothing is affective is to capsize near shore (have a partner nearby for this) and see if you can function properly and effectively. If not, you can wade to shore and dry off. You can also plan doing a water immersion day with your paddling partners. Bring a number of different sets of paddling clothing and wade out until you are floating. Try your capsize recovery techniques to see if your clothing options are restricting your performance. See if you can be in the water for 10- 15 minutes and not feel cold. I remember teaching a class in Alaska with a healthy layer of pile underneath my drysuit. I was in a very cold lake for a few hours working with my students and I never felt chilled. My greatest problem was my need to go to the bathroom and remembering I was not wearing my wetsuit. Thank goodness for convenience zippers and port-a-potties. In this day of wonder synthetics there are a number of lightweight fabrics that offer reasonable thermal protection while allowing flexibility and performance. Read USK article, "My Immersion Ensemble" for some examples.

To sum it all up, I highly recommend you dress for immersion. Consider the water temperature and at a minimum, dress in order to reduce the affects of cold shock. The faster your recovery skills the less long thermal protection you will need. Your clothing needs to be protective and functional so you can perform the necessary skills. If it is warm air and cold water, cool off regularly with the tips mentioned above. Also, remember what my dad told me, "you can always take it off but you can never put it on."

Wayne Horodowich


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