For some people, the mention of kayaking in cold weather is enough to make their hair stand on end and send shivers down their spine. That’s understandable. But for others, the colder months have a special appeal:
The snow-covered landscapes, the crystal clear water, the peacefulness that comes with having fewer people out on the water. Everything is infinitely more beautiful and so different than what you typically see during the warmer months of the year.
I get that the rain, snow, limited daylight, and cold weather can seem uninviting – but there is just as much beauty in kayaking in winter as there is in the summer sun.
That’s not to say that you should take winter kayaking lightly.
Kayaking in cold weather means you will be facing a unique set of challenges and potential risks – and you will certainly need to plan and prepare for it more than you would for a casual summer afternoon outing.
Don’t worry, though. The information and advice outlined in this guide will tell you everything you need to know about staying safe – and having a wonderful time – while kayaking during the colder months.
Winter Kayaking – Key Takeaways
- Is kayaking in winter safe? Yes – provided that you take the necessary precautions and prepare for it adequately, kayaking in winter can be safe. That’s not to say that there’s no risk involved. Cold shock, hypothermia, and frostbite are some of the dangers you will be facing while kayaking in cold weather.
- How can you stay safe and warm when kayaking in winter? When it comes to being warm and safe, the single most important factor will be your choice of clothes. I generally advise wearing a drysuit, coupled with adequate base layers for insulation.
- How can you train for winter kayaking? Kayaking is already a demanding activity, and if you’re not used to cold weather, paddling in winter will put your entire body to the test. I recommend incorporating strength and endurance exercises into your workout routine.
- Where to go winter kayaking? If you live in North America, I highly recommend visiting the Great Lakes, Alaska, and Fraser Valley in British Colombia, Canada. And if you’re up for exploring Europe, visit Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Greenland.
- How to plan a cold weather kayaking trip? When planning any winter kayaking outing, the three key factors you will need to consider are the weather, water conditions, and the level of difficulty as it pertains to your current skill level and abilities as a paddler.
Safety Considerations For Kayaking In Cold Weather
First and foremost, I would advise you to do some research before giving cold weather kayaking a try and take the time to learn about the challenging environment you may find yourself in – and the risks associated with it.
Otherwise, you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise.
The cold weather will introduce certain risks that aren’t usually present at the height of summer – including cold water shock, hypothermia, and cold-related injuries.
You’re playing with nature here – and in not-so-favorable conditions, might I add. It’s important to respect the environment you are in, understand the risks you are facing, and prepare for them to the best of your ability.
That’s lesson number one.
So, what are the dangers of kayaking in cold weather?
Let’s go over the most important cold water safety considerations associated with winter kayaking:
- Cold Water Immersion – Cold water immersion is, hands down, the biggest risk you will face while kayaking in winter. The human body doesn’t respond well to sudden changes in temperature; sudden immersion can lead to cold water shock, which can progress into hypothermia. If left untreated, hypothermia can be fatal. Know how to recognize signs of hypothermia, what to do, how to treat it – and when to seek medical attention.
- Poor Visibility – Winter days are generally pretty short; you don’t get that much daylight, even in the best of weather conditions. However, visibility becomes even more limited as the weather takes a turn for the worse. Rain, fog, and heavy snowfall can all make it a lot more difficult to navigate and see your surroundings, meaning there’s a higher chance of becoming disoriented and getting lost.
- Physical Demands – You should generally be mindful of your skills and abilities, but that becomes even more crucial when you’re kayaking in cold weather. The temperature can, in fact, negatively impact your grip strength, so even the simple act of holding the paddle will require more effort in a cold environment. You seriously need to be fit and have great cardiovascular endurance to pull this off.
- Cold-Related Injuries – Exposure to cold, winter weather will also increase your risk of cold-related injuries – frostbite and chilblains – both of which cause permanent damage to the affected tissues and capillary beds. Plus, the risk of hypothermia is always there; it doesn’t go away just because you managed to avoid immersion.
Choosing The Right Gear For Cold Weather Kayaking
The two things that will determine the success of your winter kayaking outing – and contribute to your overall safety – are your choice of clothes and the gear you bring with you. So, that’s what I would like to focus on first.
