Clothing for boating is an extremely important piece of gear, that is why I created a separate document for this topic. Dressing appropriately for kayaking can be quite challenging. Can you catch hypothermia in 90o weather? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Two great examples are:
- Savage River in Western Maryland where the water is released from the bottom of the dam and is often in the low 40's.
- The Grand Canyon (Colorado River) where very long swims are common and the water is around 50o.
Water immersion is amazingly fast at dropping your core temperature. On the other hand, it is really easy to overheat as well. Although the water is cold on the Lower Yough, if I wear a dry top in the summer I will be overheated by the end of the first rapid.
Both extremes are not only uncomfortable, they can be lead to poor judgment and perhaps harm your health.
Another weather issue common in the summer is sun burn, especially for fair skin individuals. Frankly, I hate oily sun block lotions and even the water proof variety seem to come off. A light colored top like a spray jacket with nothing underneath does a great job of blocking the sun without causing me to overheat. A brim on your helmet or baseball cap can add extra shade protection to your face and eyes. Inexpensive sun glasses can also help protect your eyes.
We also need to deal with land based issues - especially during portages. Flip-flops may look neat but are downright dangerous when navigating rocks. Suitable water shoes are essential or old sturdy tennis shoes if you can wear these in your boat. Another land issue is thick undergrowth and poison ivy. Some type of long pants may be quite beneficial.
Our hands are constantly exposed to wind and water. When it is cold and windy, we can lose functionality in our fingers. Poagies or gloves / mittens (sometimes both) can keep your hands warm and functional. When it is quite cold out, I wear dishwashing gloves under my poagies and the combination is excellent. I don't lose any paddle feel which is common with many whitewater gloves and mitts. I also keep a pair of Glacier Gloves in my pin kit for rescue work.
Heat loss is fastest from the head and there are a number of very inexpensive hoods and skull caps to preserve heat.
Due to many advances in whitewater clothing, you don't need to break the bank to stay comfortable.
I will try to list some of this gear below with some recommendations. First off, determine what kind of boating interests you - perhaps you only paddle in warm weather. Give strong consideration to layering systems so you adjust body heat as conditions change throughout the day. Concentrate on the core and your head first. Always wear solid foot protection. Finally, deal with hand protection if necessary.
There are many options available to keep your core warm. When starting out you can certainly save money by purchasing wet suit instead of a dry suit. Wet suits are very easy to repair and provide excellent abrasion resistance. Wetsuits also require very little maintenance. A decent wetsuit will last decades. Most rescue squads have chosen the wetsuit for this reason. The Farmer John style provides excellent warmth and doesn't restrict mobility. Don't choose a scuba diving wetsuit as they are typically too thick, stick with a 3 mm thickness. Wetsuits cost $100 - $150 new and much less used. Dry suits cost $500 - $1,000.
Polypro (or wool) have been used for many years as insulating layers. This type of material lasts many years and is quite inexpensive. Typical cost is $10 - $20 per garment.
Fuzzy Rubber, Hydroskin, Mystery Fabric are various high tech insulating layers. All work great and can be used for three season paddling. Prices range from $50 - $150 and typically last many years. Northwest River Supplies (NRS) is a great place to check out your options. REI, Hudson Trail Outfitters, and Potomac Paddlesports are excellent places to shop as well.
Rash guards like the shirts from Immersion Research are excellent for sun protection and will not overheat you. They typically run about $30.
Splash tops block the wind. You still need an insulating layer underneath to provide warmth. This can be as simple as a cheap nylon windbreaker from Wal-Mart or specially designed from paddling. Ones made for paddling typically come with neoprene wrists and collar to keep some of the water out. Paddling jackets cost $50 - $100 new.
Dry Tops cover only from the waist up. Just like dry suits, you still need an insulating layer underneath. The wrists and neck are latex gaskets to prevent any water seepage. They also have a tunnel system which allows the jacket to sandwich your spray skirt tunnel. These jackets are incredibly warm and many use for four season paddling. All is fine unless you swim or need to help out in a rescue. If you go this route, consider wearing long pants made with a neoprene material. Prices new are typically $200 - $400.
