Hypothermia: Self-Recovery and Survival by Robert Finlay of Kayak Lake Mead
This article is about solo kayaking in cold water and being able to recover and survive from hypothermia when
you are alone without help. If you're paddling or adventuring alone you MUST know and be honest with
Important Note: This article is vital to survival. This article is a result of my personal battles of suffering and
learning to recover from hypothermia in the wilderness, by myself, and getting on with my paddle adventure.
Adventure race sidebar: Adventure racers and adventure race teams, if you want to learn how to finish
every race and not become a DNF (did not finish) statistic... READ THIS ARTICLE!
To know your susceptibilities to cold is key. To know how to prepare for a cold water kayak trip is key. Being
able to recognize the signs that you are getting hypothermic is key. AND being able to recover by yourself in
A typical scenario: I am alone. I am kayaking in high winds, 30 to 35 knots with gusts to whatever, on a 15
mile leg that is "close to the wind", wind and waves right at me. The water temperature is low 50's F. The air
temp is about the same. I am going to have to deal with cold, wet, and wind.
My water bladder tube is coming up through my spray skirt and attached to my PFD with the nipple only
inches from my mouth, so I am drinking and staying hydrated. Food is harder, the waves have at least "98%
of my attention". But, I have in a couple of bike bottles a mix of Hammer Nutrition's "Sustained Energy" and
"Perpetuem", one is on my forward deck and one is in the hull between my legs. That is a "kick ass" mix by
So, I am eating, but probably not enough. I have energy bars in my paddle jacket, but it is a lot of trouble
getting to them and unwrapping the darn things. I also have in my paddle jacket a sandwich bag of raisins and
nuts, but I've only taken two or three dips into that, again eating is not easy, but I am trying, because I know
the importance of staying fueled.
I have been exercising hard, staying hydrated, and eating a little. I am near the end of my leg. I have taken on a
little water through my hatches, I know this because my kayak seems heavy and low in the water. But I'm
I beach up and start to set up camp, tent first. I am shivering. About halfway through the project of getting the
tent set up I am shivering so hard I am not functioning, "sh....t". No real problems though. In my forward
compartment, the first thing that is reachable is my handy dandy "hypothermia self-recovery system". I go and
It is a dry bag containing the items I need to stay alive, recover from hypothermia, get a good night's rest, and
paddle some more in the morning.
Hypothermia self-recovery system list:
Listed in the order of importance and packed so item #1(most important) comes out first.
1) Shelter - An all weather space blanket (this is like a tarp but with a reflective side) taped so that the reflective side is in and so that it goes over my head with a breath hole for my mouth and nose. I can sit on something or squat and I am sheltered. More info on this space blanket here.
2) Heat Source - A ZIP-LOC bag with one 44 hour, 3 wick "NUWICK" candle. This is a can of pure
happiness. It puts out the BTU's.
3) Inside the can waterproof matches and in the ZIP-LOC are more matches in a waterproof container and a
wind proof lighter and 2 regular lighters. I will get that candle lit.
4) 1 ea fleece hat.
5) 1 ea polypropylene top.
6) 1 ea fleece top.
7) 1 ea polypropylene pants.
8) 1pr wool socks.
9) 1pr fleece gloves.
10) 1 ea waterproof rain parka.
11) Another ZIP-LOC with 6 ea "Mega Warmer" chemical heat treats AND more lighters AND a box of "Fire
Starters", little matches / kindling that make starting an emergency fire easy to get going AND a smaller
ZIP-LOC of sugar (pure white life) AND 1 ea plastic spoon AND 1 ea freeze dried meal of chicken noodles.
12) 1 space blanket, sleeping bag type, so I can get in it and be wrapped.
13) 1 ea 1-liter titanium pot with lid.
I am still shivering and a little uncoordinated but it doesn't take a lot of motor skill to get my self-recovery
going. Once I put on the shelter and light the candle things are heating up fast.
With the wet clothes off and the dry clothes on AND the heat that is happening in my shelter, I am feeling
better in 6 minutes. But I am still cold and need more time to heat up thoroughly and rest a bit before I make
I put some sugar into my water bladder. The water bladder is low but I have more water behind my seat.
I get my sleeping bag, insulated ground mat, and bivi sack out of the kayak. I slip into that ensemble of space
blanket, sleeping bag and bivi sack. (The ground mat goes into the bivi sack, so I don't slip off of it while
laying down and sleeping.) I slip the rain parka off. I get a couple of Mega Warmers going and put one
between my legs and one on my chest. I am a happy camper already.
I situate my water bladder so the tube comes into the bivi sack. This way I can continue to hydrate and get
immediate fuel from the sugar water.
In an hour I am ready to make dinner. If I had needed to eat warm food right away... I can, while in the
shelter, warm up some water with the NUWICK candle and prepare chicken noodles.
I have not only recovered and survived; I have had a good meal, a good night's rest, and I will have a good
time paddling the next day.
By the way, this narrative was an account of an actual paddle trip. The next morning was calm and sunny.