Dress Appropriately For Cold Water Paddling
I know it sounds obvious, but:
Wearing appropriate clothing is absolutely crucial for staying warm, comfortable, and, ultimately, safe when kayaking in cold weather.
If you’re paddling in water that’s 60 degrees or colder, or if the water and air temperature combined is less than 120 degrees, the American Canoe Association advises wearing insulating protective gear.
Without proper clothing, the combination of low air temperature and even colder water could prove to be deadly. And no, that is not an exaggeration. Exposure to cold water causes your core body temperature to drop up to 25 times faster – making the risk of hypothermia that much higher.
First, you must choose between a drysuit and a wetsuit:
- Drysuit – In cold water temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, a drysuit will be your only solution for staying warm, comfortable, and, above all, safe. They are waterproof and will keep you completely dry, which gives them an edge over wetsuits.
- Wetsuit – A full-body wetsuit can keep you warm, but it will not keep you dry – which can be an issue in extremely cold environments, where it’s essential to minimize exposure to water. If the water temperature is still above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, though, you can opt for a wetsuit – but remember that wind chill and wetsuits are a terrible combination.
While a thicker, full-suit-style wetsuit made of 7-millimeter neoprene would be enough to provide warmth in a cold environment, my recommendation for winter kayaking is to wear a drysuit. Not only will it keep you warm, provided that you wear adequate layers, but it will also keep you dry – which is something a wetsuit cannot do.
With that out of the way, here’s what to wear for cold weather kayaking:
- Insulative Layers – In very cold weather, dressing in layers is, by far, the best way to prepare for anything the changing weather may throw your way. Start with long underwear and a form-fitting, long sleeve shirt, or wear a drysuit liner as a base layer. Then, focus on adding insulation with at least one (preferably more) layer of fleece or Merino wool. Avoid cotton at all costs; it’s the worst fabric choice for kayakers.
- Gloves – You can opt for regular gloves (with fingers) or a pair of kayaking mittens; that’s up to your personal preference. The latter is definitely better insulation-wise – but you will sacrifice dexterity for warmth. The important thing is that you do protect your hands from the harsh elements.
- Footwear – Your feet will likely be the first part of your body to get cold due to the body’s natural response to cold weather that limits circulation. Keeping your feet warm is important, which is why it is worthwhile investing in a pair of neoprene booties. The thicker the neoprene, the better the insulation.
- Headwear – Frostbite will likely affect the extremities first, and I’m not just referring to the hands and feet here. The lips, nose, and ears are all at risk, too, which is why it would be a good idea to wear a balaclava-style neoprene hood.
Must-Have Equipment For Cold Weather Kayaking
Besides adequate clothing, cold weather kayaking calls for some additional gear. Granted, most of these things can be considered essential for paddlers year-round – but they are infinitely more important during winter.
With that said, here are some must-have items for kayaking in winter:
- Dry bags (one for protecting electronic devices from water damage, one for keeping your spare clothes dry, and one for everything else that might not do well in direct contact with water)
- Communication devices, including a smartphone and VHF radio
- Emergency beacon (keep it attached to the upper portion of your PFD)
- First-aid kit, equipped for managing small injuries, allergic reactions, and such
- Spray skirt that will keep the cockpit dry and trap warm air inside (if you have a sit-inside kayak)
- Emergency survival kit
- Bilge pump for getting rid of excess water after a capsize
- Kayak lights, including a 360-degree white light that will make your kayak more visible in conditions when there’s little light and visibility is reduced
Tips For Staying Warm & Dry On The Water During The Winter
Choosing the right clothing will obviously be your top priority when it comes to staying warm and dry during cold weather kayaking. The list doesn’t end there, though.
Here are a few more tips on how to have a safe and enjoyable winter kayaking experience:
- Your body loses water during any form of physical activity – regardless of the season and the weather conditions. Dehydration is actually linked to a higher risk of hypothermia; the lack of fluids makes it harder for your body to regulate its temperature, meaning you lose heat more rapidly. So, drink plenty of water and hot beverages – but be sure to stay away from alcohol and caffeine.
- Pack snacks that will keep your energy levels up. Since you’ll be on the water, you might not be able to stop for a proper meal. So, instead, opt for “outdoor-friendly” snacks, such as trail mix, granola bars, jerky, or peanuts; anything that can be easily consumed on the go.
