A step closer to hypothermia

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.

Dommel 201112

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.

Dommel 201112

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.

Dommel 201112

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.

Dommel 201112

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.

16 thoughts on “A step closer to hypothermia

  1. Now I got the whole picture of your FB-post last week… gosh!

    I don’t think a VBL-liner will be your solution for this problem, as how for I understand it, a VBL will protect your insulation for getting humid from your body vaporation
    But maybe you mean that you would put a VBL on the outside to keep your insulation wet-free from the outside as well. That would mean you need a glove with an outer and an inner VBL-liner. A challenge!

  2. Neoprene should do the trick, after all divers also use them in cold water situations. But there are varying thicknesses for neoprene equipment. I think for winter use you should look for thicker neoprene gloves (eg in a diving store).

    • Interesting. While I was writing my comment Mikkel’s comment was not here yet… Seems that I’m slow. So instead of reading my longish comment, just try what Mikkel said. 😉

  3. Sounds like a bit miserable trip.

    Neoprene should work. It should stay insulative despite being wet. But apparently neoprene is prone to wind chill effect with moisture evaporating from the outer-face of the neoprene and thus cooling the whole system. For me 3mm or 5mm close-fitting (important so there wont be water flowing in and out) neoprene gloves work reasonably well. I’d recommend thin/midweight neoprene gloves and topping them with muffles (sort of an over mittens attached to the paddle). They should cut the windshill and provide extra warmth. Similar approadch does wonders in skiing so why not in paddling? Here’s a Oxford nylon + teddy version: http://www.hikosport.com/handys-muffle-206/

    Hypothermia is a nasty thing but very interesting thing to experiment with in controlled environment. (Hmm, I’m a bit sick right?). I found it very interesting to see how my body reacts to cold (a story available in my blog). But, if it’s cold I use drysuit for paddling (be it kayak or packraft), it keeps me warm and might save my life in some occasion. So I don’t actually have exprience about being miserably cold while paddling. Lucky me?

  4. The problem with the thicker neoprene is that unless the gloves are pre-curved it gets tiring to grasp a paddle for long. I second the suggestion of thinner gloves and paddle mitts. Same amount of neoprene but much more comfortable than a single bulky glove.

    • Hi Sabi,
      The shivering was limited. I had especially difficulties with the body extremities. The drop of my body core temperature wasn’t too bad after all I suppose. Thanks for the link to Chillcheater! Never heard about. Do you perhaps have or know of any experience with Aquatherm? There seem to be a lot of mixed experiences.

  5. Hi, just read the story, good experience! 🙂 I have done quite a few whitewater kayak trips in Canada and in the surf in the Netherlands in wintertime. As said above, neoprene is the only stuff that works a bit. When neoprene gets wet the water kept in the neoprene should take your body temperature. That’s the theory, in reality your hands get friggin cold and they hurt like hell. The good thing is that the wind chill is reduced and that helps a lot…what I usually did was after the first half an hour putting my hands between my PFD and body, heat them up, and then in my case they usually stayed warm after that, even without gloves 🙂 (and they’re still fine in case you’re wondering :)).

    The most important part of your body to keep warm is your head, so I always wore a neoprene hat under my helmet. The rest of the body should be protected by layers of neoprene on the body and thermal clothing over it. Get in touch with the ww kayak clubs in Belgium, they should be able to tell you a lot about staying safe!

    happy paddling…ciao

  6. Hi, you write “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 […]”. Can you elaborate a bit – where’s the rub?

    I just gave 0°C packrafting a go, and used fingertip-less woolen gloves with Seal Skinz water’proof’ gloves over them. The leather palms of the latter give good paddle grip. Not sure about their waterproofness – I’d rather say ‘resistant’; but I regularly took off the Seals to handle my camera better, which over time resulted in wet wool gloves hence wet Seal lining; so it’s hard to tell. The important point though: my hands stayed fairly warm even after the glove setup had gotten pretty soaked, at least as long as I kept paddling. It probably helped that there wasn’t much wind, and I was quite warmly dressed otherwise. I walked for an hour afterward, and by the end of that my hands did feel cold, though not painfully so, perhaps by simple attrition or by ‘less hand movement -> less blood movement -> less heat’.

  7. As an ex-diving instructor I’ve learned a thing or two about hypothermia.During a prolonged exposure to cold water, your hands will lose some skin fat and also some isolating properties.
    Perhaps it will be useful to ask the owner of ultralightoutdoorgear.co.uk which waterproof gloves would be appropriate for paddling .
    An alternative and inexpensive approach could be this one. You buy some thin neoprene working gloves in the shop for building materials. Take a tight fit. Then you take a pair of gtx Nato mitts from the military dump with you. If the weather gets really that bad, you can use them both.
    Good luck!

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