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Cold Water Protective Clothing Information

I work as the Northern Rockies representative for Kokatat and have been doing white-water boating since 1972, when I “fell into” a summer job as a guide on Idaho’s Middle Fork Salmon.

However it took a tragedy on Idaho’s South Fork Boise in 2001: to make me re-examine what I believed about survival time in very cold water.

May 5, 2001 two-couples launched their rented paddle raft on the very cold (estimated 40-45 degree F.) S. Fork Boise River, for a day trip on a 17 mile Class III+ section.

They had taken a rafting class at Boise State University and were wearing recommended clothing for a cold-water day: “Farmer John” wetsuits, neoprene booties and gloves, water-proof paddle-jackets, life-jackets, and helmets.

They hit a rock and “flipped” their raft at the entry to a long class III rapid. The four boaters then clung to their upside down raft until the end of the rapid. It is a fairly long rapid, with a number of large rocks, but takes less than 5 minutes to float through.

By the end of the rapid: two of the boaters were unable to respond to instructions, or swim to shore. They both died shortly afterwards of hypothermia or drowning.

Most experienced paddlers have a good understanding of what clothing they need for different weather conditions, and water temperatures. Many beginning and intermediate paddlers may need some advice.

Alicia has saved as PDF’s and furnished links to two articles I have written on the subject of cold-water clothing.

The first is a one page “cheat-sheet.”

The second is the five-page, fairly technical, research report that the above accident inspired me to write.

Boat Warm!

Great to have these articles on the forum. The American Canoe Association recommends that if the water is 50 degrees or less, or if the combined air and water temperature is less than 120 degrees, wet suits or dry suits should be worn. As well, boating alone, or in the case above, a one boat trip is not recommended.

Mr. Ray Brooks,

Thank you for that very useful, informative and well articulated article regarding cold water survival.

However I was not clear on a few items listed on the pdf chart.

For example, under "Recommended Clothing for Water Temperature:

60-79 deg F : light wetsuit vests, paddle tops, Kayakers-drytop 60-69 deg F.

I assume you mean a rafter will be wearing bathing suit bottom and layering a wets suit vest with a water resistant top? And the recommendation for a kayaker is a drytop, i.e. one with latex gaskets? Or does it mean, if the water is on the low end ( i.e. 60-69 deg F) of the stated temperature range, i.e. 60-79 deg. F, one should upgrade their top layer from a paddle top to a drytop? This would apply to either a rafter or kayaker?

50-59 deg F : Again seems to make a distinction between a kayaker and rafter. Am I correct? Also, in this range, you seem to indicate having a rafter wear a drysuit with a light insulating layer, yet you recommend a kayaker add a drytop with insulation. In this case the rafter seems to be more protected than the kayaker.

40-49 deg F : Now it seems the kayaker needs more protection than the rafter.

If you don't mind, I'd love to see a clarification of the various clothing suggestions.

Thank you for your time.
Southern California

Member Wilderness Medical Society

Hi Fred, I'm sure Ray will respond, but I'll add my two cents worth. A kayaker with a good roll, will not need anything below the waist in terms of a dry suit. Hence the dry top is sufficient. Canoeists and rafters have to concern themselves with total body immersion in any event. In the NW, rafters are always in wetsuits at least, if only farmer johns. Bear in mind too, that a swim in a boney rapid will often result in some contact with the rocks. A wetsuit will add some bruise protection.

Fred: Thank you for the questions.

Let me assure you that I put a lot of thought into the "Recommended Clothing for Water Temperature" chart. Mainly, I did not want to make it too long or complicated: thus it is too simplistic on the differences between rafter and kayaker clothing needs.

Kayakers usually need more insulation, because they are sitting inside a boat that is conducting their body heat directly into the water. Also kayakers often have a wetter ride than rafters, and are more likely to cool down.

I wrote: "Protective clothing is important in the boat, as well as in the water. Kayakers will experience direct conductive cooling from cold water through the bottom of their boat. Both kayakers and rafters will cool down when out of direct sunlight. Also wind, rain, and wave splash will cool down boaters rapidly."

I recommend a "dry-top" for kayakers for water in the 60-69 degree range, because they are more likely to chill-down than rafters.

Erich is mostly right in asserting that a kayaker with a good roll will do fine in a drytop. I agree with him in water down to 50 degrees (thus my showing drytops in the 50-59 range), but I see most kayakers wearing wetsuits or drysuits for full day trips in water colder than 50 degrees.

In above 60 degree water temperature: immediate hypothermia during a swim is not a great concern. I do always recommend that boaters have quick access to rain-pants and tops for chill-down conditions. More clothing is optional, but depends more on air temperature than water temperature.

Dry-tops are more for kayakers. The necks and cuffs are latex rubber or "punch-through" neoprene and are very water-tight. The bottom has two pieces of fabric, designed to go on the inside and outside of a kayak spray-skirt, for a water-tight seal.

Wish we could have this discussion around the campfire! It would flow much more easily.

December 5, 2020
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