Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/6/2012 (2849 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As a short, stocky, balding, hairy, middle-aged male, I suffer from no delusions of being able to get away with wearing skin-tight anything.
Men of a certain age, to borrow the Ray Romano phrase, only look attractive in a well-tailored suit, and even then only after three fittings or six weeks at the gym. Generally speaking, form-fitting clothing on a middle-aged dude should only be played for laughs, a la Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat.
But there are occasions when even a guy with my physique needs to squeeze into something tight. If you love being on the water — as a canoeist, kayaker or stand-up paddleboarder — the day will come when chilly weather will force you to become a human sausage by wearing a suit of something insulative.
My neoprene moment arrived two weeks ago, when I spent a couple of days on the Winnipeg River in yet another attempt to beef up my meagre (some would say pathetic) skills as a whitewater paddler.
The water temperature at Whitemud Falls was 13 C. The air temperature was 11 C and the wind was worthy of a CFL contest in Regina. Inevitably, I wound up in the river not once but twice after failing to negotiate a simple front ferry.
My pride was wounded, but that was the only injury I suffered, as for the first time in my life I was wearing my own wetsuit. Knowing the forecast in advance and being well aware of my athletic limitations, I decided to suppress what little vanity I had and shell out money for a piece of clothing that makes me look like an ape squeezed into a sausage casing.
Unless you're a surfer, it's impossible to look cool in a neoprene wetsuit. Even the world's most attractive people tend to look like doofuses when they wear wetsuits, which are designed to fit as tight as a teenage metal fan's jeans in the 1980s.
A neoprene wetsuit must be snug in order to trap a layer of water against your skin, which then warms that water and uses it as an insulative layer. It may sound weird to get yourself deliberately wet on a cold day, but this principle has been working since 1952, when California surfers were first convinced to cover themselves in closed-cell foam.
Now that I own one of these getups — a unitard with short sleeves and legs — my paddling season just got a whole lot longer. Since the biggest danger facing people on the water in Manitoba is hypothermia, which can kill swamped canoeists on even a mild summer day, I had been avoiding shoulder-season paddling trips of any sort of difficulty.
Before that whitewater course, it seemed frivolous to invest in yet another piece of gear. But as a belated and enthusiastic convert to the wetsuit concept, I suddenly find myself daydreaming about Thanksgiving long weekend trips that previously seemed unwise.
Of course, not everyone needs to own neoprene. But my revelation made me realize there are probably many paddlers who worry what they wear may not in fact be sufficient to protect them from the cold.
To that end, here's a general guide to paddling clothing for a variety of southern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario conditions. Just keep in mind these are general suggestions — individual needs and conditions vary.
Summer paddling (late June to early September): In the summer, quick-dry pants and shirts suffice, though a water-resistant soft shell can make life easier. You must have a full rainsuit to ward off hypothermia and warm clothing to wear off the water. Even in July, it's wise to travel with a full set of long underwear, a toque and heavy socks in your stuff sack.
Shoulder season (mid-May to mid-June, mid-September to early October): When the water is cold, you'll need some form of wetsuit ensemble: neoprene boots or aqua socks for your feet, a skullcap, gloves and something for your torso. There are full suits available or you can mix and match upper and lower-body pieces for a better fit. The whole shebang will set you back about $150.
Winter conditions (mid-October to early May): If you want to paddle in near-freezing water, you're probably looking at investing in a drysuit, which might fit you off the rack for $300 but will more likely cost you closer to a grand to custom-order. You'll still need insulative layers to wear beneath that drysuit. And there's no guarantee it will keep you alive if you end up in the drink — no piece of gear guarantees survival, no matter how expensive.