Cold Water Kayaking Safety and the involuntary gasp

I need to put this out there as there are lots of new kayakers are planning to hit the water as the ice melts, or now. Many do not know much about cold water survival and preparing for being in it. I am also going to cover something I learned a long time ago that even the pro kayak guys don’t talk about with cold water immersion and that is the involuntary gasp. I have done what most kayakers have not, and that is been swimming on outings in the winter, twice. Luckily, I learned the ropes in Shallow water!

Dave in icy water_smallPhoto from Jeff Little, Showing Dave Thompson striper fishing on the Potomac in the ice flows.

First time was hunting in January by myself in a canoe. I’ve been in a canoe 20 years by this point and I know it all, right, sure. <sarcasm> I found a downed tree on the river, setup my decoys, get the blind on the canoe get in. Little did I know a tree branch was under the right side of the canoe, pushing up. When I leaned left the first time the canoe rolls right over. I am soaked and wet from the nipples up completely as I had my waders on tight, and no change of clothes. I strip from the waste up, wring the jacket and shirt and put them back on. Pick up decoys and load the boat after getting most of the water out. You know right now I am thinking screw this boat, I am cold. I paddled back to the ramp, load the boat and drive home. It was an hour before I got home. I would not had wanted to experience that on open water the first time!

The second time I was hunting the river in higher water conditions and that I probably should have stayed home. Trash floating down, but I am off, I have to go hunting. I keep my PFD on even though I am in 1′ of water hunting, its a habit now. A stick floats in and snags a decoy, I jump out and run after it. The decoy moved from 18″ of water to 10′ faster than I realized and I ran right off a ledge and was under water like I dove in, but came right back up like a bobber. I forgot all about that decoy for 10 to 15 minutes, at least. Back to the boat and I had a change of clothes (shirt) and a light jacket and finished the hunt. Both times wearing waders tight around the top and a PFD over the waders kept almost all the water out of my waders, for a short immersion. It is amazing, when that cold water hits you, what ever you were thinking is gone! You are not thinking about anything, but getting out of the water. I am not a person that panics easily, but this almost sends me into panic mode.

Life Jacket

I cannot cover this enough and I know its covered by plenty of others on forums and in magazines. If you are in a kayak, in the winter, and not wearing a PFD, go and let your family know you are sorry, now! You are just rolling the dice waiting to die. Harsh right? Yes, I am being brutally harsh on purpose. Watch the following video done by the coast guard.

Wear your PFD from the time you leave the ramp until the time you get back! Get one that is comfortable, you can wear under your jacket. If you are hunting get one that does not go on your shoulder so you can shoot with it on. Cabelas has the Cool Mesh series, Hook1 and Austin Kayak both have many shoulder free PFD’s that can be used for both hunting and fishing. Here is one I recommend that doesn’t have padding on the shoulder to prevent being able to mount the gun to shoot. I learned this years ago and tell kayakers I know all about it and how it can get you. This is the involuntary gasp part I do not ever hear pro kayak guys cover. I guess most are in their dry wear suits as they have already been educated on cold water and have not experienced this as I have. When you hit that cold water and it touches your skin, you will involuntarily gasp for air. Its a shock response and not much you can do about it. I was taught to bite down if I knew I was going in and it prevents it. If you are forcing your mouth to do something else, then you cannot gasp. If you gasp in the water, even with a PFD on, you are going to panic! If you gasp water then stuff is going south fast(er) and you will then involuntarily cough until you expel the water from your lungs wasting your valuable rescue time to get out of the water. Learn to reason, recover and not panic. Watch this video on how fast cold water can kill you, even in top health.

