How to Prevent Hypothermia while Paddling

Stay Warm and Prevent Hypothermia when Paddling

We are in the season for Wisconsin paddlers when the ice is melting off the lakes and rivers and we’re anxious to get out paddling.  It’s fun to get out and do some early season paddling.  The waters of Wisconsin are less busy in the Spring.  You may have the lake or river all to yourself.  My friends and I went last week on Little Lake Butte Des Morts.

The cold weather and cold water requires extra precautions this time of year.  Hypothermia can kill at temperatures well above freezing. Hypothermia is when the body’s core temperature drops below the level where normal biological functions can occur. Any time your body loses heat more rapidly than it can generate, you are hypothermic.

When sea kayaking, you need to be aware of the risks of hypothermia. Hypothermia can strike after a capsize or just from being wet in strong winds. Contributing factors to hypothermia include dehydration, insufficient food intake, or alcohol consumption. Hypothermia occurs more frequently in people with low body mass such as women and children. Body mass and a good layer of fat are great protections from hypothermia – just look at those whales and seals!

“Cold water robs the body of heat 25-30 times faster than air,” said Ruth Wood, director of the Boat U.S. Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water. “When someone falls overboard, their core temperature begins to drop within 10-15 minutes. And the water doesn’t have to be icy – it just has to be colder than you are to cause hypothermia,” she said.

The 50/50 Rules of Hypothermia when Paddling

  • Rule 1: If the average person were to capsize in 50°F water they would have a 50-50 chance of being able to swim 50 yards in full clothing. Half of them would get stopped “cold” by a severe cramp due to the rapid onset of hypothermia. Coast Guard studies show that even the world’s best athletes are unlikely to swim more than 400 yards (about a quarter-mile) in this water temperature.
  • Rule 2: A fifty year-old person has a 50-50 chance of surviving for 50 minutes in 50 degree water.

Tips to Prevent Hypothermia while Kayaking

  • Know the weather and dress for it. To prevent heat loss wear warm dry clothing including a hat, wetsuit, or a drysuit.
  • Make sure to eat plenty of carbohydrates before and during paddling. This helps to supply heat and energy to the body. Drink plenty of liquids to stay well hydrated.
  • If your kayak were to turn over try to get out of the water as quickly as possible. The more of the body you can get out the better it will be.
  • If you must stay in the water keep fairly still with your neck and head covered and out of the water. Keeping your hands out of the water might help them stay functioning longer too.
  • If you are alone when you are in the water get in the fetal position. If there is more than one person you should huddle together to keep warm.
  • Make sure you wear a comfortable life jacket that fits you well. Having a life jacket will also help keep your core warm.
  • Always have a plan of action already planned ahead of time in case of an emergency. This would help prevent you from panic and help keep you thinking clearly and calm.


Get out and stay safe on the water.  What do you like to wear for early season paddling?  How do you prepare for cool water paddling?

Hypothermia information source:  prevent hypothermia when sea kayaking

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