Kayaking in winter can open up a wide range of possibilities. Popular areas tend to be empty during the colder months, allowing you to enjoy tremendous scenery without the hassle of many nearby people.
But winter kayaking differs from the warm seasons of paddling in many ways. For example, weather windows are shorter, daylight fades quickly, and temperatures can plummet above and below the water. As a result, it takes careful planning, preparation, and experience to kayak safely.
Here are our top winter kayaking tips to help you prepare for a memorable and challenging time of year.
1. Dress for Immersion
The margin for error decreases precipitously in winter. Even on sunny days, lower airborne temperatures mean getting wet can have severe consequences in temperate and northern climates. There’s usually no issue if you capsize in cold water on a hot summer day, but there’s no such luxury in winter.
A dry suit with warm, thermal layers underneath can make all the difference if you end up in the water. For especially cold areas, a dry suit with a hood may even be necessary. Select an outfit capable of standing up to the rigors of cold water for as long as possible.
2. Follow the 120-Degree Rule
If you don’t want to use your judgment to gauge whether a dry suit is necessary, you can always use the 120-degree rule.
The rule states that if the combined water and air temperature is below 120 degrees, you should paddle in a dry suit or a wetsuit. So, for example, if the air temperature is 65 degrees and the water temperature is 50, some sort of thermal protection should be used.
This simple round number-adding principle is meant more as a valuable tool than a hard and fast rule. Still, it can give you an excellent indication of how you should be dressed.
3. Always Wear a PFD
I don’t care how warm the water is, how tame the activity is, or how good of a swimmer you are—always wear a PFD when paddling.
Last winter, I capsized in Hawaii, and my damaged boat took on water, forcing me to swim to shore a couple hundred yards away. Even in the balmy water, the extra buoyancy of my life jacket kept my head above the water until I reached shore, exhausted but grateful.
Many drownings could have been prevented by simply wearing a PFD. So even if it looks goofy, even if no one else is wearing one, your life is worth taking the few seconds it takes to strap one on.
4. Take a Dry Bag With a Change of Clothes
Even for day trips, it’s important to bring a spare pair of clothes. This way, if you end up in the water, you have something warm and dry to put on. These extra clothes should be wool or similar material that retains heat even when wet. No cotton.
Keep these clothes in a dry bag for kayaking, and only open them if necessary. This will ensure that these clothes stay dry if you do need them.
5. Fuel Up Beforehand & Take Plenty of Food
Being outside in cold weather conditions speeds up your metabolism. Many think warm drinks are the most important part of staying warm on winter outdoor excursions. But even more vital is getting extra calories.
Burning calories generates heat, and your body will be working overtime to keep you warm, even if you are adequately dressed. Think of your body as a woodstove and food as a bunch of dry logs. Feed your stove often to ensure you’ve got enough fuel to keep burning calories.
Sugar-focused snacks and more complex carbohydrates give a nice mix of quick-release energy and a slower-burning option your body can steadily access.
Get a jump start on the process by eating a good meal before you leave. If you’re heading out in the morning, a big, carbohydrate-heavy dinner the night before will help build up your energy stores for the following day.
6. Use a Thermos
While hot drinks alone won’t keep you warm, there’s something mentally comforting about having something to sip on. Make sure you have a heavy-duty thermos that can keep your drinks warm for several hours, and be careful you don’t burn yourself.
If you’re traveling all day or overnight, bring extra tea bags or whatever your drink of choice is. You may be surprised how many hot drinks you can get through on a cold day.
7. Avoid Kayaking Solo
This is a good rule regardless of the season, but it is especially important during winter. Paddling in a group has a variety of benefits.
The most obvious is that if you end up in the water, it’s much easier to recover with someone there to assist. Cold water in winter can freeze the muscles, sending you into shock quickly to go along with decreased dexterity due to shivering and numb extremities.
Once you get to shore, having someone to help set up tents, heat water, and share body heat may be the difference between getting out alive and a harrowing story.
