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Cold Water Paddling
Usually paddle sports are considered a thing to do during the summer when it’s nice and hot out. But winter packrafting and kayaking is great for many reasons: first, you will almost always have the lake or river to yourself. Second, paddling with snow around is a beautiful experience. Third, sometimes some of the best small creeks and rivers are not flowing enough to paddle until a big winter storm hits. It can be rough, yet incredibly rewarding to paddle in the “off season”. Here’s a few tips to get you prepared for cold water paddling.
1. Dry Suits
The most important piece of gear for winter paddling is a dry suit. Dry suits are made of a waterproof fabric that keeps you totally dry while paddling and in the event of a swim. I really love my Immersion Research 7 Figure Dry Suit. If you are paddling in a lake, a dry suit is a good idea but not necessary because the likelihood of tipping over and swimming is very low. However, you should at least have splash pants and jacket to keep you dry.
Layering is also very important, dry suits will keep you dry, but have no insulation to keep you warm. When paddling in the winter, I usually wear a synthetic t-shirt and a thin fleece jacket or a synthetic puffy jacket with no hood. I wear a thin pair of skiing thermal long underwear and synthetic pants. Some companies also make fleece onesies which are a great easy layer. Also if paddling on a lake with no dry suit I would also wear similar layers listed above under my spray gear for paddling on a lake. Make sure all your layers are either wool or synthetic which will still keep you warm when wet unlike cotton. Make sure your socks are also wool or synthetic and not too tight where they could restrict blood flow. Thick neoprene booties will add an extra layer of warmth to your feet. A neoprene skull cap under your helmet or a beanie out on a lake will also help keep your head warmer. In the picture above, the left side is a great set up for a lake and the right is a set up for whitewater.
3. Gloves or Pogies
Gloves are very important for keeping your hands warm. Most paddle gloves are made of thick neoprene like a wetsuit which will keep your hands warm when wet. I prefer pogies which are a neoprene mitten that attaches to the paddle. With pogies your hands stay warm and you can grab the paddle shaft with your bare hand for better grip. On really cold days you can double up and wear gloves under your pogies. For lake paddling, any thin ski or snowboard glove would work great to keep your hands warm.
My favorite gloves are the Glacier Glove Perfect Curve.
My favorite pogies are the Stohlquist Toasters.
For lakes and fishing I really like these Fingerless Glacier Gloves.
4. Heater Packs
One of the best ways to warm back up is using heater packs. The air activated chemical heater packs are great for long lasting heat. I love using the stick on toe ones on my feet inside my drysuit. Sometimes I’ll also put one in a chest pocket to keep my core warm. I also keep some in my first aid kit in case of a rescue and we need to warm someone up. I really love the reusable heater packs for paddling. They are waterproof so you can use them while paddling. Since they are reusable, they are also better for the environment. There's several out there but the best ones I've found are from Snappy Heat.
5. Thermos of Hot Water, Coffee, or Soup
Another nice thing to have on a cold day is a thermos filled with something warm. As weird as it sounds, I really like just plain hot water; I can drink it or pour some on my hands if I need to warm them up or on paddle or buckle that is frozen shut. Coffee, hot chocolate, or tea are really nice as well or a nice warm soup for lunch. For winter multiday trips, I keep my camping stove in my deck pack so I can stop anytime and warm up a drink or some hot lunch.
6. Dry Clothes for After
There is nothing better than getting back to the car after a long day of cold paddling to a towel and some warm dry clothes. If you are doing a shuttle lap, make sure to leave them at the car at the take out. If you are paddling on a lake you can leave a pack on shore or fill a dry bag with some extra clothes to have when you finish paddling.
7. Roadside Access and Shorter Runs
When paddling in the winter it’s best to pick whitewater runs that are shorter and have easier access. This way if you get too cold, you can easily walk back to your car. For paddling lakes in the winter try and find some close by where you won’t have to snowshoe in several miles until you are more comfortable in winter conditions.
8. Know The Signs of Hypothermia and First Aid Training
Anyone who enjoys the outdoors should have some basic first aid training, but it is also important to know the signs of hypothermia. The main symptoms are: shivering, slurred speech, weak pulse, clumsiness, and confusion. I’ve been hypothermic a few times and the weirdest thing was realizing that I had stopped shivering so I thought I was fine, but that is actually a sign of it getting worse. My hands also just stopped working and it felt like I had stumps at the end of my arms. Last year, I did a rescue on a victim who had mild hypothermia and it was like trying to talk to a drunk person, he kept arguing with me and wouldn’t listen to any of my commands. If you or your friends do get hypothermic make sure to get out of wet clothes and try to get to warm dry clothes while slowly trying to get warm again.
Make sure to always wear your pfd/life jacket as well, if you fall in another serious hazard, is cold shock. Cold shock literally takes your breath away, causes instant panic and limits your ability to swim. If paddling with a dog make sure they have a life jacket on as well. Even if they are great swimmers, it will help them out and make it a lot easier for you to pull them in if they swim.
9. Dry Out Your Packraft and Gear
After winter paddling, make sure to fully dry your packraft or kayak and store it somewhere in a climate-controlled area. When water freezes it expands, so it’s important to make sure your packraft is completely dry especially around the valves and TiZip Zipper. Make sure you break your paddle down into 4 pieces and let it completely dry out as well. PFDs/Life jackets also have small buckles that can freeze up, so make sure to take care of them as well. If you are on a camping trip and try to dry your gear out by the fire, be very careful of sparks and embers and only try to dry out gear that is necessary to keep you warm.
10. Paddle a Packraft with a Spraydeck and Sprayskirt
Packrafts like the Nirvana Spraydeck or the Rogue R-Deck or the Moki I or Moki II Kayaks with a spraydeck will keep the water off of you which will keep you a lot warmer by not losing heat through convection. Using a sprayskirt that attaches to the spraydeck will keep you even drier. Paddling a self-bailing packraft in whitewater will be a lot colder because you will constantly have cold water splashing on you. Even paddling on a lake, a sprayskirt will keep you warmer by protecting you from the wind. If you have a bucket boat or self bailing packraft, don’t let that stop you, just be sure to wear extra layers especially on your legs.
Hopefully this will inspire you to get out and enjoy packrafting, kayaking, or stand up paddle boarding year round. If you ever need more tips or have any questions, please reach out to us and we are happy to help. Be safe, have fun and send it!