How to Reap the Rewards of Cold Weather Kayaking

“There is a privacy about [winter] which no other season gives you…. only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.”-Ruth Stout

For so many reasons, paddling during the winter is forever my favorite. Spring affords opportunity to bear witness to the awakening of those that live in the forests, rivers and lakes, as well as these environments themselves. Summer – at least down here in the south – brings a rising heat that starts as a simmer and works it’s way to a roiling boil. Autumn, with it’s myriad vibrant colors and crisp, bluebird days is, for many, the crowning jewel of the year. And then there’s winter…

Big Walnut Creek near Columbus, OH Photo compliments of Bret Chumley of Columbus Kayak.

Big Walnut Creek near Columbus, OH
Photo compliments of Bret Chumley of Columbus Kayak.

For me, perhaps, winter is unique because the bones of the Earth are bared for all to see. It is then that one can see and feel the simultaneous solidity and fragility of the world in which we tread. Maybe, too, it is the fact that few others, if any, are on the water, thereby affording me that privacy of which Ms. Stout speaks. Being on the water during the deep of winter I feel more connected to myself, to the water, and to the world around me, than in any other season.


Winter at the Refuge Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, Birchwood, TN.

That being said, there are plenty of folks who question why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to being outside, much less on the water, for extended periods of time during 30°F temperatures. For the unprepared body and soul, I concur: paddling in cold weather and water IS a bad decision. However, for the adequately prepared, paddling during what many perceive as the “off-season” can be one of the most incredibly rewarding and unique on-the-water experiences available.


The current view of the Tennessee Wall from the Tennessee River.

Regardless of your purpose or postal code, it’s all about how you prepare. Keep in mind that you lose body heat 4 times faster when submerged in 50° water than you do when you’re not soaked and are merely standing in 50° air. The American Canoe Association (ACA) guidelines for cold water paddling encourage the wearing of protective clothing when:

– both water and air temperatures total to 60°F or colder;

– you will be more than ¼ mile from shore, and the water temperature is below 60°F;

– you expect to be repeatedly exposed to cool water (60°-75° or less) in cool or mild weather.

Knowing your own personal risk-versus-reward ratio is a must. Once you conclude that answer, it’s a simple matter of employing a little planning and a lot of common sense to your before, during, and after routines and activities surrounding your on-water adventures.

Suggestions that I offer for consideration to help you have a more enjoyable time on the water during colder weather include:


– Know the weather (current AND predicted.)

– Know the area you will be paddling, and make sure someone (besides you!) knows where you are going, and when to expect you back.

– Know yourself: your skills, your limits, and your tolerances. Estimate LOW rather than high.   Bravado is never attractive. It is even less so in the winter when hypothermia is a very real        risk factor.

– Speaking of skills, know your rescue skills. If you choose to paddle alone, can you get yourself  back in your boat if you get tossed by a wake or wave? What about if you’re out with a friend and they capsize; can you get them out of the drink quickly and safely? No?! Well get on it!! Find a certified instructor to learn and hone your rescue skills, and then practice, practice, practice. As with anything, if you don’t use it, you’ll loose it.

– Hydrate & fuel. Yup, you read that correctly. Doing this before you hit the water helps fuel you for your day, and also helps stave off any negative effects of hypothermia. You wouldn’t leave for a road trip with an empty tank of gas, would you? Didn’t think so. Don’t do it for a paddling trip during the winter!

– Dress in layers. Layers, layers, layers. NON-COTTON layers!! Layers trap heat, and heat keeps  you, well… Heat keeps you warm (and warm is good!) Having a base layer, an insulating layer, and protective layer are the three basics. Depending on the temperature and the season, you may have more or thicker base and insulating layers; this is where the “know thyself” thing comes into play.  Keep in mind, though, that it’s easier to peel off layers than it is to put some on, especially if you don’t have them with you.

– Pack for “during” (gear, food, liquids, full change of clothes, etc.)

– Pack for afterwards (dry clothes, warm liquids, food, etc.)


WEAR YOUR PFD! In addition to the obvious safety reasons, your PFD is an added layer of  insulation, and serves as a fabulous wind-break.

