Winter Kayaking Checklist

A paddler dressed with the right gear for kayaking in winter.

Winter offers a constantly changing shorelines to explore when paddling. As the waves roll and the pack ice blows in the shore becomes coated with ice and sometimes the ice piles so high it seems mountainous. Kayaking during the winter presents great risks versus other times of the year. The icy cold water can quickly kill. Before heading out make sure you have everything on this paddling checklist.

Winter Paddling Skills

Because of the greater danger that cold weather and water present, winter kayaking requires refined and reliable skills. A few that I consider essential are a perfectly reliable self-rescue. Because the paddle float rescue takes time, which exposes you further to strength-sapping cold water, a reliable roll is a must. In cold water, the shock from immersion can cause a gasp-like reflex, ice cream headaches and disorientation. The cold-water shock makes rolling much more difficult than in warm water. To help ready yourself for a time when you might need a winter roll, practice rolling in the cold. You should also have good bracing and other basic kayaking skills. If you rank your paddling skills, you should have expert-level skills before even considering heading out.

In addition to skills, always kayak with someone else during the winter. There’s too much that can go wrong and very little room for error.

Gear Checklist

Kayaker paddling past the Grand Marais lighthouse in winter.Gear choice is so personal that it’s hard to make specific recommendations, so I’ll list what I think is essential and is on my checklist. When something I’ve used stands out for winter kayaking, I’ll list the specific product with a link.

  • Drysuit: Other than your kayak, a drysuit will probably be the most expensive piece of gear you buy for kayaking, but it’s worth it, because it keeps you warm and dry when paddling in bad conditions. I think back to the days before I had a drysuit and feel grateful that I bought one. My favorite is Kokatat’s Gore-tex Meridian Drysuit. Get a relief zipper and get a suit with Gore-tex feet sewn in — there’s no negotiation on this point, because you’ll regret it if you don’t and drysuits last a long time. I like having a sprayskirt tunnel, because it helps prevent water that runs between the suit and the skirt from leaking into the cockpit.
  • Long underwear: A drysuit only keeps out water and breaks the wind. It’s like a winter shell. To stay warm, you need to wear something under. I like to wear Terramar long underwear combined with an union suit. I find that two base layers works well for my legs, but my torso requires more.
  • Mid-layer: You need a mid-layer or two to keep warm while kayaking in winter. My suggestion is a fleece, crew-neck pullover without a zipper. Once you’re on the water, you won’t be able to unzip the mid-layer, so the zipper just gets in the way and could rip the drysuit’s neck gasket.
  • Wool socks: When combined with the drysuit’s Gore-tex socks and neoprene boots, a  wool hiking sock keeps my feet warm.
  • Neoprene hood: To help minimize cold shock and to keep your head warm wear a neoprene hood, such as NRS’s Mystery Storm Hood. I like something thicker, such as a cold-water diver’s hood. These hoods should fit tightly to help prevent cold water from flowing in and out of the hood. I have a friend who paddles with swim goggles in winter to help keep the hood tighter on his head.
  • Neoprene gloves or mittens: It doesn’t take long for the winter water to penetrate your gloves and turn your fingers to ice. That’s why I suggest thick neoprene gloves for your checklist, such as NRS’s Natural Gloves or Toaster Mittens. I prefer the mittens, because they really keep my hands warm. Sometimes too warm! They do restrict your ability to fiddle with stuff, so it’s a trade-off you’ll need to accept.
  • Warm neoprene boots: I wear the same ankle high neoprene that I wear all year. Make sure that yours are big enough to fit over wool sock and drysuit socks. On some days, I seal launch from the pack ice and land on it at the end without getting my shoes wet.
  • Neoprene sprayskirt: It keeps the wind out, gives a secure fit and for some reason doesn’t seem to ice to the deck as quickly as other fabrics, but it still ices up. Make sure that your sprayskirt has a wide grab loop and watch it to keep it from freezing closed or to the kayak’s deck.
  • Lifevest: With all the extra clothing on, your regular lifevest might not fit. Before you head out, check it. The other issue with lifevests are the zippers. After they get iced up, it’s hard to open them, so if you use the pockets in the vest often think about a vest that using a buckle instead of zippers to close the pockets.
  • Tow ropes: Because the cold water can quickly incapacitate a swimmer after a wet exit, towing might become necessary. The winter spray often freezes everything to the boat’s deck, so those of you that use deck mounted tow ropes or short tows need to switch to waist or pfd mounted systems. Consider a pig tail tow for a quick tow to get paddlers away from the ice.
  • Rescue Stirrup: The cold water saps the energy out of a swimmer after a wet exit — even one wearing layers of insulation and a drysuit. It can take so much energy out of the paddler that he has a hard time reentering the kayak. An adjustable stirrup can help the paddler get back into the boat by acting as a fabric ladder. Loop it around the cockpit coaming, adjust the height and the paddler can step right up onto it and get back into the boat. Just beware that the buckle might freeze quickly. If it does dip it back into the water until it thaws.
  • Ice picks: Getting out of the water and onto the ice is difficult and sometimes impossible. You need ice picks that stick into the ice to pull on. Some people use knives or screwdrivers, but with an expensive drysuit near having a tool that covers the sharp points when not in use just seems like a good idea to me.
  • Communication tools: Carry the standard communication tools, such as a whistle, VHF radio, flares, strobe light and the like. Essentially everything that’s on a well-stocked checklist, you should carry in winter.
  • Other items: Like any kayaking trip prepare by bringing the normal emergency items, such as a two-person or four-person bothy bag, first aid kit, ditch kit, extra clothing, fire starter, stove, hot water, food and so on.

Warning

Paddling in winter presents unique challenges and you should only do it if you’re well-equipped, have expert-level skills and paddle with a friend. This goes for anytime that water is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, or if the water temperature is above 60 degrees, it’s anytime the combined air and water temperature is below 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t go out, even on calm days, if you’re not equipped and experienced. Every year, there are fatalities of good paddlers, who went out on a calm, winter day without the right gear, capsized and died from cold-water immersion.

Learn more about winter kayaking. Photos by Paul Sundberg.


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  • By Wetsuit vs. Drysuit for Paddling on March 2, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    […] worn. Also, at this temp, the hands, feet and head need protection. Many of the same items used for winter kayaking work at this […]

  • By Stay Mobile | Bootprints on October 31, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    […] For some, land-based travel is frankly a bit pedestrian. Even in 2011, some hardcore mountain types insist on doing their travel by river. While this probably isn’t an option for the morning commute, winter kayaking is a popular activity among die-hard river rats. To keep hypothermia at bay in near-freezing water, these paddlers don an armor of long underwear and neoprene. On semi-frozen lakes or reservoirs, some even bring ice picks or crowbars to break up the freeze. Make sure to consult an expert if you’re planning to venture onto the frozen waters this winter, and they’ll make sure you have the right equipment. […]