Basic Clothing Layers
Regular camping/backpacking clothes work fine for most canoe camping trips. In warm conditions, pack T-shirts, quick-drying shorts/pants and a warm layer or two for cool mornings and evenings. In cold conditions, bulk up with some warmer layers like wicking long underwear, long-sleeve fleece or wool shirts, long pants and warmer socks. Remember to pack footwear that matches the activities you have planned:
- Sport sandals or rubber boots—for splashing in the shallows
- Trail shoes, tennis shoes—for day hiking/general camp use
- Hiking boots—for portaging, side hikes
You'll be near the water for most of your trip, so choose quick-drying fabrics whenever possible. And since wet layers rarely insulate as well as dry ones, bring a few extra warm items in case your regular clothing layers get wet.
- Cotton is comfortable and cool—perfect for many warm-weather activities. But it's also very absorbent and slow to dry. In warm weather, cotton holds sweat right next to your skin and helps keep you cool as it evaporates. But this same cooling effect can be dangerous in moderate-to-cold conditions, since it increases the amount of body heat lost through convective heat loss.
- Nylon is tough, comfortable and quick-drying. It's a great choice for just about any paddling trip. Lightweight nylon is available today in shorts, pants, shirts and vests. Modern nylon fabrics are often as comfortable against your skin as cotton.
- Wool is a great natural insulator, even when wet. But it can take a long time to dry, and it can be bulky and heavy. Wool is typically available in pants, long-sleeve shirts, pullovers, sweaters and jackets.
- Synthetic pile/fleece—These popular man-made insulation materials are comfortable, warm (even when wet), fast drying and lightweight (only half the weight of wool). Pile/fleece products are available in shirts, pants, vests, jackets, pullovers and sweaters. New versions are available with wind- and weather-stopping liners built right in.
- Wicking fabrics (like Polypropylene, REI MTS® and Patagonia's Capilene® pull sweat from the surface of your skin and transfer it to your outer clothing layers, keeping you drier, warmer and more comfortable. They're designed to be worn as a first layer, either alone (in warm conditions) or under other layers in moderate-to-cold conditions. Wicking fabrics are available in both tops and bottoms, with different thickness for different levels of activity.
The primary purpose of paddling outwear is to protect you from exposure. This exposure can come in the form of wind, rain, or water (in the event of a capsize). The amount of protection you need will depend on the conditions that you paddle in.
- A note on Hypothermia
Exposure can take many forms on a canoe camping trip, from wind burn to sun stroke to skin irritations. But the type of exposure that poses the greatest threat to paddlers' safety is typically hypothermia.
Hypothermia is a pronounced drop in the body's core temperature, caused by exposure to cold. It's often misrepresented as a condition that can occur only in sub-freezing temperatures. But it can actually develop in a wide range of temperatures, especially if the exposure is prolonged.
Hypothermia is a special concern for paddle campers because both wind and water can accelerate heat loss. Plus, canoe camping is often enjoyed in cold waters, where hypothermia can be an immediate danger, no matter how close you are to shore.
Since cold water poses much more of a safety risk than cold air, make it a habit to dress to keep dry in cold water situations.
On canoe camping trips in warm to moderate temperatures, regular rain gear is usually adequate protection. The basic types you have to choose from are:
- Water-resistant/breathable layers—These repel wind and light precipitation while providing excellent breathability. They're perfect for trips in arid and/or warm conditions where good breathability is important and the chance of heavy precipitation is low.
- Waterproof/breathable layers—These provide reliable waterproof protection AND good breathability. They perform well in a wide range of weather conditions, keeping rain/spray/splashes at bay all day, while also letting your sweat and body heat escape to keep you dry and comfortable. Gore-Tex® is one of the most popular waterproof/breathable fabrics.
- Waterproof/non-breathable layers—These fabrics, which include coated nylon and PVC, are extremely durable, relatively inexpensive and totally waterproof. But they're not breathable, so they can get very warm when you're paddling hard. To avoid overheating, choose styles that are cut extremely loose (like ponchos) or have special venting features built-in to let your body heat and sweat out. Waterproof/non-breathable fabrics are most commonly used in rain pants, since they don't allow water on canoe seats to soak through.
When water and air temperatures drop, the need for water-tight protection increases. In some situations (like on calm waters where the chance of capsize is low), simply adding another insulation layer underneath your warm weather rain gear is fine. But in many situations, warm-water layers do not provide enough protection to keep paddlers safe in the event of a capsize.