- If possible, opt for a sit-in kayak. Yes, sit-on-top kayaks are great for beginners – but they don’t keep the water out, which makes them unsuitable for paddling in chilly weather. On that note, if you do get a sit-in ‘yak, consider adding a spray skirt. Not only will it keep the splashback and rain out of the cockpit, but it can also keep your lower body warm.
- Strenuous exercise forces the muscles to generate massive amounts of heat – which can actually increase your core body temperature. That is to say, paddling continuously could help you stay warm. So, put some elbow grease into each swing and keep your pace up; now’s not the time for a lazy float down the river.
- If you’re expecting extremely low temperatures, consider bringing single-use heat packs. Some are specifically designed to fit inside boots and mittens, making it easy to keep the toes and fingers warm while participating in cold-weather kayaking. Most heat packs can produce warmth for up to five to eight hours – more than enough for a day of paddling.
Oh, and one more thing:
It’s easy to overlook the importance of wearing sunscreen during the winter months, but UV rays can do as much harm in cold weather as they can during summer. Apply waterproof sunscreen – no matter the season.
Planning Your Cold Weather Kayaking Trip
When planning a cold weather kayaking route, the three main factors you’ll need to consider as part of being prepared are the weather, water conditions – and, last but not least, the level of difficulty as it pertains to your current skill level and abilities as a paddler.
Checking the weather forecast – and, of course, water conditions – before setting out is generally recommended, regardless of the time of year. However, it becomes crucial during winter months since that’s when the risk of adverse weather is higher.
If there’s mention of thunderstorms, lightning, and strong winds in the local weather forecast, the best course of action would be to consider postponing the trip.
Kayaking in winter is challenging enough as is, and adverse weather will only make the situation worse – and exponentially more dangerous.
Another important thing to consider is the location:
Choose a kayaking spot based on your skills, abilities, and water conditions – even if that means that it won’t be one of your go-to summertime locations. It’s absolutely necessary that you pick a safe, winter-appropriate route.
On a related note, be sure to carry some form of navigation tool – be it a map, compass, or GPS device. The visibility tends to be reduced during winter – and days are generally shorter – making it easier to get lost on the water, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the area.
That is to say, having a way to safely navigate the waters should be a priority.
Oh, and one more thing:
Don’t head out without letting someone know about your plans. I recommend filing a float plan in any scenario – but it becomes infinitely more important when you face dangers associated with a cold-weather outing.
So, be sure to inform someone – a friend or family member – about the route you’ve planned out, when you expect to return, and what they should do if you fail to check in with them.
Where To Go Kayaking In The Winter: Exploring Stunning Beauty Of The Cold
In case you were not aware of this, kayaks were originally built for cold weather. The first people to build kayaks were the Inuit and Aleut tribes of the Arctic regions in North America.
These tribes used kayaks for hunting in coastal waters, lakes, and rivers of the Arctic region – so it makes sense that they’re perfectly suited for cold environments.
So, why not experience kayaking the way ancient people did?
There are tons of places where you can really take in the full beauty of the winter season.
If you live near an ocean, head to a local bay or a sheltered piece of coastal water. Since they’re typically sheltered from the wind, you will get to enjoy crystal clear, calm water – and the serenity only winter can offer.
And if you live inland, you can check out your local lakes and rivers. Sure, they’re not as exciting as the ocean – but the surrounding landscape can be just as stunning.
If you ever get a chance, visit the Great Lakes during wintertime. My recommendation is a place called Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron and where the phenomenon that’s known as “blue ice” forms.
Another place that is definitely worth visiting in the winter is Abbotsford in Fraser Valley, British Columbia. Why? Because glacier kayaking is an actual thing in Canada! Plus, the water is opal blue, and the landscape is something no words can describe.
And let’s not forget the “Old Continent” – Europe:
Norway is home to the fjords, and fjords are at their most serene and beautiful during the winter months. You will get to gawk at the captivating, snow-covered mountain ranges, watch the polar lights – and maybe even catch a glimpse of a few orcas.
Lofoten Islands, in particular, are perfect for an Arctic exploration under the midnight sun.
