Ten Tips You Probably Haven't Heard for Paddling Safely in Cold Conditions
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
Article Quick Take
- The Geisbrecht 1-10-1 guidelines for cold water immersion recommend that paddlers take the first minute to deal with the initial 'cold shock' response, the next 10 minutes to self-rescue, and keep in mind that you have one hour before becoming fully incapacitated even in extreme cold water - so don't panic.
- Many cold-water immersion deaths occur in the first minute after going in the water, as the body reacts to the cold water. Consider wearing a full flotation device that doesn't require inflation so you'll immediately resurface regardless of your physical and mental state.
- After remounting your boat, take stock, eat some calories and get back to shore quickly. And, remember you're still exposed - your dexterity and mental acuity get worse as you get colder. Paddling helps heat up your body, and getting to land removes the chance of a second huli.
At Montreal's Quebec City Carnival each year, Ice Canoe teams face off to race their human-powered boats down the St. Lawrence River through a combination of frigid water, ice, and slush. They alternately push and row their boats through the constantly shifting conditions, risking a plunge into the water at every step. Check out this YouTube video to get a full appreciation for the event and the danger, and note the safety gear worn by every team. It's obvious that these conditions are dangerous ... life threatening even. But did you know that paddling on the Bay in San Francisco, the ocean in Santa Cruz, and open water most anywhere along the Northwest coast is hazardous as well? Think about a February downwinder on 4 or 5 foot waves driven by high winds with water and air temperatures in the 50's. Were you prepared for a huli? Do you know what to expect when your boat tips and you go in the water? How to recover?
We talked with Coach Jay Wild from Tahoe Waterman and our friend Julie Munger, CEO at Sierra Rescue International to get the facts on cold water and cold weather paddling safety.
Prepare for cold water temperature, even when the air temperature is warm. The Pacific ocean currents circulate cold water down from Alaska, so water temperatures in the 50's are common, especially in winter months. Even if the air temperature is mild, remember immersion in cold water is dangerous.
Do the simple stuff every time you paddle in cold conditions. Wear a flotation device - consider a full physical PFD that doesn't require inflation. Wear a leash to maintain contact with and help in remounting your boat - it's critical for your survival in cold water. Carry a communication device - cell phone or radio - to call for help if you need it. Bring a small dry bag with an emergency blanket, a dry inner layer, and small chemical heat packs.
If you go in, take the first minute to deal with the "cold shock" from immersion. The Giesbricht guidelines for cold water immersion indicate that you'll first experience "cold shock" - you'll take a deep and sudden gasp and then start hyperventilating. During this first 60 seconds, you will be in the water and you should concentrate on getting your head above water, not panicking, and getting your breath under control.
If you go in, take the next 10 minutes to self-rescue. After the first minute, you have about 10 minutes to self-rescue: remount your craft, swap in a warm inner layer from your dry bag, eat food to provide energy needed to stay warm, and sort out your plan to get to the shore. After 10 minutes, you will experience increasingly greater incapacitation - less and less mental and physical dexterity. So, stay calm, and use the 10 minutes wisely.
If you can't self-rescue, call for help immediately. Don't wait - elapsed time matters. It will take a rescue crew - the Coast Guard, another boat, one of your club members - some time to respond. In the meantime, use every means possible to stay warm, and stay positive - help is on the way.
If you go in, you have 1 hour before you become unconscious. Even in extremely cold water, human exposure testing shows that it takes at least one hour for an adult to succumb to hypothermia. If you have to wait for rescue i.e. you can't get to shore or don't know where it is - know that you have at least one hour even if you are submerged in water.
Practice getting back in your boat when it's warm. Remounting an OC1, surf ski, or SUP isn't easy, and trying to do it when you're cold (and maybe panicked) after getting dunked in cold water is even harder. Getting out of the water and back onto your craft is an important step in your rescue.
Paddle with a buddy and communicate your route. Two symptoms of hypothermia (low body temperature from exposure to cold water) include loss of mental acuity and reduced self-awareness of your own symptoms. Having a buddy with you helps in several ways - they can spot your symptoms, when you may miss them, and they can do something about them - get you back in the boat, calm you down, and help you get back to shore safely.
You and your buddy should share your intended route with someone on shore. They'll know where to search if you don't make it back, and that may save precious time in rescuing you if you can't do it yourself. Tell your friend, family, or club member how long you expect to be gone - they'll know when to take active steps to find you.
Check what the weather has in store for your full paddle time window. Weather shifts and early and late in the day often bring cooler air temperatures, so prepare for the the worst conditions you're likely to encounter. Don't forget high winds - they make for bigger waves, which makes it harder to stay on/in your craft and to remount if you go in. If you get wet, high winds cause more evaporative cooling, drawing precious body warmth from your core.
Know your route. Nothing is worse than being lost when your cold and miserable. Figure out your route before you start, monitor your position as you go, and always know the fastest route to the nearest land. Especially when paddling in a group, you may get separated and in any case, always be responsible for your own safety and prepared to self-rescue.
A Few Last Thoughts
Dr. Gordon Giesbricht and his 1-10-1 Principle championed the idea that most cold-water immersion deaths are not from hypothermia (which takes one hour or more for adults) but rather from the initial "cold shock" response (gasping and hyperventilation) or cold incapacitation (refusal of muscles to work when attempting to save yourself). Dr. Griesbricht has researched the effects of cold water immersion on hundreds of human subjects, and he has personally experienced the effects more than 30 times,
Here in California, some of the biggest waves and best downwind surfing occurs in the winter, and thousands of paddlers each year head out to enjoy it. Assuming you have the skills and experience, you probably will too. Getting cold-water safety right will make you a more confident paddler, and a better buddy to your paddling club friends.
About Coach Jay Wild
Jay is a professional paddler, paddling coach to young pros, serious recreational athletes, and paddling teams & outrigger clubs. He heads up the paddle training program and camps here at Lake Tahoe Waterman Association, based in Truckee, CA.
About Julie Munger
Julie is the CEO at Sierra Rescue International where she trains rescue personnel, whitewater guides and other first-responders in surface water rescue, swiftwater rescue and wilderness medicine. She is an internationally acclaimed white water professional, and was a member of the world champion US Women's Rafting Team from 1985 to 2001. She has been featured in Outside, Paddlers, American Whitewater, and Canoe and Kayak magazine.