Safety Considerations for Extended Paddles

-by Jay Murdock, SDKC Safety Editor

There is a rule in mountaineering, that you must always determine what is ahead of you as you evaluate your current state, and be willing to turn around if the risk is too high if you proceed. Disappointment of not doing a climb always trumps injury or death. That rule should also apply to each paddle trip we take.


Life is about choices, and the decisions we make, or choose not to make, have consequences. This photo, even though it is most likely “Computer Altered”, is a dramatic illustration of a critical “decision point” in a paddle. But in risk situations far more subtle, yet discernible, we avoid the needed investigation and preparation for our safety, then forge ahead.

Sometimes it is better to call off an outing if you think it is unsafe to proceed. I have had to do this on two occasions over the past five years. Both involved the same two factors that led to that decision. The critical question I asked myself was “is the group size and strengths safe enough for the weather conditions?”. While the weather conditions and settings were complete opposites (one involved a winter pack trip in the snow, with cold and high winds, while the other involved a desert kayak river trip with high temperatures and little wind), the vital consideration was the same. Behind that question is always another question: Do I want to take a chance and place myself and others at risk by deciding to proceed. Taking chances is never wise. Making good decisions based on high probability of safety factors should be the rule.

It is always frustrating to cancel a trip, but it is far better to be frustrated at that point, than be regretful later on for making an unwise decision that leads to placing a group in harm’s way, or even a tragic event.  Assessing to go, or not to go, must always factor in your own personal strengths and weaknesses as a leader, along with those considerations for each person going.

Extreme Heat and Cold

People tend to be more concerned with cold temperatures, than with the heat. But high temperatures can be as dangerous to us as we take part in outdoor activities. While hypothermia can sneak up on you in cold temperatures, heat exhaustion and heat stroke can overtake you during a paddle on a hot day. If we don’t pay attention to the warning symptoms, and do not take action, we will become incapable of helping ourselves at that point. Others must step in to our aid, and is why you want to know the capabilities of those you venture with.  But here is the difference: If we know the warning signs and how to take care of ourselves in cold weather, we can take action to stay warm. Drinking hot liquids, or those with sugar or caffeine, eating high energy foods, putting on warm cloths, increasing our activity, all can help keep us warm and avoid hypothermia. But in extreme heat when we cannot get to an air conditioned building, we can only rest, seek shade, get in the water (and you are hot again 15 minutes after getting out), take off clothing and drink water. Beyond that there is simply no way to cool down, or prevent us from overheating. In this sense, high temperature may be more dangerous to us. I have been in 120 degree heat, in a pool while in the shade drinking water, and had to get into an air condition room before I began to cool off. Because we live in a warm climate area, high temperature is usually our problem during paddle trips, so that is the issue discussed here. While the CDC statistics indicate cold-related deaths in the USA are twice as high as heat- related, the National Weather Service has done a study on specific hazardous weather events, with the opposite conclusions. That data is presented on the graph below.


Group Size and Weather/Temperature

Four people usually represents the bare minimum for a safe overnight paddle trip, but in the case of also having high temperatures over 80 degrees, that group size may be too small to adequately handle any emergency in that high heat. For instance, the average high temperature in March for the Yuma area is around 80, and that was what I was banking on for a trip in March of 2015. A few days prior to the trip, the prediction was for temperatures in the low 90’s. That ten degree higher temperature from what was initially anticipated is at the limit of the range of being able to slowly paddle and move about for short periods, and is simply not fun. The high heat lasts 8 to 9 hours during the day, and greatly restricts activity, but in the case of an emergency, that heat is also dangerous to the rest of the group during increased required activity. The smaller the group, the more each person will need to expend a lot more effort and energy in taking care of the victim, which can easily lead to heat exhaustion. So, from the standpoint of discomfort from the heat, not being able to do much during a large part of the day, and having a low margin of safety, it is not wise to proceed with the trip if only four are going.