You can always visit Greenland for some hard-core adventuring. There are many guided hiking and kayaking tours that take you through glaciers and fjords – and you’ll even get to paddle near massive icebergs.
Iceland – with its dramatic landscape of cliffs, waterfalls, and glacial fjords – is, hands down, the perfect destination for paddling in a remote environment and experiencing the true wilderness. I also recommend camping at Snæfjallaströnd while you’re at it.
Oh, and one more thing:
Cold weather kayaking is not something you should experience solo. It’s not only selfish but also incredibly dangerous. If you fall into the freezing water and there is no one to get you out, you’re pretty much done for.
Look up a guided tour or join a group of seasoned cold-weather kayakers; don’t head out alone.
Training & Conditioning For Winter Paddling
Even if you’re no stranger to exercise, you need to keep in mind that kayaking in winter weather is going to challenge your muscles in ways that summertime activities do not – mostly due to the colder temperatures.
Cold environments tend to put your metabolism, along with your heart and lungs, to the ultimate test, kicking thermoregulation into high gear in an effort to maintain your core body temperature.
That is to say:
Kayaking is already a pretty demanding physical activity – and if you’re not used to cold weather, paddling in winter can only be twice as difficult.
The good news is – you can train and prepare your body for kayaking in the cold.
You will need to incorporate strength and cardiovascular endurance exercises into your workout routine. Any mix of exercises that activate your core, back, and shoulders will do.
Here are some tips on how to train for kayaking and build strength and endurance:
- Planks – They may not look like much, but planks are one of the best core-strengthening exercises for kayakers.
- Dumbbell Squat & Press – This exercise works your entire body in a single fluid motion. The combination of squats and overhead shoulder presses boosts lower-body strength and muscular endurance.
- High & Low Wood Chop – If you live in an area without communal heating, you’re likely familiar with the “real world” version of this exercise. The wood chop movement is almost identical to the way your upper body turns during a paddle stroke.
- Bent-Over Row – This exercise does everything. It improves lower-back strength, builds upper-body muscles, and boosts stability – making you a more efficient paddler.
- Kettlebell Swing – Sure, it takes a while to get the hang of it, but it combines the power of a deadlift and the explosiveness of a polymetric workout into a single motion. Not only will this activate your core, glutes, thighs, and hamstrings, but it will get your heart rate up, too.
Building up your strength isn’t enough to prepare you for the cold waters, though. You also need to work on mastering essential safety maneuvers – namely, wet exit and self-rescue – that will save your life in case you capsize.
Dealing With Cold Water Immersion
If you’re not careful enough, you could capsize and end up in freezing cold water – and if you do, you MUST get out as quickly as possible.
Otherwise, the cold shock and hypothermia will spell your doom.
The key thing to remember is that time is of the essence. That is where the “1-10-1” rule comes in:
You will have one minute to get your breathing under control, ten minutes to attempt self-rescue, and one hour before you succumb to hypothermia.
The first thing you’ll feel is the cold shock – an immediate and involuntary response to cold water exposure. It’s the most intense jolt the human body could ever experience, second only to being struck by lightning – which explains why it so often leads to drowning.
It leads to an instantaneous loss of breathing control, characterized by the overwhelming urge to gasp for air, followed by hyperventilation. This, in turn, results in a rapid increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which can result in cardiac arrest.
That is why it’s so important that you remain calm, regain control of your breathing, and take the necessary steps to get out of the water as quickly as possible.
If you’ve capsized in a sit-inside kayak, you will need to perform a wet exit. Your next task will be to get out of the water – and fast.
So, get yourself together, get hold of your kayak, and attempt self-rescue:
If you can’t get back inside your kayak, try getting on top of it, and if it drifts away, hang onto any other floating object within your reach.
Remember, the clock is ticking. Even in the best-case scenario, you have around an hour before you lose consciousness due to hypothermia.
The less time you spend in cold water, the better your chances of survival.
If you’re part of a group, there’s likely someone coming to your rescue. In the meantime, you will need to assume the HELP position (Heat Escape Lessening Position). Huddle your knees to the chest and wrap your arms around your legs:
If you weren’t the only one that fell into the water, huddle with other people to conserve heat and safely swim to the nearest shore.