Many people say on sites and articles that you have 30 minutes to be saved in a hypothermia condition, and they are correct. You have 30minutes to an hour to be saved. Someone can save you in 30 minutes to an hour, but you have only 10 minutes to try and save yourself. That’s right, your read that correct, 10 minutes. After 10 minutes in cold water you start loosing muscle control to do much of anything. If you are not in special clothing to protect you from the water, 10 minutes is all you have of quality muscle movement to crawl back on your kayak, get changed and warm again. After 2 minutes you might notice degraded quality of movement. After 15 minutes you can’t move much at all, and in an hour you are unconscious and heading towards dead, if you did not die earlier as shown in the above video. Remember, if you self rescue in improper clothing, your 10 minute time clock is still ticking for  muscle loss of control, although it is extended, some once out of the water. Now you have to change your clothes, if you have them fast while back on your kayak in deep water and trying to not get any wet while shivering or changing. I see many new kayakers with the wild hair to get in the cold water in late winter, or start hunting in the winter. First learn kayaking and other skills when the water is warmer. Learn what cold water can do you you, its no joke. Even if you have experience and have been fishing for a while

Learn Self Rescue

If using a SinK or Hybrid self rescue is swimming and pulling your kayak to shallow water, so don’t be in deep water or far from shore. If swamped, or tipped, in one of these you can’t get back in until  its is drug to shore and drained. How far can you swim, or pull your swamped kayak in a couple minutes before being incapacitated? Flip a SOT or fall out and you can flip it over in the water and climb back on. But you should not learn when it’s cold and if you have never done it before. Many people find they cannot self rescue as they never did it and need someone else to rescue them later on. Practice this in warm water!


Cotton kills!! You need to wear fleece, poly, or wool and layer up. You can flip, get soaked in Poly fleece and start a fire, wring your clothes and stay warm while you dry things. You will still freeze with wet cotton!

Dry suits Most guys do not need this in fresh water, unless in big water. Guys fishing in bays and the Ocean do. If you are crossing wide open area, maybe you should consider this. Drysuits are expensive, but you can’t go wrong with too much protection.

Waders This is normally what freshwater guys will wear and breathable waders will give you the most flexibility and range of motion. Waders only in flat water can be OK, but don’t flip!

Dry top, Semi Dry top or splash tops. A dry top was used before by only white water guys. If your going to be submerged or in the water for a while this is for you. Rough water areas as they have a gasket around your neck and wrist, but are quite uncomfortable until you get used to them. Hard to get on too. Semi-dry Top is the same material as a dry top but with neoprene type tightening strips around the neck and wrists. If you fall in and get out fast, not much water gets in. Just enough that you know it did, but not enough to risk your health. These are the best for people that could get wet and know they can rescue themselves easily and quickly. You get comfort and a good level of protection. Splash top is made of the same Waterproof material but no neck or wrist closures. Similar to a rain jacket to keep spray off of you. These only keep waves off of you. These are not meant for protection from water immersion! A dry top or semi-dry top and waist wader are a great combo. The dry tops have a double section around our waist to seal them around the skirt on a white water kayak. Inner layer goes in the waders and outer layer over top the waders to make them almost water tight. Great for comfort and a self rescue, but not something for spending lengths of time in the water off shore waiting for the coast guard to come get you. Level 6 probably makes the best affordable semi-dry top out there which is good for a quick dunk and recover. My personal prefeence for huntign and fishing a river is a Semi-dry top and breathable waist waders tucked in the tunnel of the semi-dry top.

Dry bag A dry bag with extra clothes could save your life also. Even clothes in a trash bag inside the hatch of your SOT. one layer of dry clothes and a light jacket is better than heavy layers of wet clothes. Poly fleece wrings out to feel pretty dry also.

Learn what cold water feels like. Go down to the boat ramp when the water is open, but freezing cold. Wear thin pants, or shorts, and put on your breathable waders and wader boots. Now, walk down the ramp until the water is up to your belt or belly button, don’t flood your chest waders. I don’t want you actually needing to be rescued. I bet most cannot stay in long enough for there to be a problem. Remember, this is only your legs loosing heat and not your torso also! After trying this experiment remember what happened and how fast you felt the effects of that water. Don’t be stupid and test your manliness, standing in cold water is not manly, its stupid. Just learn how cold water affects you and let it sink in for when you are around cold water. Make sure you are prepared for it and and decide even when with the right gear, sometimes you still should not go out.

Don’t kayak in cold water alone!


2 responses to “Cold Water Kayaking Safety and the involuntary gasp

  1. ecellent advice I have ended up in cold water more than once and it will bring the toughest man to his knees once fell in a shallow swamp deer hunting assauteage and by the time i made it to the car to change clothes could barely get keys in the door hand just would not work


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