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Just because temperatures have taken up residence somewhere between chilly and frigid, doesn’t mean we have to put our paddles up until warmer days.
Our region boasts a plethora of raftable water with year-round access. When temperatures fall below comfortable, packrafters may still find fun on the water but should be careful to follow all proper safety measures. Drowning via cold water shock is the biggest danger to paddlers entering any body of water chillier than 50-60 °F. Even during warmer, sunny days, cold water is a hazard that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Here are some crucial ways to stay safe when packrafting in chilly water.
Thousands of paddlers take cold water swims each year and they rarely make the news. Upon capsizing, they’ll climb back in their boats and continue on, warm and dry. It’s critical to note that these paddlers are wearing all the right gear for cold water access and, many who do take swims underprepared, don’t fare nearly as well.
A drysuit is a must for any packrafter entering water below 60 °F. These one-piece, waterproof garments are usually made of Gore-Tex and waterproof laminate. Some include neoprene booties attached to the suit while others offer head, foot, and neck gaskets to keep water out. For cold weather paddling, a drysuit with booties is a must. Layer neoprene socks over each to prevent holes.
Drysuits provide little warmth out of the water and it's vital to layer underneath. A midweight to lightweight base layer is sufficient in moderate temperatures, keeping you the packrafter cool enough when paddling to prevent overheating and sweating.
When entering freezing water, you’ll want to wear thicker, more insularly layers as well as hand and foot protection. Neoprene socks and gloves prevent frostbite without limiting dexterity. Make sure your neoprene socks aren’t too tight or your feet will never be warm. Layer neoprene gloves under pogies to make sure your hands stay nice and toasty. For freezing days, slip a neoprene balaclava underneath your helmet to protect your neck, nose, and face against the elements.
Even slow-moving, shallow waters can prove deadly to the underprepared paddler. This is especially true if that calm body of water is cold. Even with a PFD and the proper garments, a paddler can find themselves in harms way if tipped out of their packraft. Having a partner who is equally as comfortable on the water, knowledgeable about safety practices, and available to rescue you when you fall into the water is just as essential as a drysuit.
When paddling on the sea, never less than three shall ye be. The ocean’s tides and weather patterns may take packrafters by surprise. It’s crucial to round up two other musketeers before setting sail.
This should go without saying, but your PFD is your lifeline when taking a dunk in water of any temperature. Hypothermia can set in within minutes even in seemingly warmer bodies of water and you may find it hard to swim to shore, grip your paddle, or hoist yourself back up into your packraft. A PFD will keep you afloat while your still-dry and on-board partner conducts a rescue, effectively saving your life.
Cold water paddling is a great way to get out on the water during the off season but should only be conducted with the proper safety measures in place. Take a friend, don your drysuit, and pack a PFD for a unique paddling experience. The cold often deters even the most intrepid of packrafts — reap the reward of remoteness on wintery waterways now through spring.