Many, if not all of us, fish during cold weather. The fishing is still good and for a change we can have the lake mostly to ourselves. Nothing like 24 degrees and windy to clear out the casual boater. As all of us know, any activity in the cold outdoors brings the risk of exposure. Any activity in which you can get wet and cold immediately brings the risk of hypothermia. In order to plan what provisions you’ll want on board, it is a good idea to talk about hypothermia for a moment.
Let’s make the lawyers happy first: I am not a Doctor and I have no specialized knowledge in treating hypothermia or surviving in the cold. It is wise to do your own research on the topic. And before we even start talking about getting wet, let’s get priorities straight. Item #1 is a good Personal Floatation Device. With many layers of wet clothes, you are going to have to be an expert swimmer to get into the boat without a PFD. Sospenders type PFDs are nice, but a full foam vest really helps to keep your body core warm. My vote goes to the foam vest.
Humans lose heat through two methods, radiation and conduction. Radiation is your body radiating heat. The simple way to combat heat loss due to radiation is to cover your skin, particularly your head, in multiple layers of clothing. Conduction is heat loss due to coming into contact with a source colder than your body — like leaning on cold metal. Or like getting wet. Getting wet quickly exposes your entire body to cold. You lose heat 25 times faster when you are wet compared to when you are dry. Layers of clothing are worthless at this point because you are losing heat through every part of you that is wet.
So back to planning what you need on board, the most urgent need you must plan for is a way to get dry. Let’s go through a couple of scenarios.
Scenario 1) Let’s suppose you fall out of the boat. You have two immediate problems: how get out of the water quickly and how to get dry. In my opinion, the most critical item you need is a ladder. If you can’t get out of the water, you are in big trouble. Your wet clothes and shoes have added about 50 lbs. of dead weight and crawling into the boat is not easy even for someone physically fit. If your body temperature drops quickly, you’ll lose muscle control. In 40 degree water, most people cannot raise their arms over their heads in 15 minutes. People say they’ll stand on the cavitation plate and use the trim switch, but try it, it isn’t easy. So item #2 is an immediately accessible ladder.
Now that you are in the boat, it is imperative that you get dry. Item #3 is a full set of clothes and shoes. You do not want to get dressed while your skin is still wet, so you need a towel. You need dry underwear, outerwear, gloves, shoes, and a hat. Pack them in big Ziplock bags. Sit on them to get the air out. They can get surprisingly small.
Now head to the ramp and go get warm.
Scenario 2) You are speeding along and hit a submerged rock. You are thrown from the boat and your boat is disabled. Provided you aren’t injured, the early steps are like the first scenario. Get in the boat and get dry. Now how do you get back to the ramp? Item #4 on my list is a cell phone or radio. Of course, you were smart enough to leave the phone in a protected spot on the boat, so it still works. If you’d had it in your pocket you’d be getting ready for a bad day.
Scenario 3) You are on an unfamiliar lake and get lost. Of course, since you’ve been reading the boating safety forum, you know to have a float plan. After a while your friends will start searching. If I was lost, getting cold, and facing a night of exposure, I’d head for shore and start a fire. This scenario is similar to the first two scenarios, but since you are looking at long term exposure, the next thing on my list is fire. The warmth is critical, and it will help searchers to find you. In a desperate situation, you’ve got fuel and an igniter source. Disconnect your fuel line and dump a little fuel. Use your jumper cables to cause a spark away from the boat. (You do have jumper cables in the boat, right?)
Since we are planning ahead, a flashlight would be really handy to help find all that firewood you are going to want. Those LED ones that don’t need batteries are handy in a pinch.
So my list of critical items is:
1) Personal Floatation Device
3) Towel, Dry clothes, shoes, gloves, hat
4) Cell phone / VHF radio
5) Fire source / matches / kindling (dryer lint works nicely)
8) Rock Salt (keep it in your truck)
One other thing I’ve learned the hard way is to carry rock salt in the truck. I once put in after a bunch of striper fisherman did and the wet ramp had iced up. Going down the ramp was exciting; getting back up the ramp was impossible. A guide came by and gave me a disgusted look and said “You’ll remember rock salt the next time”. Then he nicely used his and got me out of ramp jail.
I am certain that I haven’t thought of half of what is a good list of items to carry in cold weather, treat this as just a starting point. But if you start to think through what you’ll need if you join ‘the swim club’, you will probably ensure that your fishing career will at least be long. As far as successful goes, well, you are on your own!