Skull caps or hoods are the best warm gear investment you can make. Here are some options available at Northwest River Supplies: NRS Whitewater Shoes, Prices are $20 - $30 new. This one from NRS is my favorite and costs only $35: NRS Storm Hood.
Many boaters ignore foot protection and go bare foot. Now this may work if you never have to leave your boat, it isn't a very bright practice. In the course of many boating trips, there are a number of places where you may injure your feet without proper protection:
- Put-ins and Take-outs - These are often along steep banks, extended walks, rocky, and sometimes have broken glass and other debris.
- Portages & Shore Scouting - Major drops you don't feel comfortable running. This is usually difficult terrain and may have poison ivy or snakes.
- Rescues - Wet and slippery rocks are the major hazard here.
- Unintentional swims - Sharp rocks and sometimes man-made objects like rebar.
When choosing appropriate foot gear, try to wear something sturdy that still provides easy entry and exit from your boat. On creek boats, this isn't much of a problem. Play boats have a lot less foot room and constrain your options somewhat.
The least expensive alternative is a pair of older sneakers. Sneakers provide excellent foot protection and you can simply toss in the washing machine to clean afterwards.
Whitewater shoes are the ideal choice and there are many brands and models to choose from: NRS Whitewater Shoes. Whitewater shoes provide excellent foot protection and many have soles that are somewhat resistant to slippery rocks. Prices range from $40 - $130.
Whitewater socks may be appropriate for boats where foot room is very tight. Here are some examples: NRS Whitewater Socks You can add several strips of shoe goo to the soles to make them last longer and provide some tackiness. Prices range from $22 - $40.
I am not a big fan of sandals. They do protect the sole but offer little other protection. They have straps that can get caught and lead to foot entrapment. If you choose sandals, consider wearing neoprene socks and securing the sandals in the boat.
Flip-flops are a very bad choice of footwear as they provide very little foot and ankle protection.
This is one area of cold weather protection that is often debated passionately. All agree that hand protection is vital in cold weather paddling. Many including myself choose Poagies to keep my hands warm while paddling. A Poagie is a cloth device that is secured to your paddle. You slip your hands in and it simply keeps the wind out. While paddling, your hands typically generate enough heat to keep them warm. Poagies also allow you to hold the paddle directly. Here is an example of a whitewater Poagie: Whitewater Poagies.
Immersion Research ($35), and Snapdragon ($30 - $40) make excellent Poagies.
Gloves and mitts are also popular. Although you lose some feel of the paddle with gloves (or mitts), they really shine when not paddling like rescue efforts. One brand I really like is Glacier Gloves ($40): Glacier Gloves. NRS has a complete line of paddling gloves ($25 - $40): NRS Paddling Gloves. Many really like the NRS Toaster Mitts.
Finally, I would be remiss to not mention plain old dishwashing gloves. These are really lightweight, cheap, and work surprising well. They provide excellent feel of the paddle shaft as well. If wearing Poagies, it doesn't hurt to pack a pair in the boat (or even wear underneath the Poagies). They don't have a lot of insulation but do provide substantial warmth nonetheless.
Oh-oh, here come the skateboarders. Boaters that paddle steep creeks tend to bang their elbows into rocks from time to time - and that really smarts! Most boaters don't need this extra layer of protection. Most elbow pads come from skateboarding. One challenge you will encounter when purchasing is they seem to be sized for kids and are too tight. This is especially true for the Protec lines of elbow pads. This is one piece of gear I highly recommend purchasing at a local outfitter and not via mail order. Here is an example: Elbow Pads. Priceed around $60.
This is a grab bag of assorted goodies that make the trip more enjoyable. Some are really important like water and protective clothing. Some are for safety like the whistle. Others are for comfort.
Water (or Beverage)
Most paddling trips are between 4 and 6 hours. In this region, we can paddle all four seasons. It is obvious why we need some type of beverage on a hot summer day. Even in the Winter, we still sweat a great deal and we also need water to regulate our body heat. Besides losing water, we also lose various salts through perspiration. Most of us can get away with plain old tap water and replace electrolytes at lunch with food. As we get older, some may need a sports drink like dilute Gatorade to avoid cramping - I know I do. You should carry at least one quart for a full day of paddling. It doesn't hurt to stash a second bottle in the back of the boat just in case or to share. Here is a great article on dehydration: Dehydration.
