Want to know how to keep yourself warm whilst out paddling this winter? Understanding how your body loses heat and how to prevent this could save you a lot of money...
It’s getting to that time of year where if you’re just getting into paddling, you may think it’s too cold to get out paddling. So why do those who’ve been paddling a bit longer still seem to be perfectly happy to jump in their boat 365 days a year? Do they just like being cold? Unlikely. Are they just that hooked on paddling? Maybe. Have they worked out how to stay warm even when the weather turns cold? Now you’re getting warmer!
So, what is the best way to stay warm? Is it spending lots of money on kit? Well, you might think so, and if you do go out and buy all of the best kit, you’ll be very likely to be warm and dry. However, the best way to stay warm and dry is to understand how the body retains heat, how the body loses heat and which types of clothing material have properties you need! You’d be surprised how little money you need to spend to stay warm and dry in cold conditions!
The body loses heat in 5 different ways:
- Evaporation Evaporation of water from your skin if it is wet (sweating).
- Radiation Radiation is heat literally radiating from the skin and moving away into the air. Radiation is responsible for approximately 65% of the body’s heat loss.
- Conduction This is heat lost through contact with another surface – such as a cold rock or cold water.
- Convection This is heat lost through movement of air around the skin – for example wind chill.
- Respiration Some heat is lost through respiration (breathing), though this is very minimal and there’s not much we can do about this as paddlers!
Now that we know how the body loses heat, we can work out how to prevent this. Everyone’s body naturally produces heat, and using our clothing we can trap this heat to keep us warm.
What we want to create in our clothing is a system that traps a layer of air next to our skin. Our body then heats this air up by Radiation and we maintain a warm layer next to our skin.
To do this, we want an effective base layer that both keeps us warm and wicks sweat away from the skin. Polyester (and its blends) or Merino wool are the best materials to do this. The advantages of these materials are that they are light, insulating, highly breathable and have a “wicking” action – meaning they draw water away from the skin to the outside of the garment. Merino wool is slightly warmer for its weight, doesn’t smell as quickly, but does take longer to dry.
If you are looking for a paddling-specific base layer there are many available –my personal favourite is the Peak UK Thermal Rashy – it’s a fleecy Lycra material. It keeps you lovely and warm, the Lycra and brilliant cut means it fits close to the skin all the way across the body – so no cold spots. It is thin and breathable enough to wear all year around and warm enough to make an excellent layer on its own or combined with an additional layer. It is also warm even if you get it wet so it can be worn on its own in the summer. I paddle 150 – 200 days a year and this is the layer I will wear almost every time – I have a long-sleeved version and a short-sleeved version. As with most of these items you can get separate top and bottom halves.
If you are looking to find a base layer on the cheap – then have a look through your drawers, most base layers for mountaineering and skiing are also made from the same materials and have similar affects. If you don’t have anything like that – use a gym or running t-shirt or even a football shirt. Generally running tops are better than football tops as the seams are better positioned to prevent rubbing. Things like UnderArmour, NikePro garments and similar make good base layers. Although none of these will have the same insulating properties as a paddling-specific base layer, they will wick sweat away from your skin and stop you losing heat through Evaporation and Conduction with a cold, wet material against your skin. Check the label and make sure it is polyester or polyester blend and NOT cotton. Cotton is hydrophilic – which means it retains water by soaking water into all of the material. It does not wick moisture away from the skin and once wet, will stay wet against the skin. This means rather than creating a layer of warm air against your skin, it retains a layer of water (sweat), which is very hard to heat (unlike Neoprene). This will sap heat from your body at an astonishing rate, it has been shown that water conducts heat [in this case away from your body] around 240 times faster than dry air does. Therefore, you’ll often hear the phrase “Cotton kills” used in the outdoors – it’s true. Avoid cotton at all costs!
We may want more than one layer of warm air trapped by using an extra layer of clothing. By adding an extra layer, we trap warm air between the two layers of clothing, giving us additional warmth. The most commonly used mid-layer (as we call it) in paddling is a fleece onesie. There are lots of these on the market, most brands make one and, generally speaking, the price reflects the quality. Alternatively, if you’re not looking to go out and buy a paddling specific fleece – chances are you already own one or can pick one up for a few quid from an outdoors shop. Make sure to check whether it fits under your outer layer comfortably, whether that’s a Drysuit, a Cag or simply a waterproof coat (depending on what you’re doing!)
