Winter Kayaking

Lake Superior Winter Kayaking

“There is no bad weather, only the wrong gear.” -Minnesota Proverb

Winter shorelines feature ice formations, ice caves, and the air is crystal clear which allows you to see for miles. On a blue-sky winter day, I feel there’s no other place I’d rather be than on the water paddling. With the proper gear and precautions, winter needn’t be a reason to stay off the water. Luckily, for me I live on the north shore of Lake Superior, and its shores remain ice-free for most of the winter. Some winters, we have only a few weeks of ice, and during some, we have months of ice. If you have open water, as long as the air temperature remains above 15 degrees Fahrenheit, kayaking remains pleasant with the right gear–below 15°F water freezes so quickly on your kayak and gear freezes that it isn’t as fun.

Dressing for Water Temperature

To properly dress for winter kayaking, you must account for heat loss through conduction, convection, evaporation, and radiant heat. The old kayaking adage that you must dress for immersion becomes even more important. Not only is the air cold, but the water is cold, and through convection the cold air and water–which works 25 times faster than air–seeks to draw the heat out of your body. The water’s surface contacts the hull of your boat and through-the-hull conduction robs your body heat by drawing it away. Because you’re exercising and in and near water, evaporation from water and sweat cools you down. And your body always radiates heat.

In addition to the four forms of heat loss, you must manage the risk of becoming immersed in cold winter water. On Lake Superior, according to the NOAA Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System surface temperatures in January ranges from 34°F to 38°F. If you fall into that cold of water without protection, you have somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes of time to reënter your kayak, while your body retreats into shell/core compensation, before you lose strength and dexterity. You may also suffer from cold shock, which is a hyperventilation-like and gasp reaction, typically lasting one to three minutes. During cold shock, you could inhale water and drown.

Consider the following clothing items mandatory for winter paddling:

  • A drysuit, like my favorite Kokatat’s Gore-Tex Meridian, and plenty of insulation will keep you warm while paddling and gain you extra time if you become immersed into the water. The insulation under the drysuit forms dead pockets of air, which helps prevent convection. Despite the drysuit’s breathability, it helps trap radiant heat emitted from you and reduces evaporative heat loss.
  • A lifevest keeps you afloat and helps keep your mouth above water if you suffer from cold shock. It also helps you save energy by relieving the need to tread water. A trick related to keeping your mouth above water is shouting “capsized swimmer” the second you come up from a swim. This forces water away from your mouth and prevents you from inhaling water.
  • A neoprene hood, like NRS’s Mystery Storm Hood or a diver’s hood, helps prevent cold shock during immersion, limits convection, evaporation, and radiant heat loss. On days were the risk of immersion is low, a stocking cap should be considered.
  • Neoprene gloves or mittens, like NRS’s Natural Gloves or Toaster Mittens, protect your hands from the cold and keep them functioning.
  • Warm socks and neoprene boots, like Kokatat’s Nomad Paddling Boots, keep your toes toasty while in the kayak and when getting out near shore.
  • For comfort, consider adding heel pads and a seat pad to help fight through-the-hull conduction.
  • Also bring: Extra clothing, equipment, a bothy, a thermos of hot water, first aid, emergency kit, a way to start a fire and anything else needed for an emergency, like a ditch kit.

Items to Monitor While Winter Kayaking

Besides watching for the normal things you would when kayaking in the other seasons, like the wind, weather, and waves, while winter kayaking you should watch items for ice build-up.

  • Deck ice builds up quickly from splashes and drips from your paddle. So anything you keep on deck, like a bilge pump and paddle float will quickly and solidly freeze to your kayak. As your deck bungee cords freeze, they lose elasticity and become useless–a good reason to consider traditional Greenland decklines and sliders.
  • Your sprayskirt and grab handle may become encased in ice and freeze to the kayak making them hard or impossible to remove. A grab handle frozen to the deck may make it impossible to perform a wet exit if needed. Continually check these items and break the ice off of them to keep them flexible and working.
  • Pack ice moves with the current and wind. This can block access to open water and block access to shore. Although, not impossible to move through, it makes it difficult, to say the least, to get your kayak where you want it.
  • The shoreline will be icy. Prepare to slip. Sometimes the shoreline becomes covered with high shelves of ice that make it hard or impossible to land a kayak, scramble over the ice, and come ashore.
  • Hypothermia. Know the signs, mental status change and shivers, and watch for them in yourself and in your paddling partners.

Skills and Risk

Because of the cold, winter paddling is risky. If you go, you should have the skills to handle the conditions you expect, you should bring a friend, dress properly, be ready for the worst, and have a reliable roll in case the worst happens. Consider winter paddling only on days that are well within your and your partner’s skill levels. Always approach winter paddling with a conservative risk management plan, because there is little room for error when the water is cold and the air is cold. It’s easy to die out there.

New Report on Winter Paddling

Fox 21 News out of Duluth, MN did a piece on winter kayaking. Watch it here.

Picture of Winter Paddling


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6 Comments

  1. Posted January 28, 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful pictures and tons of great info – nicely done.
    I love paddling in the winter.

  2. canoegirl
    Posted October 30, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    I am preparing to hold a session on winter paddling for about 30 paddlers this Wednesday. So I was interested your site. I have paddled 20+ winters. And while we have enjoyed the beautiful summer days, it is always the days we barely survived that we discuss.
    Something I only heard about recently is dry drowing and the closing of the larnyx when gasping in cold water.

  3. Posted November 1, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Interesting. I hadn’t heard of dry drowning. Sounds like it’s related to cold shock. Is it?

  4. WATERBOURNE
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed your site and will be doing some inland lake kayaking this winter. I’ve taken all measures to keep from cold shock emmersion but was wondering if you’ve ever used snowfleece underneath a sprayjacket? Out on the West Coast the air inland gets very cold as does the water but being the West Coast I believe the with the proper 3mm neoprene pants or farmer john and a non cotton underwear, should be suffice for +1 celcius. I find by just putting a spray jacket overtop with sealing cuffs and neck makes for a bombproof outfit. Oh! Of course the neoprene gloves and full headgear. Whats your take!

  5. Posted December 2, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the compliment. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the site.

    In the winter, I use a drysuit exclusively. Under the suit, I wear several layers of insulation under for warmth. Depending on the temperature, I may wear fleece under my drysuit. Thicker fleece tends to be too bulky, but sometimes that’s a trade-off I’m willing to take.

    The winter surfers on the Great Lakes wear 5/4 full-body wetsuits with neoprene gloves and full headgear. I would think that I’d want something similar for +34 F temperatures if I was going to use neoprene in the winter. I’d also use a drytop instead of a spray jacket. The key is to dress for the water temperature. I don’t think a 3mm neoprene pants or farmer john would cut it. That’s much like wearing a ski jacket and fleece and falling through the ice while skiing, it just isn’t designed for those conditions. For a controlled test of your gear, head into a couple of feet of 34 F water with a buddy dressed in layers of insulation and a drysuit and lay in the water for 5 to 10 minutes. See if you can function afterwards. Have medical personal standing by.

    Take some time to watch all the videos over at Cold Water Boot Camp. They’re eye opening.

  6. Al
    Posted February 13, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post and also for the link to the winter bootcamp. I was thinking about going on my first winter paddle and found this info to be most helpful. Thanks for the post and attempting to keep people safe. I have been on many summer and fall trips but stop once the water temp is about 43f I always wear my life vest!

7 Trackbacks

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