Here are some crucial tips for extending your survival time:
- Always wear a life jacket; it will get you through the initial cold shock and help you conserve energy as you swim.
- Do not panic; get your breathing under control.
- Get as much of your body out of the water as possible and perform a self-rescue.
- Reduce the rate at which you’re losing body heat by assuming the HELP position.
- If there’s someone in the water with you, huddle together; this can increase survival time by up to 50%.
- Deploy an emergency rescue beacon or use a flare gun to signal to others that you need immediate assistance.
- Change into dry clothes as soon as possible.
How To Prepare Your Kayak For Cold Weather
Kayaks are pretty durable, sure – but cold temperatures will take a toll on even the most rugged of materials.
Combine freezing temperatures with moisture build-up, and you have a recipe for warped seals, brittle parts, and a kayak with weakened structural integrity.
That’s why it’s crucial to thoroughly dry and clean the kayak before – and especially after – every cold weather outing. It will also double as an opportunity for you to inspect the hull and check its integrity before hitting the water.
Here’s a checklist of what you should do:
- Inspect the hull, with special focus on the hatches, bulkhead, and rigging. You don’t want any surprise leaks. So, if you notice any scratches, bumps, or scrapes, take care of them immediately.
- Check your PFD. It is required by law for life jackets to be in good, serviceable condition.
- Thoroughly inspect and test all your kayaking equipment – including your paddle, emergency and first-aid kit, and VHF radio.
- Clean your kayak, dry it thoroughly, and apply a generous coat of marine wax. It’ll form a protective layer on the hull, contributing to its longevity.
- When not in use, store the kayak in a dry area, away from harsh weather or any extreme temperature changes – preferably indoors. For extra protection against the elements and dust, use a kayak cover.
Frequently Asked Questions on Kayaking In Winter
Is it safe to kayak in cold weather?
Every kayaking trip comes with a certain amount of risk. There’s always a chance something will go awry, which is why it’s crucial to be prepared. The winter carries the added risk of cold shock, hypothermia, and other cold-related injuries. You can still go kayaking in cold weather, but make sure you’re prepared and aware of the risks.
Can you kayak in the winter?
Of course, you can kayak in the winter, and it can be a genuinely wonderful experience. There is nothing quite like exploring the Fjords of Norway and experiencing the polar lights as you paddle past icebergs. Winter adds a unique touch to the surrounding landscape – but it also makes your outings a lot more dangerous. That’s why preparation is key. Dress warm, stay dry, practice your wet exit and self-rescue maneuvers, and ensure your gear is in working order.
How cold is too cold for kayaking?
Technically speaking, it’s never too cold for paddling. That said, the colder the water, the greater the danger. The official recommendations say you should avoid kayaking if the temperature drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But at the end of the day, it all depends on how comfortable you are with the cold – and how prepared you are to deal with the threat of immersion.
How can I prevent hypothermia while kayaking in cold weather?
The only way you can prevent hypothermia while kayaking in winter is to avoid getting wet in the first place. Cold water will sap your strength – along with your body heat – in less than an hour. If you capsize, get out of the water as soon as possible. Try not to panic, and attempt self-rescue – or, at the very least, get yourself on top of the hull and out of the water. If you’re waiting for help and you can’t get to shore, assume the HELP position to preserve as much heat as possible. Be sure to change into dry clothes when you reach the shore.
What do you wear for winter kayaking?
The key thing here is layering your clothes. If it’s extremely cold, you should wear a dry suit with at least two or three layers of fleece and a drysuit liner as your base layer. You should also wear gloves (or mittens), thick neoprene booties, and a balaclava-style neoprene hood.
Winter Kayaking Tips: Summary
Winter kayaking can be an exhilarating and incredibly rewarding experience – but it is important to be aware of the potential dangers and challenges you’d be facing out there.
While I recommend giving cold weather kayaking a try, I want to remind you that it’s no joke. You must be prepared, be mindful of the risks, and take the necessary safety precautions:
- Wear appropriate clothing – preferably a dry suit coupled with insulating layers
- Understand the risks associated with cold water exposure
- Learn to recognize symptoms of hypothermia and cold-related injuries in time
- Choose a suitable route and take note of weather and water conditions
- Follow general kayaking safety guidelines and always wear a PFD