Safety Includes Knowing Your Physical Abilities

Even though you may have the training, knowledge, and skills to competently lead a particular trip, you also need to consider your own personal physical condition and health, and your personal ability to handle extreme temperatures. You also need to evaluate each of those factors for all going on the trip. Using myself as an example, I have always had a high metabolic rate, which gives me the ability to stay somewhat comfortable and relatively warm when others are cold. That is why you will see me on a cold Wednesday morning paddling in a short sleeve shirt, while others have paddle jackets on.** But, because of this, I have a low capacity to handle high temperatures, and I overheat easily. I saw a documentary on this a few years back, where researchers studied a group of mountain climbers on a steep ascent while wired up to sensors. Some could climb in jackets while staying comfortable, while others were overheating in thin shirts. That is simply how we are made differently.

But something else enters into the picture. As we turn age 65, our central nervous system begins to slowly deteriorate, and our ability to “handle” high temperatures is diminished. We also have difficulty remaining hydrated. That is why heat exhaustion and heat stroke involve older people so much. Once we overheat, we cannot cool down as easily as a younger person. We also cannot recover from extremes as quickly. So, the older you get, the more you need to pay attention to taking action to not overheat in the first place. Moving slowly, drinking lots of water, wearing light colored clothing and hats, placing a wet cloth around your neck, even putting your hand and wrist in the water for a moment as you paddle are all very helpful for staying out of danger of overheating. But there is something else we don’t normally think about that can place us at danger: avoiding sudden changes in temperature. As we drive to the Colorado River, we are in our air conditioned cars, then step out into hot weather, load up our boats, and are off on a paddle in an hour or so. That is too sudden of a change, and does not allow our bodies to “acclimatize” slowly enough. So, turn down the AC an hour before you arrive to start that process, drink lots of water before you launch, then paddle slowly for a while.

I am fine in the desert on a river trip as long as it is not too hot. On hot days (for me, anything above 80 degrees is hot), I have to carefully watch my exertion level, even when drinking plenty of water, so to not overheat. On occasion, when I did overheat, I tended to get weak and a bit dizzy. That is personally dangerous on the water, and lowers the margin of safety for the group overall. Instead of being the person people can rely on for first aid, etc, I can easily turn into the person needing help. As a leader of a group, your goal is to prevent that reversal from occurring. If you do not know this, and keep exercising, your condition can develop into “exertional heatstroke”, a very serious situation that requires immediate first aid care. Because one can never predict fully what can happen is why I teach first aid principles at the beginning of a mountaineering trip, so that others can take care of me, or each other, if I am not there. The same should apply to each kayak trip we take.

Become Proficient in Weather Prediction

You don’t have to be a meteorologist to be competent in knowing the weather for your outing. You just need to know where to look for answers. The National Weather Service has lots of data, and a little map on each page that you can click on to see what is predicted for that specific area. For instance, to find the interpolated weather and temperatures for the Colorado River area north of Yuma, you first bring up the Yuma page, then click on a spot up river, and you will see what is predicted for that exact site. I’ve listed the web address below for Squaw Lake north of Yuma, to show what I mean. Just click on that map north of the cross hairs, and you will get another “point forecast”. Down in the lower right corner of that page you will see a graph titled “Hourly Weather Graph”. Click on the graph to enlarge it, and you will see when the extreme temperatures will occur, along with wind and other data. Click on the “Forward 2 Days” button to advance to the date you need for your outing. The radar box is also very helpful in seeing what is coming your way. Click on that, then click on “Composite – Loop” to see the weather in motion. I have also listed the websites for Sailflow and Windfinder, where you can see the wind prediction for your trip location, including the coastal and Channel Islands. It is very windy in some places during specific months of the year, which you will want to avoid. High wind, combined with low temperatures is very dangerous, so you need to know what you are doing.

Other Safety Considerations

I have listed other factors you need to consider on paddles in my Lightning Strikes article, which everyone should read prior to embarking on a new outing.

Absolute safety can never be guaranteed, but it should always be our target goal in any venture. Being safety minded is an attitude, one that can go a long way in preventing tragedies as we carefully proceed through all the phases of an outing. And in that sense, “The Goal is the Process”.

**- If you are paddling on cold water, or alone, or with only one other person, you always need to dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature, in case of a capsize. Since I overheat quickly when paddling with a group, and then need to slow down when that happens, I dress lightly in order to stay up with the group, knowing there is considerable help to quickly get me back in my kayak if I cannot perform a roll. With our relatively warm water temperatures in Southern California, this is a good trade-off, with acceptable low risk for me. That is a personal choice and safety decision each person must make.

Helpful resources to learn more:

-Contributed by Jay Murdock