Now, there are those of us who would never paddle in temps less than 60 degrees. That’s cool 😉 But then, if you live in the North East or the PNW and you have a penchant for paddling, you have to make accommodations to paddle in a variety of seasons, especially winter paddling. It’s all about the gear.
There is nothing you can not do when it comes to paddling, but one has to have proper equipment, good gear, safety equipment and a plan. After paddling through some of the toughest winters New Yorkers have seen in DECADES and doing most of that on dawn patrols, I can definitively tell you cold weather paddling is gorgeous, serene and imminently possible. Yes, YOU can paddle through the winter. Here’s how:
Good gear is essential. You can’t screw around with this. If you are seriously planning on putting yourself out on the water in freezing temps or below, you’ve got to have proper equipment. Period.
Booties– 5mm or 7mm wetsuit boots are required. You can’t get around this. Buy them off season (in summer) when they’re on sale and store them until the temps drop. They’re worth their weight in gold. Take good care of your booties.
Wetsuit or drysuit? Here’s the thing. You can wear either, but be aware that a wetsuit is designed to be worn WET/IN THE WATER. That way, the water enters inside the neoprene and your body temp heats it up warming you. If you wear a wetsuit to paddle, on top of the water, it doesn’t hold heat well and the wind will cut right through it. Wetsuits also tend to be restrictive in terms of body movement because they are tight to the body which can make paddling harder.
A lot of people opt for the Farmer John style of wetsuit for winter: long legs but a no arms. This gives greater freedom of movement for the shoulders and a little breathing room so you don’t get too clammy as you begin to heat up. O’Neil makes a hyper flexible wetsuit which tend to run roomy in the shoulders which is great for paddling workouts.
Be smart. If you’re wearing a wetsuit, layer up underneath and on top. I usually wear a wool underlayer, either a tank top or l/s shirt for wicking and warmth. Then the wetsuit zips over. Another layer is required on top to block the wind, maybe a fleece or down vest (sometimes I wear my rain shell … great insulation!). Just be aware that any top layer may become weighty if you fall in and it gets wet. So plan accordingly. Keep it simple and something you can get out of quickly in any situation.
Drysuit – these are sealed uniforms usually with gaskets at the ankles/wrists and neck. The Starboard Sup Suit is a great all-around dry suit made specifically with paddling in mind. You can layer up underneath. Again, think running gear or leggings on bottom, micro fleece or wool on top. The more layers you have on, the warmer you feel but the bulkier your outfit which can (like the wetsuit) get in the way of winter paddling. Layer smart and use your best judgement in weight. Drysuits usually fill with air to keep you buoyant in case you fall but you want to be able to move freely in the water if that happens. Don’t dress like the Stay Puff Marshmellow Man in there.
Hats – Yup. You’re gonna need them. Again a neoprene hood won’t block the wind by itself and generally can’t hold heat like a wool cap. An attached hood to a wetsuit can also restrict your neck movement and make paddling difficult. Buy a few good pieces of head gear, fleece headbands, wool hats and play around with it to feel what’s right for you. Hats are important in keeping warm. Don’t hold back here. Get something decent.
Gloves – We all get pretty creative with glove choices. Depending on your style of paddling, you might choose a regular ski glove, good for recreational paddling and a slower stroke due to their thickness. They can be hard to get a good grip on the paddle. If you’re race training, look into technical gloves of some kind: sailing, kiting or work gloves. You’ll need dexterity and warmth with a good palm grip for cadence and speed. In mid-fall/early winter temperatures, I prefer the fingerless gloves that allow me to feel the paddle shaft without exposing my whole hand to the cool carbon.
Socks – Optional. It depends on the quality and condition of your booties. In the cold, cold winter months (February and March here in the North East) I usually pull on a wool ski sock underneath my boots for an added layer of warmth. Works like a charm and makes it easier to get my boots on and off. Can’t say enough about ’em!
Hand warmers – The jury is out on these. Good for recreational paddlers that don’t mind having the warmer slip around a bit in their palm but not useful for winter racers who need dexterity and smooth transitions for regular cadence. Keep a couple in your pocket for emergencies.
KNOW your CONDITIONS: I can’t stress this enough for winter paddling. I have a huge nautical map attached to my kitchen wall where I can look, visualize wind direction and see where I can go & tuck in to be in the lee. You need to know the temps, both air and water, and wind speed and direction. Wind chill is a huge factor in winter paddling! If the outside thermometer says it’s 34 degrees but the wind is blowing 12-15 kts out of the North, your windchill is in the 20’s. That’s significant. Pay attention.
PLAN your ROUTE: Winter conditions aren’t really a time where we can just wander around out there. Have a plan and stick to it. If you know your wind direction, paddle into it first while your fresh and use the wind behind you as you return home. It makes a difference. The last thing we need in winter is to fatigue on our way back to the car with the wind blowing hard in our face and our body temperatures dropping. Take care. Be smart about it.
Leave a FLOAT PLAN: Again, winter paddling needs a little more attention to safety. Leave a ‘float plan’ with your spouse or friend. Tell them where you are launching from, what time and what time you expect to be back. This goes with planning your route. If people know where you are, they can check on you or at least gauge when you should be back to your car in a goodly amount of time. I often text my husband right before I launch and when I get back to the car. It’s good practice and let’s him know that I’m back, I’m OK and he doesn’t have to come looking for me.
ALWAYS wear your LEASH and PFD: Winter safety and year-round standup paddling etiquette says, don’t be a kook. Wear your safety equipment. It’s the law.
CELL PHONES: I can’t tell you how many cell phones I’ve dropped in the drink. I’m a picture taker and I love it. I usually try to bag my cell phone in one of those plastic carriers with the double seal. I’ve heard the Life Proof cases are pretty good if you can get them to fit right. Either way, don’t drop the phone. Remember too, in winter, the cold will zap your battery faster than usual. So keep an eye on your charge and head back to shore before your phone shuts off. It’s a good thing to have in case of an emergency.
STAY within sight of SHORE and be prepared to SWIM back: A general rule of thumb is don’t go any further from shore than you are ready to swim back. This means in winter, you might hug the shore a little more closely in case you do fall (it happens, everybody falls!) you can get back in before you get too cold from being wet. Be smart.
WATCH for DUCK HUNTERS: Winter is duck hunting season in the North East. I can’t count how many times (esp. at dawn) when I’ve been on the water and heard gunshots. Generally, what I would say is KNOW where the HUNTERS are. They may not see you so you NEED to KNOW where they’re at and stay away. Don’t assume they will see you or stop what they are doing for you. Be super cognizant of your surroundings and stay SAFE.
APRES PADDLE: In winter, getting out of the water, the board strapped onto the car and heading home to get warm/dry can often be the most challenging part of the paddle. Don’t dally. Once you get off of the water, move quickly. The quicker you get your board onto your car and strapped down, the less time there is for your fingers to freeze while you’re fumbling with the straps. I usually keep a separate pair of gloves in my car to slip on immediately after coming out of the water. After, I tie everything down then I change out of my boots, throw any wet, cold gear in the back and drive home. It’s nice to keep a thermos of tea or coffee in the car waiting for you so if you have a chill, a sip of steaming liquid can warm you from the inside out.