Video: Cold-Water Paddling Gear & Advice

Balmy days in spring, fall and even winter often fuel the urge to get on the water in kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, but you’ve got to play it safe, especially when the water is below 60 degrees. Keep in mind that much of Maine’s coastal waters remain below that mark through the summer.

If you accidentally end up in water that cold, you have very little time to get to shore or summon help before you start to become hypothermic, so you need to be dressed right, carry the proper safety equipment and have a plan for staying—and getting—out of trouble.

In the accompanying video and article, New England Boating’s Tom Richardson reviews some paddling gear and tips designed to keep you safer and more comfortable on a cold-water or cold-weather trip.

Location, Location

Perhaps the best safety device—aside from a lifejacket—to carry with you is a Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB. When activated, a PLB will alert search-and-rescue personnel and lead them to your location, no matter where you are. Retail prices for these devices start at around $200.

Dress for Comfort & Survival

A dry suit can keep you alive longer if you end up in the water.
A dry suit can keep you alive longer if you end up in the water.

Consider wearing breathable, lightweight polypropylene undergarments. And if venturing far from shore, you might want to invest in a dry suit, which seals out water in the event of a roll. A dry suit is critical in very cold water, where the human body can only withstand a few minutes of immersion before simple motor functions become impossible. A dry suit won’t guarantee survival, but it may buy you enough time to reach shore or climb back on the kayak.

Obviously, the most important paddling garment is a PFD, which will keep you afloat even if your limbs become useless or you can’t get back in the kayak. Always wear one, even on summer days.

Waterproof gloves are another key item to wear. After all, you can’t get very far in a kayak if you can’t hold a paddle.

The Right Ride

Sit-on-top kayaks provide a greater margin of safety in cold water, as they are easier to re-board after a roll. Sit-in kayaks are harder to re-enter and de-water, especially when you’re cold and wearing bulky garments.

Shore Thing

Staying close to the shoreline is a great way to stay safe. It might take longer to get where you want to go, but at least you’ll be within easier reach of dry land if you become exhausted, disoriented or capsize.

Buddy Up

Paddle with a partner. A friend can help you get out of the water, make it to shore, or alert rescuers in an emergency. He or she can also keep your spirits up if things get scary.

File a Float Plan

Always let people on shore know where you intend to paddle and your estimated time of return. Just don’t forget to tell them if your plans change. A float plan can be as simple as a sketch or description of your route left on the seat of your vehicle.

Watch the Weather

The weather can change quickly in the spring and fall, so make sure you check the forecast before setting out. On the water, watch the skies for any sign of an approaching front and check the latest weather updates on your phone. If the wind starts to pick up, consider cutting your trip short and turning around.

Safety items. Photo/New Englnad Boating, Tom Richardson
Safety items. Photo Tom Richardson

Other safety items to consider:

  • cell phone in a waterproof bag
  • waterproof handheld VHF radio
  • handheld GPS or compass
  • whistle
  • airhorn
  • signal mirror
  • flares
  • food
  • water
  • mylar “space” blanket