Many paddlers forget to pack some food. Whitewater paddling can be very strenuous, especially for novice paddlers. As you deplete your energy reserves, paddling will not be as enjoyable and you can't perform at peak efficiency. In the Winter, you need food and water to maintain body heat. Boating food needs to be simple and ideally water resistant - forget the PBJ sandwiches on white bread. Energy bars, trail mix, firm fruit like apples or dry fruit work quite well. I like to bring along some nice dark chocolate and maybe some dried cranberries. Food can also help in treating mild hypothermia. Although most of us are not diabetic, heavy exercise can lead to symptoms very similar to Hypoglycemia or Low Blood Sugar.
Decent whitewater shoes are important for boating. Your feet are your foundation; if you slip and turn an ankle you can no longer safely boat and need assistance. In the course of various whitewater trips, you may need to portage over rocks and boulders, end up swimming (need those shock absorbers), or encounter snakes or yellow jackets. Later on as you gain more experience, you may even be involved in rescue work. A good boating shoe needs to provide great support, great sole protection, and a reasonably grabby surface. Many boaters paddle in bare feet or use sandals. Neither of these are suitable for whitewater boating. Sandals can easily get snagged on underwater objects and provide no protection for your ankles. Play boaters have far more limited options for footwear. One option is to stow more sturdy footwear in the back of the boat.
Whitewater shoes are the ideal choice and there are many brands and models to choose from: NRS Whitewater Shoes. Whitewater shoes provides excellent foot protection and many have soles that are somewhat resistant to slipping on wet rocks. Prices range from $40 - $130. Another good choice is the 5.10 Canyoneer which costs around $126. Another great choice is the 5.10 Water Tennie. Finally, I've had great luck (and excellent customer service) for Astral Brewers.
The following video from Fergus Coffey provides an excellent advice on Selecting Rescue Shoes.
When starting out, good sturdy tennis shoes are far better than bare feet or sandals (may lead to foot entrapment). NRS carries decent river booties for reasonable prices ($25 on up).
Sun burn can happen any time of the year and water acts like a great big reflecting mirror. Fortunately, a large portion of our bodies are covered with various boating gear which will block out the sun. Under Armour and many other companies make great rash guards that wick away moisture and block the sun's harmful rays. Other portions of the body like the face and especially the nose need water resistant sun block. Sun block comes in both solid sticks (my favorite) and the standard creamy stuff. It is a good idea to pack a small container in your dry bag so you can reapply after your lunch break. Here is a really good article on why you need sun protection: Sun Protection Research Report.
This really isn't a major concern in our area unless you plan to paddle at Assateague in late Spring (not likely). The most important ingredient to look for is DEET, more is always better. When I am canoeing up in Canada, I prefer to apply 100% DEET to my clothing instead of my skin. This works well in a canoe where you can stay high and dry. Kayaks have a habit of going through whitewater and are anything but dry. Fortunately when we are on the water barreling down rapids, the bugs leave us alone. Pick windy spots for lunch breaks as this keeps the bugs at bay as well. Whatever you do, avoid any bug repellent with a perfume scent. Floral scents actually attract some bugs like black flies. Here is a nice article on this subject from the EPA on DEET.
Just like you need UV protection for your face, you also need similar protection for your eyes. There are several ways to provide some eye protection like collapsible brows for your helmet and of course sunglasses. Any sunglasses you purchase need sturdy construction and should be inexpensive. They also need to be adaptable to some form of eye glass retainer like croakies or chums. Some helmet shapes make it difficult to wear sunglasses. Here is an example of some sun glasses made especially for kayaking or surfing: Sample Kayak Sunglasses. If you can't fit sunglasses under your helmet, go with the collapsible neoprene head gasket. Here is a nice article on choosing Surf Sunglasses.
Our eyes are critical to whitewater boating. Unfortunately, many of us have less than stellar eye sight. There are a number of ways to overcome this challenge:
- Lasik Eye Surgery - Many boaters have gone this route and are quite happy with the results: Lasik Eye Surgery.
