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Winter Kayaking Tips – Stay Warm, Dry & Safe On Cold Paddling Days

Mark Armstrong
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Can you kayak in winter safely and actually enjoy it?


Winter kayaking can be a lot of fun if you’re dressed appropriately and have the right gear, as long as your favorite lake hasn’t frozen over!

The depths of winter can be a great time to paddle if you’re looking for peace and quiet away from the summer crowds. But there are a few things you may want to think about before you head out.

We’ve put together a few tips to keep the cold at bay (and stay safe) while you’re paddling through that winter wonderland.

A scene of orange kayak laying down on a snowy bankPin

Top Winter Kayaking Tips & Gear For A BETTER Cold Water Paddle

1: Wear A Dry Suit

Paddlers after winter kayaking on a riverPin
Courtesy: Ninara on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If you plan to paddle in very cold weather where both the air temperature and water temperature will be cold, it can be best to opt for a dry suit over a wetsuit. A dry suit is generally advisable to wear for kayaking when the air temperature is less than 50 degrees or the water temperature is less than 45 degrees.

This means that in most of the northern half of the USA, and even in many southern states, winter paddling will often require a dry suit for warmth and safety. Obviously, if you’re in Central or South Florida, or Hawaii, it’s unlikely to be cold enough in winter to need a dry suit.  

A dry suit is designed to keep water out, so that your body stays dry underneath. This is unlike a wetsuit, which lets some water in. However, remember to wear warm, insulating clothing underneath, as dry suits tend to be just a waterproof shell with little to no insulation themselves.

2: Layer Up

Wearing layers can be recommended for kayaking no matter what season it is. But in winter, layers can be even more important as they can help to provide insulation to protect you from the cold.

Moisture-wicking thermal base layers can be useful as a first layer, with a fleece or insulated mid layer as your second layer. Your third layer should be a waterproof outer layer. You can then put your dry suit on over the top, followed by your trusty PFD.

Layer up when kayaking

3: Cover Your Head

Paddling near the glacier during a winterPin
Courtesy: Matt Zimmerman on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You’ll probably remember being told as a child to put your hat on in winter so that heat doesn’t escape from your head. But while you may not lose most of your body heat through your head in general, if your head is exposed, you’re going to lose more heat from your head than from the covered parts of your body.

A neoprene balaclava can be a good option as it can keep your head and ears warm and dry, and can stay tight on your head during windy weather. However, a winter beanie hat can also be ideal.

4: Use A Sit-Inside Kayak

A view on a kayak on a snowy dockPin
Courtesy: Mike McHolm on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A sit-inside kayak can be better than a sit-on-top kayak for winter paddling because of the extra layer of protection it can provide.

The enclosed cockpit can help to shield your lower body from the cold weather, spray and splashes, so it can feel a little warmer. You can even attach a spray skirt for added protection.

5: Wear Kayaking Gloves

A man kayaking on a sunny winter dayPin
Courtesy: Stefan Schmitz on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Some kayakers prefer to wear gloves all year round, as this can help to protect hands from blistering and can provide extra grip for holding a paddle. For winter kayaking, a thicker kayaking glove can provide insulation as well as blister-prevention.

Some paddling gloves are made from neoprene with a warm fleece lining, which can be ideal for cold winter kayaking.

6: Use A Spray Skirt

spray skirt can help to keep the water out of your cockpit on sit-inside kayaks. But as well as keeping the water out, it can also help to keep cold air from reaching your lower body, as it effectively seals you inside your cockpit.

Spray skirts can also let you successfully roll your kayak if you capsize, which can be preferable in cold water to a wet exit, as it means your body is in the water for less time.

Video: Putting On A Sprayskirt

7: Paddle With A Partner

A few paddlers floating near the icebergs AntarcticaPin
Courtesy: 23am.com on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It can always be safer to paddle with a buddy, but in cold weather it could be the difference between life and death. Having someone paddle along with you means you’ll have another person who should be able to raise the alarm if something goes wrong.

Your paddling partner can also help you immediately if you capsize, and vice versa.

8: Plan Your Route

A close up compass placed on a mapPin
Courtesy: Joel Montes de Oca on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If you intend to kayak in winter, it can be important to plan ahead and stick to a planned route. Make sure you have maps and a compass or GPS to avoid getting lost.

It’s advisable to leave your float plan with someone you trust on land before you head out, so that if you don’t return as planned, a rescue team can be deployed.

9: Check The Weather Forecast

A veiw from a yellow kayak on a cold winter dayPin
Courtesy: Mark Bonica on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Even if you know it’s going to be cold, it’s always important to check the weather forecast for your trip, as winter storms can be particularly fierce. Remember that weather forecasts can change, sometimes rapidly, so it’s best to keep checking the forecast in the days leading up to your planned trip.

Some two-way radios have built-in weather alerts which can be useful for winter kayaking. A two-way radio can also let you communicate with other radios in case of an emergency.

10: Wear Your PFD

A kayaker carries a PDF and backpack with emergency goodsPin
Courtesy: Joseph on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

You should always wear your PFD to kayak no matter what season it is, as it is designed to save your life. For winter paddling it can be even more vital that you wear a suitable PFD for your trip.

Ending up in cold water can cause cold water shock and hypothermia which can lead to exhaustion and drowning. Cold water affects your brain’s ability to function and can cause you to lose consciousness. And an unconscious person is probably not going to be able to keep their head out of the water without a life jacket.

Guide to all life vests and PFDs

11: Carry Emergency Supplies

A hot drinks for two kayakers near a cold lakePin
Courtesy: Tatters ✾ on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As well as your usual first aid kit and emergency supplies, you might want to carry additional gear with you that can be useful in cold weather. For example, a thermal foil blanket can be a useful piece of equipment that doesn’t take up much space and can provide essential warmth if someone in your party does end up in the water.

Other items that you should carry can include a dry bag packed with thermal layers so you can change into warm, dry clothing in the event of a capsize. Remember to pack some warm drinks or soup in a Thermos for quick and easy warming up after your paddle.

Tips for safe kayaking

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