A Boater’s Guide to Warm Nights on Cold Expeditions

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 Frigid water ran down my paddle shaft and into frozen poggies. My feet crammed against the bulkhead of my kayak like blocks of ice. The wind whipped my face, threatening to blow me back upstream if I stopped paddling—perfect early spring conditions and the first of a multiday trip on the Green River. Tucked safely inside my drysuit, I was gladly willing to suffer through a few numb extremities for five days of solitude in the iconic canyon, paddling through magical snowstorms, and making the first footsteps of the season on windswept beaches.

What I wasn’t willing to suffer through was the cold, sleepless night that followed that picturesque day. Lying awake, waiting for daylight and actually looking forward to getting back into my drysuit because I was that cold, I realized that something had to change. I was determined to never spend another night curled up at the bottom of my bag unable to sleep from the cold.

So, compiled from years of sleepless nights in river canyons, advice from fellow paddlers and gear junkies, I’ve finally curated a way to stop the long nights of frozen toes. Whether you’re preparing to purchase gear or looking for ways to maximize the warmth you can get out of your current equipment, I hope this guide helps you stay warm whatever weather comes your way on your next paddling adventure.

The Setup
It has taken me years to build up my arsenal of on-water gear for winter boating trips, but as dedicated as I have been to keeping warm on the river, I never wanted to spend the energy and money to acquire the same level of equipment for the hours spent off the water. Finally, I realized that while having the right gear is essential on the water, knowing what it takes to stay warm at night is just as important on an extended river trip.

  • Shelter I’m not one to sleep in a tent if it’s not raining, but after many nights of waking up to a sleeping bag coated in ice and feeling the wind whipping through the fibers of my bag, I realized that having walls around you has its merits, even when it’s dry out. If you’re tight on packing space, love sleeping under the stars, or just hate setting up tents (guilty), then try a bivvy sack instead. Like a mini tent for your sleeping bag, a bivvy adds an extra layer of protection from the wind and frost.
  • Insulation I also resisted the added cost of a sleeping pad for years, going without a pad at all and then upgrading to an egg-carton style foam sleeping pad. While I thought of sleeping pads as a comfort item, I underestimated their importance for insulation. If you’re looking to upgrade, try getting a thick, durable pad such as the River Bed Sleeping Pad, made specifically for rafting trips (it’s waterproof). If you don’t have a decent sleeping pad (and aren’t looking to buy one), you can use other strategies to get off the cold ground. Sleeping on a raft or inflatable SUP board are some of my personal favorites. A roll-up cot can also be a comfortable and warm solution, albeit it’s better suited for a luxury raft trip rather than a self-support kayak mission.
  • Sleeping bag Choosing the right sleeping bag depends on your funds and priorities, but keep in mind that synthetic bags fair better than down if they get wet. Regardless of your type of sleeping bag, adding a liner to your kit can be a game changer. If you’re concerned about space, lightweight silk liners make a surprisingly large difference. But, this is a river trip we’re talking about, so if space isn’t an issue a fleece liner is cozy and adds extra warmth.

The Strategies
Sure, having all the right gear is ideal, but what if you find yourself in the middle of an expedition without it? Luckily, there are strategies for the unprepared. Whether you’re too cheap to buy the gear, thought you wouldn’t need it, or forgot it—I’ve been in all those spots—these techniques are worth having as a backup plan.

  • Location Simply where you set up your sleeping apparatus can be a deal breaker. Or a windbreaker. Do your best to stop at a bend in the canyon that offers the most protection from the wind while still providing maximum sunlight. Find a spot to hunker down out of the weather whenever possible.
  • Layering Take advantage of the same layers you wear under your drysuit in your sleeping bag. I often wear my fleece to bed, giving the added benefit of not having to get cold when changing in the morning or risk my cozy layers freezing overnight. My favorite layer to wear to bed is a down jacket, which serves as a cap to make sure no cold air passes through the opening of the sleeping bag. (If you splurged on a mummy-style bag, this might not be as big of a deal for you.) Speaking of caps, I like wearing a fuzzy hat that buckles under the chin. The buckle guarantees the cap stays on my head while I sleep (as opposed to other hats that tend to fall off), and it also serves as a pillow. Once you’re settled in with a cozy layer, take the rest of your clothes, jackets and wool socks, and tuck them in around you. Use this warm gear to fill any extra space at the bottom of your sleeping bag and around your feet.
  • Preparation If you’re on a river trip, chances are your hair—and possibly other parts of your body such as your feet—have been wet all day. It’s essential to get these areas dry before getting into bed. If you can, dry out your hair by the campfire and thaw your feet completely so your sleeping gear can serve its purpose of insulating an already warm body. If you aren’t able to get those toes warmed up beside the fire, there are other solutions. A quick set of exercises, such as lunges and pushups, energizes blood flows and warms your body. Cap it off with a few sit-ups once you get into your bag. Just be sure to avoid working up a sweat.
  • Last Ditch Efforts Finally, eating a big meal before bed forces your body to continue working throughout the night. Always make sure to empty your bladder just before slipping into your sleeping bag to avoid that middle-of-the-night tinkle that results in an immediate loss of heat. And I always keep a couple hand warmers around for the moments when you wake up with numb toes. If you didn’t pack the hand warmers, you can create your own reusable system by filling a Nalgene or similar water bottle with hot water just before bed. Then, stuff it in a wool sock and cuddle with it, or send it to the bottom of the bag to keep your feet warm. And here lies the final tip: If you have some co-paddlers who are also fighting cold nights, don’t be afraid to snuggle up for a little extra body heat.

So, whether you’re the type that plans ahead, or you find yourself waking up cold in the depths of a canyon on your next expedition, I hope you can use the lessons I’ve learned to transform those long nights from cold to cozy.  

But, consider yourself warned, creating a warm bed can make it a lot harder to get up and back onto the water in the morning.