Cold-Water Paddling and You: Six Tips from Rutabaga Paddlesports

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The calendar says it's Spring, but due to cooler than normal temperatures, the water is very cold.

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"There were cornstalks in the trees six feet above my head. The normal flow of that river is 200 cubic feet per second (CFS). At flood stage it was 3800. That's a lot of cold water moving very, very quickly."

Cold weather safety for paddlers must be more than an afterthought. Dressing for cold water is paramount.

"A prepared paddler is going to be dressing for the temperature of the water, not the air temperature," said Darren Bush, owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports. "Water can pull heat away from your body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. Dressing for immersion is the way to ensure safety."

Bush emphasizes six must-dos to get out on the water this Spring.

1) Always wear your lifejacket:
"While regulations usually state the lifejacket (PFD) has to be on your boat, the truth is when you find yourself in the water, you will be much happier that you're wearing it," Bush said. "In four out of five paddling deaths, the paddler was not wearing their lifejacket."

2) Dress for the water temperature:
This means protective clothing against the cold. "You want to protect your body from losing heat. Insulation against your skin is the way to stay safe, not to mention comfortable," said Bush.

Paddle clothing can be as simple as a wetsuit that traps a thin layer of water against your skin. The neoprene of the suit provides insulation.

"Generally speaking, wet suits are less expensive and provide excellent insulation," said Bush. "Dry suits are wonderful and more comfortable, but more expensive."

If a paddler doesn't have technical paddling clothing, it won't preclude a paddle from getting on the water. "Wearing wool clothing is an excellent strategy as it retains the ability to keep your warm while wet once you get out of the water. With a dry storage bag and a change of clothes, you can be comfortable and safe quickly."

3) Let someone know where you're going by creating a float plan:
"This doesn't have to be a lot of work. A float plan simply means that you tell someone where you're going, when you're starting, and when you plan to be off the water, and where," says Bush. "That way if you are late, the person with your plan can call in help if you're not back in a reasonable time."

4) There is safety in numbers:
Don't go paddling alone. "While it's nice to think of the solitude and desirability of a peaceful paddle, this isn't the time to go solo. Wait until the water is warmer and the risk of immersion is less," said Bush.

5) Choose familiar water for early Spring paddles:
Spring is not the time to explore new territory. Surprises are potentially dangerous. Stick to places you've paddled before.

6) Use the internet to track river flows:
"Spring water levels are always higher due to run-off from snow melt and Spring showers. A river can change radically with a little rainfall or a sudden increase in temperature, as I discovered at a local favorite after a Spring flood," said Bush. "There were cornstalks in the trees six feet above my head. The normal flow of that river is 200 cubic feet per second (CFS). At flood stage it was 3800. That's a lot of cold water moving very, very quickly."

The USGS maintains a website that shows water the water levels and flows of most of the major rivers in the United States. That website is

Rutabaga Paddlesports has suspended its normal test-paddling program until the water warms up. "We use a combination of air and water temperature equaling 110 degrees," Bush said. "We want to make sure people testing equipment are safe and comfortable in the case of the occasional unintentional swim." Once test-paddling resumes, it will run daily through mid-October.

Rutabaga Paddlesports has received Paddlesports Retailer of the Year from Canoe and Kayak Magazine a record eight times and was voted one of the best 50 Places to Work by Outside Magazine in 2011. Rutabaga Paddlesports is a nationally-recognized kayak, canoe and stand up paddle (SUP) retailer. Family-owned and operated since 1976, Rutabaga also owns The company's paddling school, Rutabaga Outdoor Programs, teaches paddling skills to more than one thousand paddlers each year.


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