In addition, having another person to discuss paddle plans with, watch the weather, and supply a second opinion are valuable qualities. For example, if you’re looking at a challenging crossing in questionable weather, having another person assess the situation can help reinforce or dissuade you from your initial impression. If you both think it’s a bad idea, there’s probably a good reason.
8. Have an Emergency Plan
No matter how many people are on the trip, plan for and anticipate what could go wrong and how you’d respond. Make a float plan beforehand, and leave a copy of your itinerary with a friend or family member.
Once you’ve settled on your float plan, don’t deviate from it unless it’s absolutely necessary. Your plan won’t do you much good in an emergency if the rescue teams look in the wrong place.
Bring a first-aid kit and keep it in a dry bag to ensure nothing gets wet until you need it. Taking a wilderness first aid course can be invaluable if you spend a lot of time in the backcountry, where help can be hours or days away.
9. Always Carry a Means to Call For Help
Bring a minimum of one method of communication with the outside world, preferably more. VHF radios are tried and true, but depending on their size and location, they may require a vessel or station nearby.
In recent years there’s been a swell of GPS-based communication devices such as inReach that have hit the market. These allow you to call for help with the push of a button. In addition, most subscription plans include maps, weather reports, and the ability to text contacts back home to let them know how you’re doing.
10. Warm Up Before You Hit the Water
Just like it’s important to start your trip with a warm belly, you should do everything possible to begin your paddle as warm as possible. This means wearing good layers of wool or synthetic clothing that can hold heat. A good winter hat and warm and waterproof gloves are also helpful.
Take advantage of the option of staying in a warm car or near a roaring fire until the final moment.
Some exercise to get the blood flowing may seem like a good idea, but your sweat will quickly cool and leave you chillier than before you started, in addition to burning precious calories.
11. Rolling a Kayak is Better Than a Wet Exit and Recovery
We’ve discussed what to do if you find yourself in the water. But what if you could just remove the wet exit altogether?
Learning how to roll a kayak isn’t easy, and long kayaks, especially tandems, require a lot of coordination and practice. That said, being comfortable rolling can reduce the risk of winter paddling by minimizing your exposure to cold water.
Practice rolling a kayak in warm water and calm conditions. Some kayak clubs book local swimming pools just to teach this. Don’t get frustrated, and keep practicing. Many of the movements necessary to roll seem counterintuitive and backward when you’re inverted in the water, but the skill is invaluable.
That said, being able to roll doesn’t give you the freedom to paddle wherever you want and in any conditions. It’s a vital safety skill but doesn’t make you invincible. You should still paddle with a partner, file a float plan, and follow all the same safety precautions you would normally.
12. Be Aware of the Sea Fog
Most common on the Pacific coast of North America but possible anywhere, sea fog can be incredibly dense in winter and limit visibility to just a few feet.
Sea fog occurs when warm air moves across cold water, creating thick layers that materialize quickly in some situations. As the water cools in winter, this fog becomes more and more prevalent, particularly in the mornings, as the air warms due to the rising sun.
Always be aware of sea fog conditions, and monitor weather services whenever possible. Dense fog advisories are usually given when visibility is less than one nautical mile. Avoid large crossings whenever sea fog advisories are in effect, and be extra cautious if you’re paddling in areas with a lot of boat traffic.
Carry a GPS and compass so that if you do get caught in poor visibility, you have a way to get out. Trying to feel your way through the fog without a compass is impossible and will lead to you going in circles.
13. Remember the Days Are Shorter in Winter
Most summer paddlers in temperate or polar regions get spoiled in summer with the long days offering the freedom of paddling almost 24 hours a day if they wish.
But the opposite is true in winter, where the daylight windows may only be a few hours around the winter solstice. So modify your paddle plans accordingly. You won’t be doing 8-hour paddling days in winter, and I would never recommend navigating via headlamp.
Plan accordingly and be extra conservative with your paddle plan, so you don’t get into a situation where you have to paddle in low light conditions.