Cold water or cold weather or both, there’s just no way to get around exposure to the cold if you want to paddle as many days as possible unless you have the appropriate protection. Instead of worrying about the temperature so much, why not just prepare for it? A drysuit and scull cap are a great start but after that the limiting factor for so many people is the HANDS.
Here’s a brief review of the best options out there, with pro’s n cons, to help YOU get more paddling hours in cold conditions and thus good boating done.
Pogies vs Gloves Vs Mittens:
I’ve tried many paddling gloves and it’s always a balancing act in terms of thickness. The thickest gloves significantly reduce dexterity and ‘feel’ of the paddle while the thinnest ones are no match for a cool breeze on a cool day. Paddling gloves are my #1 choice for cold-water playboating because they don’t take on water when you are in the hole, you can adjust your backband and Happy Thruster without exposing your skin, and once you get used to it you almost forget you are wearing them. The NRS Maverick or older Navigator is a fantastic choice for playboaters who NEED dexterity or for playboater boating cold water in warmer conditions. One step warmer would be the Glacier Gloves – these things have such soft, flesh-like rubber they almost make up for the fact that they are THICK and UBER-warm! In Navigators or Maverick’s I can snap my helmet, adjust backband and air bags, throw a rope and even work the quick release in my rescue vest. I CANNOT adjust my helmet strap, tie a knot, feel my grab-loop very well, or operate my camera very well.
The most important part of any paddling glove is actually the FIT. Any glove that’s tight – especially at the finger tips – is gonna be COLD – that’s just how it goes. Any glove without built in bent knuckles will not only constrict your veins but also tire your hands out over time. Latex dish gloves work OK in a pinch (beats nothing) but make sure to get them LOOSE fitting or they are worse than nothing at all. And as for keeping the water OUT? None will do that. You just want some cinch or strap to HELP keep the cold flushes to a minimum and a tight enough fit that they don’t get heavy once they are full.
Mittens are the next step up – for colder water or sub-freezing temperatures they totally blow your gloves away! I guess it’s because your fingers collectively warm better than individually but for some reason those NRS Toaster Mitts are wicked-warm – even sweaty at times! Unfortunately once I’m in mittens I better have all my gear fastened down and adjusted because you lose a LOT of dexterity and ‘feel” for what you are doing. You will play all day happily but be taking them off to adjust straps, shoot photos, or possibly even to portage on steep terrain due to the clumsiness of your grip on trees and rocks and equipment. Don’t expect to work the cinch to your throw-bag and make an accurate toss and belay! IT’s possible but not idea. Mittens to me are the BEST for playboating in VERY COLD conditions but the WORST for creeking / river running / safety. If you wear mitts while creeking make sure you can get out of them quickly OR just stick to big safe water.
Nylon covering: The nylon outer fabric on most neoprene is GREAT for protecting the neoprene from thorns, rocks and branches – significantly extending the life of the gear. BUT – it also increases evaporative cooling and weight. On gloves or mittens, make sure the neoprene on the palm is NOT nylon covered one bit as it seriously reduces your grip. Any seam-stitching will also reduce your grip. Those rubberized dots and lines over the nylon to ”improve grip” … it really helps but not enough that you want to buy them for serious whitewater use. Bare neoprene grips best, just be careful in briars or when grabbing rocks and trees.
Pogies: The time tested, mother approved paddling staple did FAR better in my tests than I would have ever expected. They have an obvious downside of cupping water when you roll or when playboating… and when side surfing a hole, rolling or any time your hand is submerged they offer nearly NO protection from the cold. But for the overall river-running or mostly downstream paddling most people do much of the time…what’s warmer than thick gloves? Pogies. What’s warmer than perfect fitting mittens? Pogies. What’s the very warmest thing you can possibly wear overall? Gloves covered by Pogies! I guess they just take the ”collective warmth” thing one step further but even with water sloshing through every wave my hands stay warmer at the end of the day, even in short creek-mitt style pogies, than any of the other forms of protection when running rivers. With so many different kinds of pogies I’ll just point out what’s important to me.
Fuzzy interior: while it’s soft and warm even when wet, that ”fuzz” hold water and makes things heavy, great for spashy conditions but not worth it when you’ll be doused repeatedly all day.
Long cuffs: Sure they connect with your drytop and ”seal” wind and water out in splashy conditions, but once it gets in it stays in longer too. This also means your pogies are using more fabric and like the fuzz, it makes your paddle feel heavier every single stroke. Many models offer snaps to ‘shorten’ them when you want which is nice but still heavy.
Creek Mitts: Shortened models popularized by Mt. Surf are more versatile when you will be grabbing rocks, going through trees or going through slots where you might need to drop a blade. They are NOT as warm paddling flatwater or in high winds but still right up there with thick gloves in the long term when spending several hours on the water. I’ve actually cut down longer models to reduce weight and improve quick-release time as in the creeks of the SE that is a high priority.
So why not JUST use Pogies? Once again, they are natural ‘cups’ for water when you are rolling up or side-surfing a hole or anytime you are submerged, like squirt boating. Since they mount to your paddle, you’ll find yourself without them when scouting, portaging, or even on the long hike in or out so plan accordingly by bringing some other hand protection if you plan to spend a lot of time off the water – like building a fire or shooting photos or scouting. In a pinch you can take them off the paddle and open them around a cockpit rim or camera but it’s not convenient. Today I used one pogie and one glove for surfing a big wave. The gloved hand was COLDER when I got off the water and I was going to swap it for a pogie but after shooting photos for 10 minutes I was wishing for the 2nd glove. It’s always a judgement call..but I hope we’ve covered enough strengths and weaknesses for you to make the best decision for you.
So there you have it – pro’s n cons of the various hand-protection items on the market for whitewater paddling in a nutshell, rigorously tested in the field so you can make the best purchasing decision and get more paddling days per year.
Here are some links to get your browsing started, and feel free to chime in:
What is the best cold weather hand protection for you?