- Soft Contact Lenses - Make certain you carry spares and saline solution in your dry bag.
- Sports Goggles - These work quite well but are subject to fogging.
- Prescription Eyeglasses - Expensive and they need some sort of retainer. It is still a good idea to carry an older spare in your dry bag.
Protective clothing for heat or cold
In our region, we paddle all four seasons. Most of the time, we are concerned about being too cold since that may lead to hypothermia. In the summer time, we also need to be concerned with over-heating. Most of us carry a variety of clothing to handle all types of weather conditions. The following article covers this topic in more detail: Clothing.
A sponge is nice for removing small amounts of water after draining your boat. Few boaters these days carry a sponge and haven't had any issues. They are pretty inexpensive costing between $5 - $10. Most are difficult to secure and are often lost when you end up swimming unless stowed behind your seat. Here is an example from NRS: Sponges. Mason sponges (like the ones used for tile work) are also excellent.
Most hats do not work well under a kayak helmet. One that does is the simple ball cap. This is an alternate and safe way to get some shade for the eyes. The ball cap also protects the top of your head from sunlight when the helmet is taken off at a lunch break. Few paddlers bother to carry a hat.
The Safety Whistle is an important piece of gear you should carry. Whitewater is a very noisy environment so we need other ways to communicate like hand/paddle signals and the safety whistle. When purchasing a safety whistle, go for the loudest one you can find (the Fox 40 certaionly meets this requirement). The NRS Storm Whistle is a good one and only costs $8.
Understand the strengths and limitations of personal gear and rescue equipment
Few pieces of gear are perfect, although they are getting better all the time. Many pieces of gear have to make trade-offs like weight versus some safety. Let's take helmets for instance, the gold standard would be a motorcycle helmet. I highly recommend taking a very close look at how they are constructed. The padding is exceptionally thick and protects a very wide range of impacts. Their helmets undergo extensive impact testing to meet federal standards. Sellers are required to make certain the helmet fits perfectly before you leave the store. Why don't we use motorcycle helmets for kayaking? They are heavy and very prone to mildew. In recent years, we have adopted the full face concept though.
PFDs have changed over the years as well. Older vests had far more buoyancy and many are still in service for that reason. New vests are much more streamlined and have many nice features like ample pockets to safely stow extra gear like a small throw bag, rescue knife, or carabineers. The price of rescue vests has dropped considerably making it hard to justify purchasing a non-rescue vest.
Thermal protection has gotten far less expensive. A dry suit used to be a luxury item - now it is common place.
Boats have far more safety features like walls when needed or very rigid plastic as on Prijon boats. Most river runners have convenient grab bars right behind the cockpit, something only good creek boats had in years past. Cockpits are huge compared to the keyhole cockpits I started with. If your boat lacks a decent hand hold on the end, I highly recommend adding one with climbing webbing.
Ropes have various trade-offs as well. A full size rope may be too large to fit in a play boat and too heavy when wet. On the other hand, they can't be beat in serious rescue work. Polypropylene ropes handles exceptionally well, floats, and stretches - all great features in traditional throw bag work. On the other hand, it isn't very strong and has a low melting point so it might not be suitable for unpinning a seriously pinned boat.
During our class, we will discuss pros and cons for many different features of gear.
Emphasize prior planning and practice when using rescue equipment
Rescue practice is essential. How often have you witnessed rescue situations where many couldn't toss a throw rope? This is why we practice this skill multiple times during our classes, first on stationary targets and then on moving ones. Practice belaying skills as well. I lead various "workouts" throughout the year that reinforce several key rescue skills like throw ropes, wading, and swimming. This is a great deal of fun in the summer months. In regards to planning, when was the last time you tested your PFD? Are you certain that it still floats you properly? It is a good idea to jump in a deep body of calm water to test your buoyancy. Each Winter, it is a good idea to check your carabineers, pulleys, rope, and first aid kit. I also recommend taking a look at your dry suit gaskets and adding some seal protection. Before using your rescue vest, test the quick release buckle and rethread.
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