One reason that many of our cooler weather excursions are limited to a few hours, is the chill that often sets-in to the extremities: cold fingertips and toes. While our core stays toasty, thanks to multiple thin, warm layers and our exertion which seems to fire-up that inner furnace, that warm blood doesn’t always keep our extremities warm. This is one of those ongoing subjects to which you hear plenty of solutions and opinions, but aside from avoiding cold weather, there’s no “one size fits all solution,” which is especially important to remember if you’re guiding people. You could be wearing the same gear as your paddling companions, but having an entirely different experience. Age and gender figure heavily into blood circulation, but there are enough other variables that it’s pretty tough to guess what someone else is feeling.
One way to deal with the cold is with gear. As the air and water turned cooler this winter, I noticed that my feet were getting chilled every time. (It doesn’t escape me that, since we paddled in warmer climes last winter, it had been almost two years since I’d paddled in freezing water, and, well, I – and my blood circulation system – have grown older during that time). The first thing I did was put a foam pad beneath my feet, something to insulate them from that 30-odd-degree water on the other side of a thin fiberglass shell. That helped. But then I ordered the thickest wetsuit boots I could find.
Most kayak-specific gear is not quite thick enough for ice water and clomping around in the snow, so I thought I’d try-out some diving-oriented gear that I ordered from a company in Maryland that specializes in all things wetsuit-related, called Wetsuit Wearhouse.
These XCEL Thermoflex Dive Boots are made with 6.5 mm neoprene with a poly fleece lining that really keeps the heat in. The zipped sides help when it comes to getting drysuit booties over heavy wool socks into the boot (although I’m guessing these boots would keep your feet toasty even without the extra layers). I usually wear a 10 to a 10.5 shoe, and even with the drysuit and socks, the 10 worked just fine, but if you sometimes opt for a larger size and you’re wearing those extra layers, you might want to ensure that your feet are not cramped (which decreases circulation) and order-up a size. Since I started wearing the XCELs, my feet haven’t been even vaguely cold, and they’re even comfortable for walking and cling well to wet rocks. They go for about $64 at Wetsuit Wearhouse.
Hands are another matter. I’ve gone back and forth between gloves or mitts of varying thickness and pogies or a combination of the two. Hands tend to get wetter and are more prone to wind; even a mild breeze will cool your hands if they are encased in damp neoprene. Obviously, the thicker the neoprene, the warmer it will be, but you need to balance that warmth potential with your need to actually use your hands. Mitts make a lot of sense, since the fingers stay warmer when they’re all together. But it’s tough to go through life with claws instead of fingers. Taking pictures is out of the question. You might be able to get a sprayskirt on. I’ve usually gone with a combination of mid-weight gloves and pogies. With the gloves alone, especially once they’re wet, my hands would be cold. But encase them in that extra layer and they tend to be toasty.
But I thought, along with the thick boots, I’d give thick diving gloves a try. The 5/4 mm XCEL Thermoflex Dive Gloves are by far the warmest neoprene gloves I’ve worn. Not only that, but they work pretty well at keeping your hands dry. The neoprene is lined on the inside with XCEL's exclusive Thermo Dry Celliant inner lining, which according to the website “recycles your body heat and converts it to usable infrared energy for greater warmth, increased endurance and drying time, faster recovery, and overall enhanced performance.” So far, the sealed seams have kept all the water out, aided by a hefty Velcro strap around the wrist. They’re thick enough that a little break-in time makes them a bit more pliant. The longer I’ve worn these gloves, the more I like them, especially on those sub-freezing days. These go for about $45 at Wetsuit Wearhouse.
There’s an old adage that says if your feet are cold, put on a hat. It’s easy logic- much of your heat goes out through the top. In past years in New England, as my bones get a little creakier and my circulation poorer, I’ve taken to wearing some sort of hat for warmth for more than half the year, and it does go a long way toward keeping my hands and feet warm. I usually have two or three warm hats in my day hatch, just in case (and they are often enough leant to guests, even in mid-summer). On the water though, the knit hat has always felt like a bit of a weakness, since I’d really rather not get it wet, even if it is wool or synthetic. Yes, there are the neoprene skullcaps, complete with chinstraps, but I don’t wear these casually, especially since I can’t hear once my ears are completely covered. Besides, when I started wearing one of those years ago, my overly fashion-conscious buddy Todd nicknamed me “Cannonball.” Oh, to have been called “Cannonball.”
The Stormr Typhoon Watch fishing beanie fits just like an ordinary wool beanie, but it’s made of 3mm neoprene with a thin, fleecy lining to wick-away moisture. When I wear it on the water, I can feel the heat building-up in my torso like a stoked woodstove. If I need to hear better, it’s easy to fold the edges up. It works well when wet, and stays on in the stiffest breeze. And unlike the hoods and scullcaps that might make you feel like a superhero or earn you a cool nickname, you can wear the beanie into the convenience store on the drive home and not get stared at, except by other covetous paddlers. I may need to get a thinner version for warmer weather paddling. These go for about $25 at Wetsuit Wearhouse.
Of course all of these items work best if you rinse out the salt water after each use and let them dry. You’re much more likely to stay warm if you start your excursion with dry gear. I like to have extras, especially if I’m guiding or paddling with friends, so there’s always an option or two. Wetsuit Wearhouse has far more options than I knew existed, and if these options allow me more time on the water and more confidence that I’ll be able to return home without numb appendages, they’re worthwhile investments.