NOVICE’S GUIDE TO DRESSING FOR PADDLING IN COOL WEATHER
(NOTE: This article applies ONLY to paddling situations where your boat is within 50 feet of the shore. If a capsize occurs, you must be able to get yourself to the bank within one or two minutes. In other situations, where you may be paddling further from shore, you must dress for IMMERSION, which requires either a wet suit or a dry suit.)
UNDERNEATH IT ALL
Get some underwear that is all synthetic - cotton is rotten! Both men’s and women’s styles are available at outdoor shops and often at your local discount store. It is not hard to find synthetic tee shirts, sports bras and undies. Some of us also prefer a silk undershirt close to our skin. A two piece swimsuit (for the ladies) can serve the same purpose as synthetic underwear.
Many paddlers wear synthetic pants, lycra tights or long johns on the bottom, with synthetic zip turtlenecks and fleece pullovers on top. Popular for their wicking qualities (drawing water away from your skin), synthetic fibers dry quickly and help keep your body warmth in when it's cold out. Do not wear cotton because it has the opposite effect by conducting body heat away from your body. Don’t even think about wearing blue jeans!
Another option is a neoprene or Goretex/lycra wet suit, which is worn right next to your skin, usually over a swim suit. A wet suit can be a life saver when a person is exposed to cold water. The material traps a thin layer of water as a thermal barrier against the outside cold water.
You need to have a jacket and pants that will protect you from water, whether it is falling from the sky, splashing up from the surface or merely dripping off your paddle. Water and wind repellant, these garments are made of coated nylon or a breathable/waterproof fabric like Goretex.
At some point you may decide to invest in a dry suit, which keeps all water away from your entire body by using snug rubber gaskets at the neck and wrists. Most novice paddlers are not willing to invest in one since they cost from $350 to $900. However, if you are going to paddle in open water from late fall to early spring, this is the only safe garment to wear.
Needless to say, a properly fitting PFD must be worn on top of everything!
Paddling in cold water requires warm waterproof shoes or boots, with wool or fleece socks inside. If you go on a club trip with some of the more experienced paddlers, you will see a variety of shoes: neoprene booties, mukluks by Chota, “Bean boots” from LL Bean, rubber barn boots (“Wellies”), Goretex hiking boots, neoprene socks inside river sandals or lace-up paddling shoes, etc.
Take a warm hat, and a visor or sun hat to cut down on glare. You don’t have to wear either, but you can decide that once you are out in your boat. Many paddlers like to take a wide brimmed rain hat, which gives better visibility than a hood in nasty weather. It also keeps your glasses dry.
You need to have something to keep your hands warm and nimble on cool or windy days. Most fleece or wool gloves will work, though you can use gloves designed especially for water sports, usually made from neoprene or a synthetic blend. Make sure the palm will allow you to get a good grip on your paddle. A common complaint among paddlers, especially early in the season, is blisters on their hands, and gloves will prevent that from happening. Gloves can easily get wet, so it’s a good idea to have a spare pair available.
It is good practice to secure any dry bags to your boat so they stay with the boat in the event of a capsize. You'll need to take into consideration a multitude of factors when packing your stuff: air temperature, water temperature, cloud cover, precipitation, destination remoteness, etc. One rule to follow: always expect to get wet, and dress and pack accordingly. A good idea is to pack a COMPLETE set of extra clothes that is even warmer than the ones you plan to wear at the beginning of the day. Every item should be synthetic or wool. Most folks do not pack an extra pair of shoes, but instead have a pair of warm socks with some plastic bags to put between them and your wet footwear. If you need your dump clothes, it will be because you are cold and wet. And remember, Murphy’s Rule of dump clothes is that “if you pack them, you probably won’t need them!” Happy paddling!