Paddling with waves

Clothing for sea kayaking

A lot can be said about clothing for sea kayaking. Functional clothing is a problem and something that sea kayakers never cease to discuss. I will try to present some thoughts on what is to be condidered when deciding what to wear for a kayaking trip on the sea both summer and winter. In Norway it is always winter – in the sea! The water represents a danger all the year round, and it is important to dress with this in mind. The sea kayaker has a difficult task in dressing for two extremes – on the one hand, hard physical activity in a warm environment and on the other laying submerged in cold water.

It is not uncommon in the early spring to see people kayaking alone far from the shore in leasure wear. The air temperature can be high, perhaps 20C, with no wind chill, and in such conditions the choice of clothing may be suitable. Directly under the kayak however the temperature in the water is only 5 or 6 C. Body heat loss in water is 25 timer faster than in air, and should the kayaker be unlucky and capsize then the leasure wear offers little protection from heat loss.

Choice of clothing will always be a compromise. An insulated emersion suit is the optimal choice for laying in the sea, but far too warm for kayaking in. The important thing is not to dress according to the calendar, but consider all of the relevant conditions before setting out: wind, air temperature, water temperature, and the changes to be expected in wind and temperature conditions during the trip.

The body

There are numerous ways of dressing, below I will describe some of the alternatives and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each individual garment.

Neoprene is an excellent insulation material, better than anything else when wet. Its insulation ability depends upon its thickness. Neoprene clothing for kayaking is usually 3mm thick, a healthy compromise between ease of movement and insulation ability. It is important with a snug fit however. The principle is that the thin layer of water between the neoprene and the body is heated up by body warmth and will remain there without being replaced by fresh cold water. One piece neoprene suits are seldom used in kajaking because of constricted mobility and poor ventilation possibilities. A better alternative is the so called Long John, a tight fitting bib and brace trousers that also covers most of the body except for the neck and arms. When laying in the sea wiith the head and neck above water, the vital organs are welll protected. Most long Johns have zippers down the front, and ventilation from the arms and upper body is therefore good. The long John should however be used in combination with a woolen vest or similar and a wind/waterproof top depending on the temperature. The majority og kajakers are comfortable in neoprene, the disadvantage is that it tends to smell over extended trips.

The dry suit is probably the best solution for keeping warm in cold water. The suit is a waterproof shell to be used with an additional insulating liner. Dry suits are popular in many countries but few use them in Norway, tradition may be the reason, but it is also a fact that dry suits quickly become to warm to paddle in when one is producing body heat. Several manufacturers produce dry suits in so called breathable materials, I myself have one made with Gore-Tex. When I use it I can appreciate the difference to a non-breathable suit, but this difference is not significant and I get hot and perspire anyway. Breathable dry suits are expensive and I would recommend trying a suit in nylon first (half the price). The dry suit is used by many to supplement other clothing and can be used for rescue training, playing, crossing exposed waters or simply in bad weather.

Dry suits are avaiable as both one-piece and with separate top and pants. The two piece models can be rolled together at the waist, but som leakage can occur with extended activity in the sea. They are fine for paddling in but the insulation effect is not much better than alternatives described below.

A combination of certain spray decks and kayaks will cause leakage at the padlers back, normal waterproof pants are usually cut to low to prevent water running in causing wet pants and a wet and cold back. A better alternativ can be a waterproof bib and brace type pants in a breathable material, some kayak dealers sell these custom made for kayaking. Old–fashioned waterproofed rain gear as well as bib and braces designed for Telemark skiing or climbing can also be used. However, always be aware or the danger that waders and bib and brace with integrated boots/socks can become filled with water and difficult to get out of the water if you should capsize. The bib and brace solution is probably best suited to autumn, spring and winter padling, and is too warm in the summer.

