Kayaking is one of the safest activities around, especially on flat water, mild currents and in good weather. But anytime you’re around water there’s some risk. Wearing a PFD (personal flotation device, or life jacket) almost guarantees safety even in a capsize, unless the temperature of the water is dangerously cold.

Dangerously cold can actually mean different things for different people. Someone who’s used to swimming in cold water and is physically fit will be able to tolerate immersion in colder water better than someone who’s not used to that kind of water.

At what temperature is water considered too cold?

The National Center for Cold Water Safety recommends treating any water below 70 F/21 C with caution. Water temps below 60 F/15 C can be immediately life threatening due to “cold shock” - you lose breathing control, your heart and blood pressure are affected, and your ability to think clearly is impaired.

How to Kayak in cold water?

Kayakers are able to kayak in dangerously cold water when they’re dressed for it. Here are few suggestions from the experts that might help:

  • Wear thin wool and/or fleece layers on both your upper and lower body under a dry suit. Your own body temperature will partly determine how you layer. (If your climate is warmer than the coast of Norway in the winter but still has cold water temperatures, a wetsuit may be enough for you.)
  • Wool socks and waterproof, insulated paddling boots will keep your feet warm. A wool hat is a great addition.
  • Neoprene gloves work well to a point. For serious cold, Gloves with a light wool layer underneath works well.
  • Windproof outer layers.
  • Keep a dry bag onboard with at least one complete change of dry clothes and other emergency items: fire starters and a lighter, a mylar blanket, etc. Some of this will depend whether you’d be able to get help quickly if you need it, or if you’re paddling on secluded waters.
  • Be sure to eat well before you head out and drink plenty of water. Your body needs the extra fuel and hydration in cold weather.
  • Have a “get-out” plan in case the weather turns on you. You may also consider sticking closer to shore than you normally would in case of a capsize.

When taking a kayak trip during the so-called cold season, be sure to eat that extra bit of proteins so you can stand the cold better. When it’s cold outside your body will use more proteins to stay warm. So, when you are out kayaking, and your body is low on proteins you will get cold fast.

As the cold can be a deal breaker when out on the water, I suggest taking a decent a warm drink on all your cold-weather trips. This way when taking your break, you can warm yourself up with a nice cup of coffee or tea. That should get your insides warmed up.

As logical as this may sound, some paddlers don’t keep moving when they become cold. To keep your body and your muscles from getting too cold and cramped up, try to keep moving as much as possible. If you stop moving, your body will start to cool down fast. There are many exercises you can do inside your kayak to stay warm on a cold day. You will need some exercises to keep your legs from cooling down in the cold weather. So, try to memorize some exercises for body parts that become cold easily.

When out on the cold water you will tire easier and it will be harder to stay warm when you are wet. Make sure to take enough breaks so that your body will have the chance to warm up and dry itself when you move around a bit. When taking breaks in cold weather try taking something warm or stop at a warm place.

Since there is nothing worse than getting wet in cold weather, it is suggested to take a kayak seat. This avoids sitting in water and it will keep you much warmer. Having a seat also eases your position in your kayak. This will normally keep you longer on the water. When out kayaking in cold weather it will keep your body from cramping up when sitting in a bad position for a longer period. That’s a bonus because a cramped-up body will become much colder than a relaxed body.

When taking a cold-water trip, be sure to take a small first aid kit that carries the necessary equipment to help you out when you’ve been in the water too long.

So, don’t let the cold stop you. Get out on the water and have a fun, safe time!