Most kayakers hang their boats up for the winter, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Winter is often the best paddling season: no crowds, lots of water in many regions of the country, and a rarified rugged environment. But not surprisingly, winter paddling takes some decent gear to keep you warm on the water.
Dress For Immersion
When the air and water are both cold, nothing beats dressing for immersion. This means a wetsuit at minimum. But a paddlesports-specific drysuit provides a much greater level of weather protection and comfort, including waterproof booties that keep your feet dry when you launch and land. They’re expensive, but they last a good, long while and extend your paddling season to 365 days.
Warm The Core
Like rain gear, a drysuit only keeps you dry. The layers you wear under it keep you warm. I’ve found that for paddling, nothing beats old-fashioned fleece. Quick-wicking fabrics like capeline are great in the summer, but get clammy when you stop moving and aren’t cranking out the BTUs. Wool is great, but doesn’t stand up to the abrasion of the paddling motion as well as it does to hiking and skiing. So fleece it is. Many winter kayakers prefer one-piece suits for cold weather.
Take Care of Your Hands
Constantly exposed to the cold water, your hands will be chilly. When it comes to how to keep them warm, paddlers fall into two opposing camps, like dog people and cat people. One (the one I’m in) goes for neoprene gloves. Others prefer pogies, which attach to the paddle shaft. They’re a bit warmer, but affect your grip on your paddle and are tougher to get your hands in and out of.
When you’re wearing a drysuit, it’s a lot of work to change levels if you’re chilly or overheating. Most of my on-the-water temperature control comes from what I wear on my head. I carry different thicknesses of neoprene hoods that fit under helmets, fleece hats and waterproof ball caps for flat water. Changing these up on the water goes a long way to keeping me in the comfort zone.
Stay Warm on Shore
When you’re paddling, your body will be cranking out heat. When you take a break to scout a rapid, stop for lunch or deal with whatever situation arises is when you get real cold, real fast. As soon as you stop, throw on a warm jacket over your drysuit, put on a hat and stop the temperature loss. Another option is a compact portable shelter that you simply drape over your group to trap everyone’s body heat. It’s basically the equivalent of bringing a nice warm room with you.
The Creature Comforts
A few habits will also raise the bar in terms of comfort. A thermos of hot water or a rapid-boil stove can provide hot drinks or a hot lunch. A change of warm clothes left in the car at the take-out will keep you warm during the shuttle. Rapid-energy food can help someone who gets deeply chilled restore their body energy quickly, reducing the risk of hypothermia.
Paddling in winter can be cold, but it can also be spectacular. In my part of the country, winter is when the bald eagles line the rivers, the flows for whitewater are ideal, and the jet skis and crowds are gone from sea kayaking destinations. This is the year to turn kayaking into a 12-month sport.