– Wear dry gear. For flat water, you don’t need a $1,000 dry suit; a solid rain shell and pants will work just fine. For whitewater, you’d do well to invest in some solid, purposed dry gear. Not only will this gear keep you dry, it’s wind proof. With a solid layering system underneath, you should be warm, toasty, and dry.

– Wear a skirt. If you’re in a touring/rec boat, you don’t necessarily need the full neoprene skirts. I really like using my neo/nylon skirt, or a full nylon skirt in the winter. It gives me  protection from the waves, keeps heat in the cockpit of my boat, and affords me easier access to the carafe of hot tea and snacks I have stashed in the cockpit. Coupled with that in the winter, I carry a 1’x3’ piece of ¼” minicell inside the cockpit of my Journey. It not only lines the inside of my boat, thus serving as an insulating barrier from the cold water, I can stand on it while changing after paddling, and I can sit on it if and when I decide to get out of my boat for a picnic break.

– Protect your extremities. Take care of your nose, toes, fingers, and ears, and they will take care of you. Pogies, mitts, or gloves, and wool or synthetic socks with some waterproof boots, booties or shoes will make for happy fingers and toes. Über cold weather would warrant a balaclava or similar for your face/head.

– E-kit. At the bare minimum, take stock of your emergency kit/bag each season. Restock used/expired items, and for winter add an emergency blanket, chemical hand warmers, and an extra set of pogies (these can be used to warm up feet!) I also carry a small camp stove and pot, my water filter, a light source, and a fire source with fire starter (No, not lighter fluid!) Taking a clue from my teammate, Henry Jackson, I now have added a pack of Jello to my arsenal; it makes for the perfect, hot, “quick fix” for those situations when you need to get someone warmed up and back on track fast! I consider a bilge pump as part of my emergency kit; make sure you have one, and that it works.

– Food/liquids: I take a thermos of hot tea on the water. Also, I generally take higher-fat foods on the water with me during cold weather than I do in warmer weather.

– A complete change of non-cotton clothes. I’m talking EVERYTHING. Pants and/or tights,long sleeve layers for your top, socks, hat, gloves, undies, and a towel. If you get wet mid-paddle, you’ll be glad you had this bag with you!

– Don’t forget to HAVE FUN!!!  That is why you’re there in the first place, right?

Well... I did day have fun!

Well… I did say have fun!


– Have a change of warm clothes waiting for you on shore. Even if you don’t get yourself all soggy from falling in the water, a warm change of clothes is nice after a sweaty cardio workout. However, don’t change until AFTER you get your boat loaded and tied down.

– Treat yourself to a Thermos of hot tea/chocolate/etc. while you are reloading your boat, while you change clothes, and after you get all settled and are headed home.

– Hot soup and/or some munchies to refuel and help keep you warm are a nice touch, and definitely something to look forward to as you reload and tie down your boat after a day on the water.

– A bag/bucket for any wet gear so you don’t soak the inside of your car.

Yes, I do carry more with me on the water in the winter than I do in the summer. Like my momma always said, though: “It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.”

While there are certainly risk factors regarding paddling in cold weather, for me, the rewards far outweigh the calculated risks I take. Bottom line: regardless of the temperature or season, pay attention to how you’re feeling, and where your head is. Personally, if I’m not 100% present for whatever reason, I reschedule my water time and opt for a different adventure on that particular day.

Hopefully, these tips will help make for a more enjoyable winter on the water for you and yours. In the meantime, here’s wishing you safe and warm boating, and I look forward to seeing you on the water!



A (very!) cold, gray, winter’s day at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.


Bundled up and floating down South Chickamauga Creek.


Heading out early morning for a winter’s day on the Tennessee River.

Comments on “How to Reap the Rewards of Cold Weather Kayaking”

  1. Helen Harvey
    December 17, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    – both water and air temperatures total to 60°F or colder;

    I’m not sure why you feel flat water paddling in cold water does not require a dry suit. Please consider advocating “dress for a swim”. We just had a cold water fatality 80 miles south of me. They weren’t prepared for a capsize, but it happened.

  2. David Widmer
    December 17, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    Good stuff. I like paddling (SUP) in the winter to stay in good paddling shape. We really have to be careful and dress for obvious reasons. I just did a post on our blog about what I wear. It’s a little tricky, especially on the mild days, but totally worth it!

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