Going kayaking when it’s colder outside is a unique experience. It will give you a much different perspective on the places you frequent during the warmer months and you won’t have to fight crowds to enjoy those places. If you’re prepared and brave enough to kayak in cold weather, you’ll often have your favorite waterways completely to yourself.
Let’s be clear: Cold weather kayaking isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires more preparation than warm weather kayaking. That said, there are a lot of ways you can make it comfortable and, in doing so, avoid just storing your kayak away for the winter months. In this article, we’re going to teach you how to kayak in cold weather.
How to Dress
Protecting your body in colder temperatures is the important first step to comfortable kayaking in cold weather. Now, the right attire will depend on just how cold it is. When you’re kayaking where water temperatures are in the mid-to-high 50s (Fahrenheit), you might still be able to get away with wearing a thick wetsuit to keep your body warm.
Wetsuits vs. Drysuits
If you’re unfamiliar, wetsuits are engineered with neoprene material. They function by keeping a layer of water between your body and that neoprene. Your body temperature warms this water and creates an insulating layer against the colder water on the outside of the suit. Wetsuits come in a variety of thicknesses. When shopping, a wetsuit’s thickness will be measured in millimeters. As you might expect, a thicker wetsuit (i.e. more millimeters) provides more insulation from cold water.
When water temperatures start to dip closer to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (or lower), you’re going to want to invest in a dry suit. A dry suit is designed to keep you dry, but not necessarily warm. The benefit of a dry suit is that you can wear layers underneath it that keep your body warm. Even in the event of an unexpected swim, your clothes (under the dry suit) will remain dry.
Next, let’s talk about how to layer underneath a dry suit. Rule #1 is to avoid cotton! Find layers made of synthetic fibers or wool. Cotton acts as a sponge if it does get wet, which means you’ll stay wet (and cold) for much longer than if you’re wearing synthetics.
Need more info? Here’s an article we published on wetsuits vs. drysuits.
Head, Hands, and Feet
There are several additional items of clothing that will keep you warm when paddling in cold weather. These items will take care of your head, hands, and feet. Starting from the top, your head is where most of your body heat escapes. So, get a wool hat or cap to keep your head warm as you paddle. You can also find caps or hats made of synthetic materials and neoprene, or you could go with wearing a balaclava on your head if you want a thinner layer of protection.
For your hands, neoprene gloves are going to be the best solution for cold weather kayaking. Many of them are fuzzy on the inside and the neoprene, ‘wetsuit’ material on the outside keeps your hands warm even if they get splashed with water as you paddle. The NRS Men’s HydroSkin Glove (pictured above) is a great example.
Lastly, kayaking in cold weather is only comfortable if your feet are comfortable. Fortunately, you can purchase wetsuit booties or socks in varying thicknesses to keep your feet warm even if they get wet. Some drysuits also come with booties, which allow you to wear wool or synthetic socks underneath for an added layer of insulation.
Proper Safety Gear
Whether you’re kayaking on an 80-degree day in August or a 50-degree day in January, wearing a Coast Guard Approved PFD (personal floatation device) is imperative while kayaking. You simply can’t predict when you’ll end up swimming and wearing the right gear to keep you from sinking when you do so is vital to your safety.
This is especially true when kayaking in cold weather. Cold weather kayaking comes with real risk, including hypothermic and cold-water shock. I’ve seen kayakers experience cold-water shock on a 70-degree day in June. If you happen to take an unexpected tumble into cold water, a properly fitted, Coast Guard Approved PFD is going to make life much easier.
In addition to a PFD, other safety gear to consider includes (but isn’t limited to) a tow strap, fully stocked first aid kit, VHF radio (or another reliable way to call for help), a sharpened knife attached to your PFD (you never know what this might come in handy for), and a dry set of clothes (in a waterproof bag!).
A Bonus Tip!
This bonus tip is a great way to add an extra degree of warmth as you paddle in cold weather. Before you shove off, boil a bottle full of water and store it in a Thermos that’s going to keep it warm (ideally piping hot!) for several hours. As you kayak, place this Thermos in between your feet. That warmth will radiate from your feet all the way up and through the rest of your body.
Then, when you stop for a rest or pull your kayaks out of the water at the end of your paddle, you already have boiling water to pour tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or cider for your group. Drinking warm liquids (slowly) is also the best way to treat someone who is suffering from a mild case of hypothermia!
(We would encourage you to get more info on this before administering care. The American Red Cross is a great resource of Wilderness First Aid education!)
Cold weather is no excuse to ignore your kayak until conditions improve. With the right attire, gear, and mindset, kayaking in cold weather can be done safely and comfortably.