Cold Water – Yikes!

Cold Water – Yikes!

The early spring has a lot of us – including me – eager to get out paddling. The problem is that, even when the temperature is in the teens, the water temperature is still five degrees or less. This presents a very dangerous situation in the unlikely – but possible – event that we fall in.

If, like me, you enjoy early and late season paddling here is some information and tips that could save a life.


The dangers

Let’s start by looking at the main dangers related to cold water.


Hypothermia (being too cold) is the cause of, or a contributing factor to, a huge percentage of boating deaths every year.

Everyone knows that if you get too cold you can die. A more immediate concern is what happens in the short term. In as little as 10 minutes unprotected people become uncoordinated and stop thinking clearly. In other words, if people are not out of the water and getting warmed up within 10 minutes, they likely will not be able to do it without help.

Even on a warm day, cold wet clothing will leave you losing heat like crazy.

Cold Shock

When people suddenly get dumped in cold water they may automatically gasp for air. This can be quite inconvenient if your mouth happens to be under water at the time.

At the same time people are gasping for breath, their heart rates go crazy, and they panic.

These are all normal reactions that last about a minute which means that people need others to help them when they first fall in.

People lie

If you see someone huddled in a ball, with blue lips and skin and shivering madly and ask, “Are you OK?”, they will likely respond “I’m fine”. If you respond by saying "You look awfully cold.”, the likely answer will be “No. I’m warm enough.”

We could spend a lot of time discussing why people don’t tell the truth about being incapacitated, but the fact is that we can expect people who are colder than is good for them to lie about it. This means that we can’t count on them to do what they need to in order to warm up.


The bad news is that cold water can be quite dangerous. The good news is that, with the proper precautions, these dangers can be significantly reduced. Here are some ways to do so.


Sun Tzu (544 BC – 496 BC) said “Know the enemy…”. Once you know your enemy (cold) you can learn how to beat it (training). Reading this article gives an idea of how to paddle safely in cold water, but it is a good idea to get more information. The links I have provided help, but wilderness first aid training helps a lot more.


Cotton is great when it is 30 degrees and sunny because it cools you off. Unfortunately, it also does an even better job of cooling you off when it is 5 degrees and wet. When paddling in early and late seasons people are better advised to wear clothing that keeps them warm even when wet. Wool and some synthetic materials do this. Similarly, having several layers of clothes helps adjust to changing temperatures and levels of effort.

Even high-end wool will only do so much when wet, so it is important to have something that is designed to work in water. Wetsuits are good but drysuits are better.

Hypothermia kits

Hypothermia kits include items such as sleeping bags, fire starting kits, sweet food, etc. that can be used to warm people up if they do not have immediate access to things like houses with bathtubs full of hot water. Not only are they a good idea when paddling on cold water, club trips are legally required to carry them if the water temperature is 15 degrees or less.

Spare clothing

It has been many years since the last time that I accidentally fell out of a canoe (goofing around doesn’t count). Some people would say that this means that I don’t have to take precautions. I prefer to think that this means that I am overdue to fall in. As a result, I make sure that I am prepared for when (not if) it happens. This includes bringing a full change of clothing, including warm layers, and a towel. They are all bundled up in a waterproof container – just in case.


As noted above, during the first minute in the water, most people will be gasping for air with a side order of panic. This is not the time to be putting on a PFD.

Not only is it a good idea to wear a PFD while on the water, it is a legal requirement when on club trips.

Food and drink

The body generates heat by burning sugar. This process requires that it actually has some food in it. Equally the process cannot proceed without fluids. Thus, hunger and dehydration are big contributors to being too cold.

Having – and consuming – high carb foods and warm fluids helps keep warm and helps to get warm if the unexpected happens.

Emergency contacts

If something goes wrong, who ya gonna call? Hint – It’s not Ghostbusters. As part of the planning process find someone to be a “guardian angel” that you call if things go wrong. Don’t forget to plan how you are going to make the call if cell phone coverage is dodgy.

Safety briefing

Before heading out get together and figure out what you will do if someone falls in. The details will vary depending on the type of trip and skills of the people on it.

Stay close to shore

As noted above, most people only have about 10 minutes to start warming up before their ability to think and move starts to get impaired. It is a lot easier to get to shore and start warming up quickly if you are 10 metres from shore than if you are 100 metres from shore.

Watch out for others

As noted above, people will not admit – even to themselves – that they are cold. To combat this, we should watch out for others on the trip and convince them to do something if they appear to be cold.

Bring a friend

In extreme conditions I always paddle with someone else in a different canoe. This way if something goes wrong, we will each have someone there who can help us get out of trouble. A side benefit is that they can raise my spirits by telling me how stupid I was to jump into 5-degree water.

$(*&$# - Now what?

You, or someone with you has just fallen into cold water. Now what do you do?

Get out of the water

This sounds obvious, but it really is the first priority. On WW trips with people in drysuits, this could be a quick on water rescue. On FW trips or when people are not in drysuits a good response would be for the people in the water to get on shore while others rescue the boat and their gear.

Get Warm

Duh. This sounds simple, but, depending on how cold people are, this could be anything from getting into dry clothes and drinking hot chocolate to calling for an emergency evacuation.

Getting home

You are nice and toasty warm in the dry clothing you were smart enough to bring. Now it’s time to go home – but – What happens if you fall in the water again? What are you going to wear? How will you get warm?

Once you have used up your dry clothing the risks associated with falling in go up dramatically because it will be that much harder to warm up. Give careful consideration to the risks of continuing on the water versus getting evacuated from where you are.

In closing

Early season paddling can be a joy because higher water levels (except for this year) allow us to get into places that are normally too dry or to try different types of paddling such as through forests. Paddling within your limit and taking the precautions that I have discussed here, opens up wonderful opportunities to get out in nature.

More information

For more information on hypothermia, see