Hypothermia, or a pronounced drop in the body's core temperature caused by exposure to cold, is a special concern for paddlers. Although sometimes believed to occur only in sub-freezing conditions, it can actually develop in a wide range of temperatures. It can be a significant threat if exposure to wind, rain or cold water is prolonged. Be aware of the water temperature and dress for it, especially if you face the risk of capsizing. Read more about protective cold-water clothing layers.
Sun, too, can be a problem when intensified by the water. Protect your skin by wearing sun-resistant clothing, wide-brimmed hats and sunscreen.
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Just as with any sport, you will be more comfortable when paddling if you dress in layers that can be added or removed as conditions change. Wearing an inner wicking layer followed by insulation and an outer wind- and water- protection layer is standard practice for staying comfortable and protected from the elements. Following are examples of fabrics typical of each layer:
Wicking Fabrics—Wicking fabrics (such as polypropylene, REI MTS®, Patagonia Capilene® or CoolMax® polyester) pull sweat from the surface of your skin and transfer it to your outer clothing layers, keeping you dry, warm and comfortable. They're designed to be worn as a first layer, either alone in warm conditions or under other layers in cooler conditions. Wicking fabrics are available in both tops and bottoms, with different thicknesses for varying temperatures and levels of activity.
Cotton—Cotton is breathable, making it ideal for warm-weather activities. But it's also very absorbent and slow to dry. When wet, cotton holds the moisture next to your body, cooling you as it evaporates. This can be comfortable on a hot, sunny day but becomes dangerous in colder conditions. For all but very warm environments it's best to leave the cotton at home.
Nylon—Nylon is wind resistant, quick drying and comfortable against the skin. Shorts, pants or shirts made of lightweight nylon are suitable for paddling in warm to moderate conditions. Nylon pants that convert into shorts are especially useful for paddling environments where temperatures change frequently.
Wool—Wool is a great natural insulator, even when wet. Pants, shirts, sweaters and jackets made of wool have traditionally been used for outdoor wear because of their insulating value. The downside to wool is that it is slow to dry and can be heavy and bulky.
Synthetic Fleece or Pile—Fleece is quick drying, remains warm even when wet and is only half the weight of wool. Jackets, vests and pants are available in fleece in a variety of thicknesses for different conditions. Although most fleece has no wind blocking and should be paired with an outer shell in breezy conditions, some styles feature built-in, windproof membranes, eliminating the need for a shell layer.
On paddling trips in warm or moderate temperatures and fairly calm water, regular rain gear is usually adequate protection. The basic types you have to choose from are:
Water-Resistant/Breathable Layers—These repel wind and light precipitation while providing excellent breathability. They're perfect for trips in arid and/or warm conditions where good airflow is important and the chance of heavy precipitation is low.
Waterproof/Breathable Layers—These provide reliable waterproof protection and good breathability. They perform well in a wide range of weather conditions, keeping rain/spray/splashes at bay all day. At the same time they let your sweat and body heat escape to keep you dry and comfortable. Gore-Tex® and REI Elements® are among the most popular waterproof/breathable fabrics.
Waterproof/Non-Breathable Layers—These fabrics, which include coated nylon and PVC, are extremely durable, relatively inexpensive and totally waterproof. But they're not breathable, so they can quickly feel very warm when you're paddling hard. To avoid overheating, choose styles that are cut very loosely (like ponchos) or have special venting features to let body heat and moisture escape. Learn more about choosing rainwear.
In whitewater or surf kayaking, when you need a little more protection from waves, spray jackets and pants are a good choice. These are typically made of durable, waterproof nylon with sealed seams to keep out splashes. They feature neoprene collars and cuffs at wrists and ankles for a tight (but not immersion-proof) seal. Some styles offer mesh lining for ventilation and "Competition Cut" underarm gussets for full range of motion. It's best to wear a wicking layer underneath to prevent condensation from chilling the skin.
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In warm conditions, hats provide protection from both the rain and the sun. In cold conditions, they also help keep you warm. (Up to 75 percent of all body heat lost is lost through the head.) Look for a hat with a wide brim to block the sun/rain and a retention strap so you don't lose it in rough conditions.
Paddlers' hands take a lot of abuse from wind, weather and waves. To protect yours, keep them as dry as possible. In warm conditions, a little sunscreen during the day and skin lotion at night should do the trick.
Wearing gloves not only protects hands from the elements but can prevent blisters, especially in newer paddlers who may tend to have a tighter grip on their paddle. Paddling gloves made of neoprene, nylon or Lycra® spandex provide good grip and protection.
Keeping your feet dry and warm can be tough on some paddling trips. They often get wet during boat entries and exits, and they can stay that way for hours, especially in rough conditions.
In warm weather and water, wet feet are rarely a serious problem. Sport sandals, water slippers, or even old tennis shoes work just fine. In colder conditions, wet feet mean cold feet. You can keep them completely dry in calf-high rubber boots or with Gore-Tex® socks worn inside boots or shoes. Or opt for thick-soled neoprene booties which will allow your feet to get wet but will keep them warm.
Attempting to hike, explore, or portage in wet, soggy shoes can lead to blisters, twisted ankles or falls. So pack an extra set of durable, lightweight and comfortable footwear for onshore activities. Store this back-up footwear in a waterproof storage bag until needed.
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By REI Staff
Last updated: 06/20/2013
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