Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gear: 8 Tips for Dressing Right for Your Kayaking Adventure

One question that comes up frequently when folks ask me about kayaking is "what clothing should I wear?". The answers have always seemed a bit obvious to me (and perhaps to experienced kayakers), but then, maybe they're not - and a discussion of the topic certainly can't hurt. I don't think it's necessary to spend a lot of money on high end gear, but the materials certainly matter. When it comes to extreme scenarios like very cold water, investing in a quality piece of clothing is essential to your safety. The most important concept to remember is that you are dressing for the water (even though you have no intention of swimming) as much as for the air. It can sometimes be challenging to be comfortable in the dry conditions, and yet still be prepared for an untimely wet immersion. So, here's some pointers on how to find the right balance:

1.The most important piece of clothing is your PFD. I know, your life jacket (personal flotation device) is not exactly a piece of clothing, but it is something you wear, and it is the single most important adornment you need for your safety. This is one of those items that is worth researching and spending some money on. Find one that is designed for the type of kayaking you will be doing, that fits snugly and can be tightened easily (LIKE THIS), and that remains comfortable when tightened while affording a full range of motion. Check the U.S. Coast Guard's guide to PFD selection. Find one that you like and wear it properly - always.  

2. Wear materials that dry quickly. The best way to keep warm is to keep dry. If you're wearing a cotton t-shirt and cotton shorts (or worse - jeans), you will not dry quickly and will be wet, and most likely cold (see my post "Florida Day" - Our Florida Paddle Adventure). Synthetic materials that are designed to wick away moisture work well in wet conditions. Make no mistake - drying off will make you colder. It's like sweating times ten, especially if it's windy. Getting dry quickly, however, will stop the evaporative cooling process and allow your body to regain its' proper operating temperature. A faster way, still, is to have a dry set of clothing safely stowed in a dry bag. A quick change is the fastest way to dry off and get your body heat back. You can dry your wet synthetic clothing under the deck rigging, then they can be your backup. I save money on this gear by sourcing it at discount retailers. Synthetic, wicking fabrics seem to be everywhere these days.            

3. Carefully consider your footwear. If you stay in your boat, and the most work your footwear has to do is rest on some pegs or push rudder pedals, then you can get away with a pair of water proof sandals (and no, I don't mean flip flops). How likely is that going to be the case? You might need to get out and walk on rocks or gravel, cross mussel beds or barnacles, drag your 'yak across tough marsh grass, or slog through ankle deep mud. Mud can suck the shoes right off you - so those water slippers you bought at ____mart will not cut it. I like to wear zip up wetsuit boots (LIKE THESE). The material stays relatively warm on my feet even when they're wet, and the snug fit keeps them on in the mud. I have a pair that also feature a rugged sole that can handle sharp edges like shells and barnacles. 

4. Wear a hat. On a sunny day you will be at the mercy of the sun's rays for extended periods. Your head (especially if you're getting a little thin on top like me 😉) will bear the brunt of the exposure. There are lots of styles available, but make sure the one you choose is made of quick drying materials, has a brim or visor of some kind, and has some method to stay on in windy conditions (like a drawstring chinstrap for instance). There are models available with flaps on the back to protect your neck, with bug netting attached, with a brim that can fold up to lessen wind name it. This is another item to consider carefully, and maybe to have a back up, in case yours blows away.  

5. Wear eye protection. The sun, the wind, salt water spray...all of it, can affect your eyes adversely. Water reflects the sunshine, and it can interfere with your vision - if a fast moving boat or jetski is moving toward you, that could be a safety issue. You don't have to shell out for expensive shades. Just get something that's UV rated, and get some kind of attachment (like croakies) that loops them on your head. I have mini-floats on mine in case I lose them - theoretically they prevent my shades from sinking, and I'll be able to locate the floats in the water by their bright yellow color. 
Floats that help keep sunglasses from sinking
Foam floats looped onto sunglasses
Buy cheap models so you can bring a backup pair.

6. Consider a drysuit. Ok, this is not an inexpensive proposition. A dry suit, when it works correctly, is designed to do just what it is named for - to keep you dry if you end up in the water. Why might you need one? If the water is cold enough, it can kill you - that's why (see my post Safety is a Mindset ). I wrote "when it works correctly" because the weak spot on a dry suit is the gaskets at the wrists, the neck, and the ankles (if booties are not attached). If any of these fail, water enters the suit - and you are not dry. These gaskets need to be maintained. Also, you'll want one with a front zipper if you're a guy. That way, you won't have to take it all the way off to do your business, if necessary. These cost at least several hundred dollars, so consider carefully what water temperatures you'll be paddling over before you decide to buy one. But remember - even moderate water temp's can send you into hypothermia if you don't get out of the water fast, and get dry fast. If you're planning springtime paddling, especially if you're going alone, you may want to purchase one. It could save your life. Do your research, and get a good model.

7. Consider wet suit separates. What do I mean by separates? Well, wetsuits come in full suits (all one piece - legs and arms covered), which I wear when I surf my waveski (see my post What's That Thing Called?). They also come in two piece arrangements, versions with short bottoms, sleeveless versions, and "farmer john" over-all type designs. You won't want a full wetsuit in case you need to answer the call of nature. Two piece bottoms can easily be removed, and "farmer johns" can be peeled down. You'll also want to pay attention to the thickness, which is measured in millimeters. 2mm is a relatively thin layer, 3mm and 4mm are thicker, and 5mm is for very cold water. If there are two thicknesses (usually thicker in the body, thinner on the limbs), there will be two numbers - like a 3|2 or 4|3 for example. Remember, wetsuits are named as such because you will get wet if you fall in the water. They are designed to keep you warmer while you are submerged, by trapping a layer of water against your body. The thicker the material, the warmer it will keep you. However, this does not mean you will be impervious to the cold water - it just buys you some more time. Once you're out of the water, you'll want to get the wetsuit garments off, and get dry asap. Recently, I went on a paddle where the air temperature was close to 80F, and the ocean temperature was around 48F. The water where I was paddling was a little warmer (outbound tide), so I'll estimate it at 58F. If I had been in a full wetsuit, I would have been baking in the sun. So, I wore a pair of drysuit pants and a 2mm wetsuit vest over a synthetic top. This way, I was not too hot in the sun, but I had a little insurance should I go for an unexpected dip. I had to wade through some water at one point, and the dry pant ankle gaskets failed - a good lesson to learn in a non-emergency situation. I'll have to revisit those pants to see if they're sufficient for future trips.

8. Wear gloves. Neoprene gloves can help keep your hands warm - very cold hands cannot properly grip a paddle. The main reason you'll want gloves in all weather, though, is to avoid blisters. A blister can make every paddle stroke torture, and can ruin your day. I recommend a couple pair - one for cold water, and an open/half fingers model for when it gets warmer (bring the cold water pair as a back up in case you need them).  

One additional item you might want to consider, although not a garment, that could increase your comfort level, is a seat pad. If you paddle for hours, and your backside has gotten a little bony with age like mine has, a seat pad can make a world of difference. I have a thin gel pad that I use. Just that half inch of gel between me and the kayak seat quite literally saves my ass 😅. 

Dressing appropriately for your paddle adventure is simply another act of preparation - like planning your trip (see my post Where Should I Paddle?) and maintaining your gear (see my post Kayak Repairs That Last). If you do it right, you'll be comfortable, confident, and prepared for the unexpected. Don't forget to wear a bathing suit underneath on a hot summer paddle - just in case your own private sandbar beach invites you for a swim. Just keep an eye on the 'yaks, or it will be a longer swim then you planned 😉.

- TB on the Water     


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