Now we know what’s going on with your base and mid layers, let’s look at what will probably be the most expensive part of your system – the outer layer. Just like the other layers, this layer will depend on what activity you are doing – it could range from a full dry suit all the way down to a windproof coat.
My advice would be to dress for the eventuality of a swim. This way you always know that no matter what happens you are prepared for the worst. That being said, if I am canoeing and I am confident I won’t swim I will often wear dry trousers combined with a waterproof jacket or fleece in winter, though if I do this I will carry a full change of clothes in case of a swim. I would advise not to do this on moving water – just in case you need to enter the water for a rescue.
That being said, let’s explore outer layers. Whether you are going for a dry suit; cag or waterproof jacket, the chances are the shell will be made of similar materials. We have spoken a lot about how to keep moisture away from our body, and it is almost pointless to do this if we don’t keep water out as well!
Most modern shells are excellent at keeping water out. If you are going for a dry cag, one with a latex neck and wrists will be much drier than those without. If you’re looking at dry trousers, those with socks keep your feet warmer, but generally speaking the socks are the first thing to leak on suits and trousers, so they do need looking after by wearing thermal socks underneath and keeping your toenails short helps too!
In terms of materials used, most good brands fall into one of two categories of material. Peak UK and Palm use breathable fabric. Generally speaking, that means a rip stop nylon material, coated with Polyurethane (PU), with a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatment applied to prevent the fabric becoming waterlogged. They also usually have an inner lining to prevent the more fragile layers from becoming damaged. Generally, in paddling these fabrics range from 2 layers to 4 layers. The more layers, generally the tougher, heavier and warmer they are. The less layers, generally the lighter, more breathable and less hard wearing they are. For example, a Peak UK Marathon Jacket has X2.5 layer ripstop nylon as it must be more breathable due to the high intensity of the racing usually done by its wearers, however the Peak UK Creek Jacket – has X4 Layer ripstop nylon, to make it tougher and more resilient.
Kokatat and Sweet Protection both use the same material; Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex and similar products work by having breathable membrane covered in millions of tiny pores, each pore is 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, yet 700 times larger than a body moisture vapour molecule. This ensures fantastic breathability and waterproofness and usually has a Durable Water Repellent on the outside to keep the material as waterproof and breathable as possible.
Both material types provide waterproof, breathable materials. Generally speaking, Gore-Tex is slightly more breathable and Nylon with a PU coating is more durable. Though there are variations of each material.
A durable water repellent (DWR) is a treatment applied to the outside of the garment. It essentially prevents water soaking into the outer material. It creates the effect known as “beading”, water droplets rolling off the outside of the material. The DWR will eventually wear off on all garments, you will know this his happened to your garment if it starts “wetting out” i.e. the outer layer of material seems soaked with water and is no longer “beading”. This doesn’t mean your product is no longer waterproof, but it does mean that the garment wont “breathe” as well as it used to. There are many aftermarket DWRs available to re-proof your outerwear, and generally the manufacturer will recommend one in the maintenance information supplied with the product. If you follow the manufacturer’s maintenance guidelines, your product will last much longer and perform much better, and who doesn’t want that!
There will always be a small amount of moisture inside your suit, either through perspiration or water creeping in the neck or wrist seals. The best thing you can do is to keep that moisture away from your skin. That’s the secret to keeping warm. So, to me, the most important part of my layering system is the base layer. Happily, it’s also the cheapest. So, my advice is simply – invest in a good base layer.
What base layer do I use? Without fail – it’s the Peak UK Thermal Rashy http://www.canoeandkayakstore.co.uk/1437/products/peak_thermal_rashy_long_sleeve.aspx
Enjoy and keep warm!
Oli Kershaw - Owner and Head Coach at Next Level
As somebody who is lucky enough to spend most days on the water and try lots of different pieces of kit, I find myself being asked my opinion on one piece of kit or another most days. Recently I was asked by a paddler on one of our courses why I didn't write down what I had learnt about various pieces of kit so that it was accessible to more people. This is where the idea of a Next Level blog came from. Whenever I can find time, I will be writing about all things paddling! Please feel free to share posts and comment on them, and if there are any topics you would like me to write about, please just ask!