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Cold Water Kayaking & Rafting: What You Need

   June 22nd, 2017   Posted In: Articles   Tags:

Cold Water Kayaking and Rafting in Mountain Snowmelt Rivers

The rivers in the Mountain States – CO, UT, WY, MT, WA, etc. – are never just ‘cool’. Snowmelt rivers are cold, and they’re cold year round. So, if you plan on cold water kayaking or cold water rafting for more than three or four months a year, you must have the right gear.

Rafters and kayakers running rivers in the Rockies during the spring, fall and winter months are going to get cold. And, no one – not even the crazies – wants to be cold on a river. It’s the only universal, objective truth under the heavens.

Why Wetsuits Are Necessary on and in Cold Water Whitewater

cold water kayaking and rafting

Gear up the right way for those cold waters!

Whitewater dry tops and drysuits function reasonably well in moderate temperatures. But – and everyone must learn to understand for themselves the difference between being cold and being in a dangerous situation – a cold water kayaking wetsuit is the only gear that is going to prevent discomfort and, more importantly, hypothermia.

Use all the fleece that will possibly fit under a whitewater top or suit, the fact remains, there are two whitewater dry top and drysuit realities: They leak a lot of water and neither fit anywhere near tight enough to trap the requisite body heat for out-of-season boating in the Rockies.

Contrary to the fleece-works-just-fine argument, it doesn’t, not when it’s early spring or late fall. Boating in fleece in the winter is just silly. Wear neoprene under your dry top/suit next to your skin when it’s cold or you’ll suffer.

*Editor’s Note: NRS has some great options for layering and a lot of the suits have a HydroSkin fleece lining for additional warmth and quick drying properties.*

Ideal Gear for the Rivers of the Rockies

There are five neoprene investments every cold water boater must make:

  1. Springsuit or a wetsuit vest/wetsuit shorts combination
  2. Gloves
  3. Booties
  4. Hood

The next piece to add is a fullsuit or a wetsuit jacket/wetsuit pants combo. Trust me. After boating for decades in the rivers around the coldest valley in the Continental United States from spring to summer and into the fall and over the winter, I know dressing for cold whitewater.

Cost to Outfit Yourself for Cold Whitewater Boating

Wetsuit tops and shorty springsuits start around $50, while fullsuits range from $75 to over $500 depending on thickness, purpose, flexibility and how watertight the suit is constructed.

Don’t spend less than $45 on a springsuit or less than $100 on a vest/shorts combo. Spend as much money as a retailer will take for the driest, most flexible wetsuit gloves. Do the same for your hood. And if you’re going to go the cheap route, buy inexpensive booties.

If you realize you’re a betty or barnie that boats enough cold weather/cold water to justify a fullsuit, spend as much as you possibly can, because you’re pushing your limits and deserve to protect yourself.

Ryan grew up kayaking the rivers around Gunnison, CO — the Taylor, East, Arkansas, Gunnison and Colorado — and has lived in a small mountain town next to the Pejivalle River in Costa Rica since 2008 with his wife Nancy. When not writing, Ryan spends his time play boating, safety kayaking, and guiding rafts on the Pejivalle and Pacuare rivers. Ryan looks forward to the day he can paddle with his daughter Cassidy.

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