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Clothing for the Canoeist

by WGT MMU 1995

Clothing is always a problem in a water based sport, and canoeing makes special demands on your body, so it is important that clothing should protect the body yet not interfere with its movements during any paddling or related action.

The equipment you need depends on the type of craft you are paddling, the weather conditions, and your personal resistance to the cold.

Conditions are seldom constant during the day, temperatures rise and fall; wind force and direction change; sunshine varies in intensity and direction. The Paddlers activity also varies during the course of a days of canoeing. Competition canoeists warm up, race, then cool down. Recreational canoeists paddle at varying speeds and may stop to rest, eat or enjoy the scenery. Thus, basic clothing sense means suiting clothing to the varying needs of insulation required by changes in weather, activity and location.

In the warmest conditions, a pair of shorts, a tee-shirt top and some form of footwear will prove suitable.

In the cold the problem of body insulation assumes greater importance and in these conditions you will require three basic layers of clothing:

1. Base layer (thermal tops)
2. An insulating layer (pile fibre covering)
3. A water / wind proof layer (canoe cag)

Better insulation can come from several layers of garments rather than a single layer of the same total thickness. This is because more dead air is trapped in and between thin layers than in one thick layer. Multiple layers allow the use of special purpose garments, each fulfilling a particular clothing need. If it is next to the skin it role is to keep away sweat. Mid layers trap warm air, and outer layers keep the elements at bay.
A whole host of firms now produce Base layer garments known as “thermal wear" from man-made polyfibres. Worn on the torso and/or legs this needs to be thin, close fitting, comfortable and is designed to transport perspiration outwards, away from the skin.

The intermediate layer needs to be thicker than the base hence "fibrepile” or “fleece", which are generally a “fur” fabric made from polyester nylon or acrylic. This fabric warms quickly by trapping air to provide a thermal barrier, is warm when damp/wet and is available in different thicknesses for use in different layers, but is not windproof. As canoeing can be a wet sport the Water/Windproof layer (the shell) will protect the insulation layer from the majority of external moisture, and counteract the wind-chill effect. Most recently, the use of Gore-Tex has helped to reduce the condensation problems found when using dry cags. This breathable material seems to work best, when kept clean and in generally good condition, not always possible in canoeing.

Canoe cags are specially cut and shaped “paddling jackets”. These are made from coated backed nylon and have close filling wrist and neck seals to stop water penetration.

In recent years with the event of modern materials the “dry suit “ or “dry cagoule” have started to become popular, especially amongst those who have a tendency of getting wet. The “dry suit” which is made from a thin neoprene backed nylon is worn over clothing of wool or fibrepile for warmth. The suit seals at the ankles, wrist and neck to prevent water entering. Similarly, the “dry cagoule” is a canoeing smock which seals at the wrists, neck and waist and is an ideal top for winter canoeing as one stays warm and dry.
The choice of footwear is a mailer of personal preference. But, an old pair of training/gym shoes are sufficient for summer paddling and can be uprated by wearing woolen or ski socks during the colder months.

For white water or winter paddling a pair of purpose made “wet boots” or a pair of neoprene socks protected by polythene sandles or a large pair of training shoes are very good. It is important to make sure that you choose a safe patens which gives a secure grip, firstly to offer protection and secondly to give a good traction whilst out of the boat, inspecting, portaging or stopping for food and drink. All loose laces should be tucked well out of the way, so they cannot snag on foot rests etc.

The greatest heat loss occurs through the head, thus. a woolen ski hat will keep you warm whilst paddling in the Winter. Likewise in the strong sunshine a hat with a wide brim is useful to Protect the head and back of the neck from strong ultra-violet rays.

For those who canoe in every condition the hands will stay warm if the rest of the body is warm. For kaykers and one sided canoe paddlers the “Pogie” will ensure warm hands. These are cuff-like gauntlets made from neoprene or

waterproof nylon that attach around the shaft of the paddle. The paddler places their hands into the Pogie and grips the shaft in the oversized mitt. In the coldest of conditions Pogies are indispensable. Some paddlers who are not comfortable with the feeling of being attached to the blade, use wet suit gloves to keep their hands warm.
Some canoeists prefer to wear a neoprene wet suit to combat loss of body heat. These are capable of replacing both the insulating layer and the outer layer. The sleeveless “long John” being the most popular, although warm when wet, does tend to offer some resistance to upper body movement due to its shape I cut, especially around the chest I shoulder areas. One advantage of a wet suit is it offers basic protection to the canoeist while swimming, the foam layer helps take knocks from underwater obstructions etc. In addition, because it traps air, extra floatation. is offered. So; if you are likely to swim or spend time in tie water, rescuing, teaching or portaging a wet suit may be your best choice.