Spring is here, with summer on the way. The sun is out, but the water is still cold, very cold in some places. On June 10, surface temps in northern Lake Michigan were in the low 40’s. Hypothermia would render you unconcious in an hour or less at this temperature, but the shock of being in cold water inhibits muscle control and heart function in a much shorter time. Even swimming as little as 100 feet becomes very difficult or impossible for the average person in cold water.

So, if you plan on paddling in Northern Michigan in the near future, cold-water precautions are a must. We talked to Lois Goldstein, outings coordinator for the Traverse Area Paddle Club. She gave us four important tips to keep you safe and warm on your cold-water paddle.

No cotton

Layered clothing is important, but it’s just as important that none of those layers is made of cotton. This means no jeans or sweatshirts. The aim in layering is to trap heat and, as much as possible, keep out water. Cotton absorbs enough water to thwart both of these goals. Ideal layers are made of synthetic fabrics, fleece or wool. Pack an extra set of clothing in a dry bag, in case you end up wet. Many sources recommend a wetsuit for cold-water paddling or a drysuit in more extreme cases, but proper layering and a change of clothes should render these unnecessary in most situations.

Hands and feet are key

Controlling heat loss begins with the extremities. Wearing gloves will keep your hands, which are bound to get wet and cold in everything but the warmest weather, warm and blister-free. Footwear should be waterproof and, while there are a lot of options, calf or knee-high rubber boots are a good and inexpensive alternative to specialized paddling neoprene socks or booties.

Check weather; call a local outfitter

Knowing the conditions you are about to paddle into will determine many of your other preparations: what to wear, what to pack and even your destination. Weather Underground provides detailed information, even water temperatures in some areas. But even with satellite and radar images at your fingertips, you can’t beat firsthand information. If there is a local outfitter where you plan to paddle, call ahead and ask about conditions, even if you aren’t planning to use their services.

Don’t go out too far

The easiest way to avoid danger when paddling in cold water is to avoid putting yourself in dangerous situations. If you’re a novice, a long paddle in Lake Michigan may not be the best call when the water temperature is 38 degrees.  If you end up in the water, you will need to be able to reach the shore quickly, before the cold makes swimming too difficult. Smaller inland lakes or rivers where the bank is never more than 50 feet away make for safer paddles.

Want to know more about cold water safety? Check out these resources.

Traverse Area Paddle Club


Trips to try:

Our Favorites: 3-Hour Paddle Trips

Photo(s) by Jeff Smith