Many of us northern hemisphere paddlers are still in the depths of winter. Thoughts turn to a comfy chair by a crackling fire indoors, hot chocolate and flicking through a favourite paddling mag or scrolling through YouTube in search of warm water paddling films. But if we muster up the motivation and have the right kit, going for a paddle in colder conditions isn’t just a test of willpower and endurance—it’s something to be enjoyed.
Think crisp winter mornings, your breath fogging in the sunshine as you slide off the beach into a still, misty ocean. Picture pulling up on a beach for lunch and warming up by the fire with hot coffee… Ok, it’s not always that idyllic. While horizontal sleet and rain might not be everyone’s cup of tea, you just need to pick your days!
No matter the weather, the key to a great winter day on the water is the right clothing. After 20 years of working in the outdoors in some pretty awful weather, I have given a lot of thought to staying warm, dry and comfortable.
Over the years, I’ve been plagued by cold hands when paddling, and, trust me, it can really dampen your spirits and detract from a day out. The ability to feel the paddle shaft is critical for fine-tuning strokes in more complex environments, but cold hands can become a safety concern. I’ve heard of sea paddlers unable to operate safety kit due to frozen digits.
I find that once I have let my hands get too cold, it’s hard to warm them up again, so I invest in making sure it doesn’t happen. On cold days, I will chuck on fleece gloves whilst unloading boats, organising kit and moving bits down to the water. I also like to bring a pair of ski gloves in a dry bag on the water. Pop them on at lunch—it’s wonderful!
There are a few different options for on the water. I chop and change between them depending on what sort of paddling I’m doing, temperatures and the duration of the trip, and how much I want to compromise between dexterity, paddle feel and warmth.
Pogies are my go-to when the temperature really drops. They go over your paddle shaft, and you can slide your hands in and out, reducing windchill and insulating against the cold as needed. They’re great because you can feel the paddle shaft and hold it as you normally would. Combining them with a drip ring on my paddle shaft keeps my hands dry and warm, even on long days touring. Pogies come in slightly stiffer neoprene versions, which provide more insulation but add a little more weight to the paddle, and softer fabric ones, which are a little lighter but can be more fiddly when taking hands in and out.
Open palm mitts are a great option when the air is cooler but not freezing. You lose some mobility, but the open palm lets you feel the paddle shaft. Plus, you can pull the fingers back without removing the mitt fully when more dexterity is needed—opening or closing a hatch or drybag, for example. I sometimes combine an open palm mitt with pogies on really cold trips. Just roll the mitt back on your wrist when you are not using them.
Fully closed neoprene gloves or mitts create a thermal barrier around our hands, fully sealing them against the elements. There’s no denying that 3 (+) mm neoprene mitts are super warm, and I love wearing them on colder tours. They’re best suited to paddling that requires less complex blade skills—think easier tours in calmer conditions. Open or closed palm, make sure your mitts aren’t so tight as to cause poor circulation. Give the fingers a little wiggle; you don’t want them squished up against each other.
There’s nothing more unpleasant than the numbness of frozen tootsies, except cold hands. Neoprene booties are great for winter paddling, as they help insulate your feet even when wet. I tend to go for a thicker (5 mm) neoprene paddle boot with a reasonable sole. Something like the NRS Paddle Wetshoe does the trick, though higher neoprene boots, like the Boundary Boots, are amazing when the temperature drops. Size up for winter with a slightly larger boot to leave room for a pair of thick wool socks. Just like mitts, if your boots are too tight, it can compromise circulation, which is a surefire way to get cold feet.
Come winter, a dry suit is a game changer for many paddlers and arguably an essential piece of safety kit for cold water paddlers. A dry suit makes it possible to pile the layers on, confident they will stay dry should we take a swim. Suits with built-in socks are great but don’t forget to insulate under with nice warm wool socks and/or over with neoprene socks to protect your dry suit feet from sand or pebbles in your shoes.
Choose a front or back zip suit, depending on your preference and which you find easier to get in and out of. Hooded dry suits are great for sea paddlers and touring. Pulling the hood up when the weather turns adds an extra layer of coziness and protection, but beware: A hood can fill with water, so stow it away if you plan on spending time upside down.
Dry suits keep you warm and dry but don’t provide much insulation if worn directly against the skin. This is where perfecting your layering system comes in. Start by choosing your base layer materials. A good base layer aims to transport (wick) perspiration away from your skin, thus avoiding cooling you down. As you probably know, cotton is bad news. This is because cotton has poor wicking qualities, takes ages to dry, and is cold when wet. The short: avoid cotton.
Manmade fabric base layers made from polyester or polypropelene do a great job of moving moisture away from your skin and dry quickly, making them great cost-effective options. The problem is that they stink to high heaven if not washed regularly, as the fibres can become a breeding ground for bacteria. Bit of an issue for your tent buddy on a multi-day trip! Natural fibres like merino do a great job of keeping you warm and wicking sweat, with the major advantage that the fabric’s natural oils deter bacteria, reducing stink.
The downsides are that merino takes a little longer to dry when saturated, and, for some people, it can irritate the skin. Modern merino wool/synthetic blends often give the best of both worlds. Quick drying, warm and great at moving sweat away from the body. Remember, a good base layer should be close-fitting, meaning it touches the skin. This helps move sweat but also stops the fabric from bunching up.
I prefer wearing multiple layers to insulate in colder climates or when headed for a chilled-out cruise. Over the top of a wicking base layer, I use a fleece mid-layer to trap heat and insulate. The colder the temperature (water and air), the more mid-layers I pile on. Fleece mid-layers like the NRS Expedition Weight or Lightweight layers do a great job insulating on top and bottom.
It might take a bit of experimentation, but over time, you will figure out what works best for you and learn if you tend to run hot or cold. As a rule, I want to leave the beach feeling comfortable—not warm, but not cold, and able to move my arms freely.
I pop something on my head nearly every paddle session. For general touring, a good old fleece beanie will do the job—I can pull it off and on to help control my temperature. If I’m likely to get my head wet or wearing a helmet, then a close-fitting neoprene cap does a great job of trapping heat and keeping the head warm. Choose between smaller, low-profile skull caps and full neoprene balaclavas, which are game-changing in case of cold-water immersion or when temperatures plummet.
Lastly, a great bit of winter kit I always carry is a storm cag, a large waterproof hooded shell that fits over all your paddling kit. They are great for throwing on at lunchtime when you often cool down a little. Many paddlesport brands make a sea kayaking-specific storm cag, but an XXL hooded cag or “Pac A Mac” pack-away windbreaker can insulate just the same. Keep one in the safety kit for when one of your mates starts to get too cold.
So now you have no excuses. Grab your paddle buddies, layer up and enjoy those winter months. Trust me, you will never regret getting out on the water.
Editor’s Note: James Stevenson owns Online Sea Kayaking, an online coaching website. A BCU Level 5 Coach, James also runs on-water courses internationally and near his home in North Wales. James is always happiest on the water.