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Environmental Factors to Consider Before Going Paddling

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

Here are some of the most important elements that affect your comfort and safety while out on the water:

  1. Water temperature

  2. Air temperature

  3. Wind Chill

  4. Heat generated from paddling (adds warmth)

  5. Distance from shore, expected time on water & weather changes

Let’s dive in a little deeper to make sure you have a clear understanding of the importance of each of these factors while you are planning to get out on the water for your paddling adventures.

Water Temperature

Water temperature varies greatly from locale to locale, while in many areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, ocean waters remain cold throughout the year, increasing only a few degrees in the summer. These water temperatures, often at odds with the air temperature, can make it difficult for paddlers to know how to dress for their on-water adventures. The best and overriding rule to go by is always: “Dress for immersion!”

What does this mean? Simply put, assume you will fall in and wear clothing appropriate for the water temperature, rather than the air. It may not need to be said, but cold water (any water less than 21 celsius or 70 Fahrenheit) is our greatest concern.

“Cold water immersion is the leading cause of death in paddlesports, yet thousands of paddlers are unaware of the danger.” In fact, cold water can be so dangerous that paddlers who fall in while inadequately prepared can die within seconds. This article on the 5 Golden Rules for Boating in Cold Water is a MUST READ for anyone venturing out for a paddle in cold water.

It may be helpful to understand that heat is actually conducted away from the body (through convection) 24 times faster in water than in the air. For paddlers who are wet or immersed in the water, this means hypothermia will set in at an alarmingly rapid rate. Canada’s AdventureSmart safety program explains the 1:10:1 Principle of Cold Water Immersion. While this may seem terribly scary, we can’t stress enough how important it is to be well educated on this topic. What does all of this mean for paddleboarders trying to decide what to wear when paddling in colder waters?

  • To protect ourselves from massive convection heat loss while in cold water or while wet, it is necessary to wear an appropriate thickness of wetsuit or a drysuit with warm under layers.

  • It is important to remember that while a drysuit keeps you dry, it has no insulatory properties. Your warmth must come from the clothing you wear underneath.

  • Typically, the colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit needed to keep you warm.

  • Wetsuits require a thin layer of water to sit between your skin and the neoprene. This will work better if you are generating heat from movement which warms that layer of water.

Air Temperature

To protect ourselves from cold air temperatures (heat loss through convection) and help capture and hold the heat we create while paddling, we need an insulation layer (or two). This layer should be snug-fitting and consist of fabrics that help move moisture away from the base layer, yet retain your precious body heat. These layers trap your body heat in air pockets between the fibres of materials like wool, fleece and other synthetic fills.

To protect ourselves from hot air temperatures and the sun, it is important to wear cooler clothing that also provides sunblock. Rashguards, light workout wear and bathing attire are appropriate in these conditions along with sunscreen and hats to prevent heatstroke. Having plenty of drinking water on board is a necessity.

Wind Chill

Wind chill, the "feels-like" temperature, is how cold it actually feels on your skin when the wind is factored in. Wind strips away the thin layer of warm air above your skin. The stronger the wind, the more heat is lost from your body, and the colder it will feel. When the winds are light, it will feel closer to the actual air temperature.

To protect ourselves from wind chill (heat loss through convection) as well as help hold our heat produced from paddling, we need shell layers. Jackets, paddle tops and drysuits made of nylon, Gore-tex or other finely woven, windproof materials tackle this job best. This external layer also helps keep you dry when it rains or you get splashed.

Generated Heat from Paddling

We’ve already mentioned the body heat that is generated while you are paddling. You have learned that to keep it next to your skin you need both insulation and wind protection. If you are overdressed, however, you might overheat and begin sweating. In colder air temperatures, too much trapped heat (in the form of damp sweat) actually makes you colder. Ideally, your windproof shell can be unzipped and/or your thermal layer can be removed and stored in an attached dry bag until you cool down. One of the advantages of a drysuit is that it enables you to carefully slip into the water for a few moments to cool down, when you start to overheat, yet stay dry to prevent hypothermia.

Distance from Shore, Expected Time on Water & Weather Changes

These factors go hand in hand. If you expect to be out far from shore or paddle longer distances, it is necessary to take into consideration the time it will take you to get back to warmth and comfort. Should you happen to fall in or become cold and wet from unexpected changes in weather leading to rain or wind, you want to know you are either wearing or packing the necessary clothing to give you time to get home safely. This requires careful trip planning and preparation.

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