Tips for Tolerating Winter Paddling


Tell me you hate winter without telling me you hate winter.

While hate is a strong word, after 12 years of double summer, I realized that I do winter best in small doses. Ideally, a few weeks at a time. I want to visit winter, not live in it. Unfortunately for me, that isn’t always possible.

Not even into official winter, I woke up one morning and realized how surprised I was that it was still cold and gray outside. As if yesterday’s cold and grey was just a fluke, and the day before that—a random cold front. But then I realized, hello, it’s NOVEMBER. And it will probably stay this way for a while. I turned off the alarm, but instead of getting up, I wallowed beneath my blankets and debated the merits of cold water paddling or if I should admit defeat until spring.

Here in the Northwest, the water is always cold. Like, 45°F (7°C) cold. A lot of the rivers flow through deep gorges that, while beautiful, rarely experience the full power of the sun. But winter (and spring, that magical season of sunshine, water, and longer days) is when it rains. And when it rains, the rivers run. It’s a terrible conundrum for sun bunnies like myself.

While you’ve probably seen the iconic photos of kayakers going off that waterfall, the surrounding banks covered in snow, the reality is that most of us mere mortals wage an internal battle that consists of the “should I/shouldn’t I” “I could just go skiing/to the gym/do a puzzle/drink tea/insert your favorite indoor activity here…”

Many of my friends tap out on kayaking around 40-50°F. While I dislike the cold, I do love kayaking. The days you get out on the river in the snow can be pretty magical. And, if you dress right (and stay upright!), it’s honestly not that bad. In fact, I frequently overheat. So, to motivate more friends to paddle with me, here are a few tips to make winter paddling more tolerable.

Maximize indoor time.
I might sound like Captain Obvious here, but I like to bring my dry suit, helmet, skull cap, shoes, and pogies inside at night to dry because putting frozen gear on my head, hands, and feet is a sure way to kill my motivation. This time of year, my skirt also comes inside most days. I try my hardest to gear up as much as possible inside the house. If you have a long drive to the river, put your layers on to minimize exposure to cold air at the put-in. If I can, I put my dry suit and shoes right next to the floor heater in the front seat so they are nice and toasty when I reach the river.

Always wear a dry suit.
Full stop. Okay, or a wetsuit. Here in the Northwest, a dry suit is pretty much essential for winter paddling. There’s a rare day when the combination of air temp and water temp don’t hit below the wear-a-dry-suit line. But if you’re in a part of the world where winter air temps feel mild, you might think you can get away with not wearing one. I never swim—you say. Well, it’s not always about you. Smart paddlers dress for safety and protection in case of cold-water immersion, whether you swim, your buddy swims or you have to rescue a boat. Neoprene is also great. Dry suit or wetsuit, dress for the swim (yours or someone else’s) by wearing gear that will keep you warm when wet.

It’s all about the accessories.
You know that adage, “You lose 60% of your body heat through your head?” I have no idea if it’s true, but I will say that a skull cap is one of my favorite pieces of gear. It keeps my head warm(er) when I flip and raises my body temp even when I don’t. I swap out how intense of a skull cap I wear seasonally (Yay, Storm Hood and Storm Cap!) and will stash one in my PFD if I don’t put it on at the put-in. There may be another saying about your feet…hey, Google. Suffice it to say, dry suit socks are not insulating. Keep your toes toasty with wool socks underneath or neoprene socks over. Just be sure to leave space inside your shoes for your toes to wiggle!

And—don’t forget the accessories pre-and post-paddle. If your teeth are chattering before you launch, it’s going to be hard to cut the chill in the water. Gloves also make dealing with icy straps SO MUCH BETTER. Wear a beanie, gloves (with hand warmers—no judgment here), etc. while you’re gearing up, then shove that beanie down the leg of your dry suit or into your chest for a warm head at the take-out. You can thank me later.

The ultimate battle: Pogies v. Mitts. v. Gloves.
I’m not here to start fights. Whatever your preference is for warm hands, you do you. But! Keeping your fingers warm is not only more pleasant, it also makes you more likely to help someone if they need a rescue, whether it’s putting their skirt back on or taking a swim. I’m a fan of the pogies most of the time because they let me keep my grip on my paddle, and I can easily take them off and on. Mitts are a great option if I know I’m going to get a lot of water in my pogies (i.e. surfing). You can always do the Ottawa Valley classic and go one mitt and one pogie, too.

Layer up, buttercup.
Through some magic of fleece, union suits are undeniably warmer than just wearing a fleece top and bottom. While I don’t have the exact science on this re: heat loss per square centimeter of fleece to body ratio… I swear they help. I also like to double up on top. I’ll wear two light fleece tops, or a light fleece and a thick fleece. This means that if I get any water drops down my dry suit, my inner fleece stays dry. I also tend to rock a wool tank top for most of the winter to keep the core warm, but that’s just me. A thin fleece or polyfill/down vest is also a great way to keep the core warm and maximize arm movement while minimizing sweaty pits.

Paddle to your fun.
Where you paddle when it’s cold is up to you. There are a lot of days when I choose to paddle a grade or two below my skill level because I want to enjoy getting out on the water with minimal risk. If you’re lucky enough to live near a surf wave—ahem, jealous—and are willing to brave the potential flip of a park n’ play, go for it! Just revisit tip number three.

Even if you don’t live near whitewater that runs in winter, every day in the boat counts. Flatwater or whitewater, my goal is always to maintain skills and confidence so I feel ready to push harder when the days are longer, sunnier, or warmer. Or you could always travel somewhere warmer… Ecuador? Zambezi? Anyone? That’s one good thing about cold water I guess: no crocodiles. Though Erik Boomer did once have to fight off a walrus, but I digress.

Watch the clock!
Nighttime sneaks up on us this time of year, especially in the PNW when the shortest day sets around 3-3:30 in the afternoon. While some people are on the dawn patrol hustle (not me!) or can paddle in the middle of the day, we can’t always sneak out early. Check what time the sun sets or stash a headlamp in a dry bag just in case. If I know I’m going to put on later in the day, I ask myself if (worst case scenario) this is a section I’d be comfortable paddling out in the dark. You can always shove a glowstick or two in your PFD. At least the dance party at the take-out will be more fun.

Make use of pool sessions.
True confession: I’d rather not flip over when it’s negative degrees outside, no matter how warm my gear or thick my skull cap. Lucky for me, I love hitting the pool. It’s a great way to work on flatwater, make new friends and spend time upside down. In a typical pool session, I probably flip over a hundred times or more as I try (and fail) stern stalls, cartwheels, hand rolls and loops. I still get cold in the pool (yeah, I’m not built for survival over here) so I typically rock a neoprene shirt and shorts. That way I don’t have to worry about a wardrobe malfunction, either. Consider rocking hand accessories, too. You might look ridiculous, but the pool is also a great time to practice rolling with the awkwardness of pogies, mitts or gloves so it doesn’t feel as foreign later.

Last but not least, snacks!
When we are cold, our bodies burn calories to help keep us warm–it’s called shivering. Yep, it’s science. One of the best ways to heat up is internally, whether through hot beverages or high-calorie snacks (mmm… Cosmic Brownies). Pack a thermos with a hot beverage you can sip in an eddy or at the take-out. I’m a huge fan of ramen noodles, hot cocoa, tea with honey, a little hot Gatorade—you name it. Whatever is in your thermos, make sure it has little sugar or salt. It’s fuel for the body and soul. Plus, at the take-out, you can cheers your friends to celebrate getting out and doing what you love. Or, you could just go skiing…