Paddling in cold water

Very few realize that cold shock reaches its most intense level in water temperatures between 50°F and 60°F.


Every spring, we hear stories of people getting into trouble on the water. Stories of experienced paddlers and strong swimmers who couldn’t rescue themselves. Stories that too often end in tragedy. While the days are getting longer and the air is getting warmer, the water temperature is still extremely dangerous.

If you do find yourself in a cold water immersion (head out of the water) or submersion (head in the water) situation, your body will experience a series of physiological responses.

Immersion or submersion in cold water induces a physiological response called the Gasp Reflex. This sudden and uncontrollable gasping for air lasts for one to three minutes in most people. It is very important to keep your head out of the water while this is happening. If you experience a complete submersion the gasp may draw water into your lungs and you will drown. Wearing a lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD) provides buoyancy and helps keep your head out of the water. You will not be able to rescue yourself and these first few minutes should be used to try to control your breathing and keeping your head out of the water. It’s scary, but it will pass.

Watch a video about surviving in cold water conditions


Thermal protection helps to reduce the shock of cold water immersion/submersion. Two popular options are wetsuits, made from neoprene, and drysuits, made from one of many waterproof/breathable materials. Wetsuits are designed to warm a thin layer of water between the neoprene and your skin. Conversely, drysuits keep water away from your skin and your clothing underneath stays dry. Both of these options must be worn with a PFD – you have enough to worry about in cold water without being concerned with staying afloat.


Once you have your breathing under control you have about ten minutes before you experience Cold Incapacitation. These precious minutes are critical as this is your chance to self rescue. You have about ten minutes to help yourself out of the situation that you’re in. Having appropriate rescue equipment and training is now well worth the investment. After 10 minutes, your body redirects warm blood from your arms and legs to your core to keep your vital organs alive.

The next response is Hypothermia, which is defined as a drop in your body’s core temperature. You are hypothermic when your body temperature drops only two degrees Celsius. After your body becomes incapacitated and your core temperature is dropping, you are waiting for rescue. Mobility is reduced and your window to help yourself is over. Get as much of your body out of the water as possible and stay still. You lose heat 25 times faster in water and up to 100 times faster if you are moving. You will survive in cold water for an hour or more if you do not drown.

The Four Mechanisms of Heat Loss

Conduction, convection, radiation and evaporation.  Each is a specific mechanism of heat loss and to understand what they are and how you can control them can go a long way to helping you keep warm when you are out in the cold.


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