Kayak dealers sell a variety of paddling tops for all seasons and types of kayaking. Some have tight fitting neoprene seals at the wrists to prevent water entering the sleeves when paddling in rough weather, while others are adjustable. White water kajakers have also neoprene seals at the neck to prevent water entering during eskimo rolling, this is not a good solution for sea kayaking because the need for air circulation is a priority. Some tops have a double seal at the waist where the spray deck is sealed in between these two layers. If the top is too specialized the need will arise for an extra top to use on land, so It is also a question of money. All paddling tops should have a hood and a high visibility colour.

A simpler solution can in most situations work just as well. Most of us have already clothes suitable for padling all the year round. When dressing for a normal trip I wear woolen underwear and woolen socks, because they insulate well even when wet. If it is cold I wear a thin woolen pullover or fleece as well. On top of this I wear a windproof anorak and pants. I f I should capsize I will get wet but the water will be warmed up by my body heat and the windproof outer layer will prevent fresh cold water coming in, which is the same way wet suits work. My pants and top are specialized kayak clothing but in my experience windproof/showerproof pants and an anorak do the same job.

When choosing a top for paddling it is important to look for the following: good ventilasjon at the neck, adjustable wrist closure and last but not least a hood.

The head

The head is the most important part of the body to keep warm. Note the following:

At +10C will 25% of the bodies heat loss be through the head

At +5C will 50% of the bodies heat loss be through the head

At -10C will 75% of the bodies heat loss be through the head

(Source: Leif Vangaard 2002)

Always have headgear with you, even during the summer I always have a neoprene cap handy to protect me against heat loss if I should be unlucky and capsize. Wind chill is an important factor in heat loss and paddling in the wind with a bare head can result in hypothermia. It is therefore important to have a hood on your paddling top or anorak, in strong wind a hood will protect the neck as well, also an area of high heat loss.

Another important issue is sun protection, the head and neck are especially vulnerable, a hat or baseball cap can help here.

The hands

The hands are another problem area especially when it is cold. I will descibe some alternatives here and discuss advantages and disadvantages. Mittens or “pogies” fastened directly to the oar are probably the most popular choice in Norway. Made from nylon or neoprene with an open palm to give a good grip on the oar, they are not 100% waterproof, but the hands are protected from the wind. The advantage is the good grip on the oar, the disadvantage is no protection for the hands if you should capsize and wet exit the kajak. Neoprene gloves are another choice, the advantage being that you can change position on the oar or even drop the oar and still have warm fingers. Comfort can be a problem, some people find that they can be too tight when gripping around the oar shaft and prevent blood circulation to the fingers.

Fishing gloves as used by professional fishermen are available, all are waterproof and some are lined, they are made in different lengths and the long sleeved ones are to be preferred when paddling in heavy seas.The grip in the palm of the hand can vary but I have been found several that work well. The price is usually low and the quality is good.

Some paddlers suffer from tendinitis in the wrists. This can be a result of poor technique, a too long or large bladed oar or too much feather angle on the oar. Keeping the wrists warm can be preventative and many paddlers use neoprene wrist warmers. The wrists are vulnerable, they are often wet and exposed to the wind and heat loss here can be considerable. Wrist warmers cover the complete wrist and back of the hand, and be close fitting without being too tight. Thin neoprene is preferable because the wind is the problem not the water.

The Feet

Neoprene boots or socks are used by many paddlers. These are practical in many ways, as the feet are kept warm even when wet, and with the long ones you can wade out into the water even when it is cold. The disadvantage is that you will be sitting with wet feet which over time can lead to athletes foot.

Some paddlers prefer to wear woolen socks sometimes with additional sandals. Woolen socks are warm and comfortable and you can wiggle your toes which helps to kep them warm. Short rubber boots can be used when getting aboard the kayak and taken off and kept separately in the cockpit during paddling.

Another product many paddlers swear by are watertight foot bags often used in tents and the construction of emergency shelters in the snow. The bags are worn over the boots or socks and fastened below the knee. Some have a reinforced sole and they can be worn during the entire trip.


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