One of the best ways to protect yourself from moderate-to-cold water is to wear neoprene layers (alone or beneath your warm-water paddling rainwear, depending on conditions). Tight-fitting neoprene layers come in a variety of different styles (from full suits to short-sleeve shirts to various combinations in between). In the event of a capsize, these layers provide insulation even when you're in the water, by holding a thin layer of warmed water next to your skin, cutting down significantly on heat loss.
Unfortunately, wet suit layers can get uncomfortably warm when conditions heat up or paddling effort increases. "Farmer John" wet suits (which cover your legs and the body core only and can be rolled down to the waist) are among the most popular for moderate-weather paddling.
Wet suit layers come in a number of different thicknesses as well as styles. The thickest options are usually too bulky and warm for canoe paddling. Most canoe campers who paddle on moderate-to-cold waters stick to thinner (2 or 3mm) neoprene layers.
Cold-water paddlers need the very best in outerwear protection, since even brief immersion in frigid waters can be dangerous. Most opt for either full wet suit protection (with gloves and booties) or dry suits, the ultimate in immersion protection.
Dry suits are fully waterproof, coated nylon outfits that have water-tight rubber gaskets at the cuffs and neck (to keep out drips) and taped seams to eliminate seepage through needle holes. They're designed to keep you (and the clothing layers you're wearing underneath) completely dry.
Dry suits have no insulating properties of their own, so they're cut quite roomy so you can wear whatever insulation layers you want underneath. A good fit is crucial to good dry suit performance. Always check with an experienced paddling salesperson before purchasing one.
The primary drawback to a dry suit is that it can get uncomfortably warm when either you or the conditions heat up. To be fully waterproof, they must be completely sealed. So unless they're made out of more costly waterproof/breathable fabrics, dry suits offer no ventilation to spill the sweat and heat you produce inside. Some manufacturers offer separate dry tops and dry bottoms which can be worn alone or together.
NOTE: To make your paddling outer layers last as long as possible, wear them only when necessary. When not needed, store them somewhere within easy reach, in case conditions change.
- Head protection
Never leave shore without a comfortable, reliable waterproof hat. In warm conditions, it will provide protection from both the rain and the sun. In cold conditions, it will help keep you warm as well (up to 75% of all body heat lost is lost through the head). Look for a hat with a wide brim to block the sun/rain and some sort of retention strap so you don't lose it in rough conditions.
If you're expecting cold weather, pack an insulated hat as well. Popular options include fleece (or wool) caps and face masks, lightweight balaclavas, and even full neoprene hoods for extremely challenging routes in cold conditions.
- Eye protection
Bring a pair of dependable sunglasses with you on every trip. Make sure your lenses are impact-resistant and that they provide reliable UV protection (light reflected off of the water can be extremely bright). Wear a retaining strap so they don't get lost.
- Hand protection
Paddlers' hands take a lot of abuse from wind, weather and waves. To protect yours, keep them as dry as possible. In warm conditions, a little sunscreen during the day and a little skin lotion at night should do the trick. In moderate to cold conditions, a little extra protection may be necessary.
If you bring gloves or mittens with you, make sure they're durable and water-resistant. Special paddling gloves are available that provide good grip and good protection without impairing your paddle control. "Pogies" are also available for canoe paddles. These unique hand protectors attach directly to your paddle shaft and shield your hands without getting in between you and the paddle.
- Foot protection
Keeping your feet dry and warm can be tough on some canoe camping trips. They often get wet during boat entries and exits, and they can stay that way for hours, especially in rough conditions.
In warm weather/warm water, wet feet are rarely a serious problem. Sport sandals, water slippers, or even old tennis shoes work just fine. In colder conditions, wet feet mean cold feet. So either keep them completely dry in calf-high rubber boots or Gore-Tex® socks (inside of boots or shoes), or keep them warm while wet in thick-soled neoprene booties.
Attempting to hike, explore, or portage in wet, soggy shoes can lead to blisters, twisted ankle and falls. So pack an extra set of durable, lightweight and comfortable footwear for onshore activities. Store your back-up footwear in a safe, dry spot (inside of some type of waterproof storage bag) until needed.
NOTE: Look for light-colored, non-marking soles when buying any paddle camping footwear, to keep the inside of your canoe free of smudges.
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