Last week I went on a bikeraft day trip on the river Dommel. Starting in Valkenswaard in the Netherlands I biked through the beautiful heath and fens of the Plateaux-Hageven nature reserve southwards fighting head winds and the first soft hail shower of winter. Arrived in Neerpelt at the other side of the border in Belgium I put my bike on the inflated bow and floated down the river.
Actually, this trip even became more interesting than I had imagined beforehand. There are no signs of buildings or roads crossing your eyes view while paddling on the river until far into the Netherlands as you are constantly floating through the nature reserve of the Plateaux-Hageven, known for its many marshes, reed beds, ponds and waterfowl.
Unluckily the enjoyment of the trip came quickly to an end. Once crossed the border again, a heavy winter shower invaded the area and persisted for two hours. Soft hail and wet snow flakes immediately cooled down my body. I couldn’t keep on paddling like this and stepped out of my packraft several times to start jumping on the river bank, eating and trying to warm up my hands. At a certain moment back on the water my hands and legs began to tingle in my packraft and I was wondering whether this was a sign of becoming more hypothermic or whether I just got warmer again since I was now paddling as hard as I could to get warmer. I really couldn’t feel if the tingling was a bad sign or not. Again out of my packraft on the river bank I immediately felt the tingling was just a step closer to hypothermia. I felt dizzy for a while too. I couldn’t continue like this for much longer. It took too long to get my hands at a decent temperature again by warming them between my upper legs. My neoprene gloves were soaked from the rain and snow and useless given the loss of insulation.
I continued for quite some minutes on the river till I arrived close to a road where I didn’t hesitate to exchange paddle strokes for pedal strokes. Another 6km on my bike and I was back at the starting point, time to finally thaw my hands. Never before I felt such pain while heating supercooled hands.
Once more I got remembered how harsh winter packrafting can become. I suffered too from the cold on a 5-day winter packrafting trip on the Semois last winter, however the first signs of the beginnings of hypothermia never got so serious on that trip. I made a mistake this time. Most suffering could have been avoided if I had brought along more body insulation. That probably wouldn’t have stopped my cold hands at the other hand. Now I’m still searching for an acceptable system to keep my hands warm during winter packrafting. This time I used neoprene gloves and they performed okay till the showers came in. In precipitation the gloves get wet and they absolutely no longer provide sufficient insulation. They work well as long as it remains a bit warmer, but not at temperatures just above freezing or colder than that. Probably I would have had more benefit from thick wool gloves with a waterproof breathable liner on top of them on this trip. On class II water however, my experience with this system has not been satisfactory either due to splashing of the river water, but it probably remains acceptable on slow flowing rivers. Yet I keep wondering whether there is no better glove system for winter packrafting that can be used more universally. Maybe next time I should try a vapor barrier glove system? Or would thicker neoprene gloves actually work? If you have found a good solution for yourself to keep hands and feet warm I definitely would like to hear it.