How to Dress for Paddling this Spring

It’s that time of year again, finally! The days are getting longer, the sun is getting stronger, the water is winking at you, beckoning you to come on out. But wait! What exactly are you wearing??

Believe it or not, immersion in water as warm as 50-60 degrees can cause what is called “Cold Water Shock”. If you capsize in waters at these temperatures or below, your body’s first reaction is to gasp for air, followed by increased heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, and disorientation. In only a few minutes, your body can become incapacitated.

Hypothermia is more well known and happens when the body can’t reheat itself or maintain its core temperature. Cold water shock can easily lead to hypothermia and both can be fatal. These preventable tragedies happen frequently in the spring because the days can be so warm and inviting but the water still hasn’t had enough time to warm up.


Remember, only a few months ago these were the same waters you want to paddle on today! Brrrr…

Even though most of the waterways in our area are shallow, you always want to dress for immersion. In water as shallow as four feet, unless you are at least seven feet tall, and even with some training, it will take you a little bit of time to get back in your boat. You need to be dressed so that you won’t become disoriented if you capsize, and so that you won’t get hypothermic if you have to stay in the water longer than expected.

Here are some general rules for paddling in cold water:

*Always wear your PFD. Purchase a PFD that is comfortable so that you will always wear it. Not only will it keep you afloat if you are disoriented, but it will also provide you with some insulation.

*In water 60 degrees or lower, at the very minimum, you should wear a wetsuit. A dry suit is better. In a wetsuit you will still get wet, but it provides a layer of insulation to allow you to stay in the water longer. A dry suit has tight gaskets at your neck, wrist, and ankles to keep any water from entering so you stay dry.

Mitch assateague surf4 250x250

It may look like a hazmat suit to some, but Mitch practically lives in his dry suit this time of year. It is comfortable and allows for great range of movement.

*Never wear cotton on the water!! Cotton takes a long time to dry and the wet material next to your skin will suck any heat away that your body is trying to produce. Wear synthetic clothing that drys quickly instead. These days you can find it anywhere – athletic stores, fishing stores, surf stores. If you are in the desert and need to stay cool, break out that cotton T-shirt. But on the water, cotton kills!

*Pack a change of clothes in a dry bag and take it with you.

*Bring chocolate! OK – it doesn’t have to be chocolate, just a personal preference. But have something with you that is high in carbohydrates. Eating it will provide body-warming energy.

*Stay hydrated.

Soon enough we’ll all be peeling off the layers, enjoying seventy-degree water and eighty-degree days. But until then, be smart, have fun, and be safe!

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