Safe winter paddling

An article was requested on staying safe and warm on winter paddles. In a moment of weakness I put my hand up! I’d better get my typing finger into action…

So, winter paddling. It’s not quite as simple as putting on an extra thermal, there are lots of things to consider. In no particular order:

  • Weather conditions, obviously, but principally temperature and windspeed
  • Type of activity
  • Type of boat
  • Water conditions – speed of current and levels
  • Location – its exposure to the elements and its remoteness

As so often in paddling there are always compromises to be made.


The most important thing to consider is probably windchill. When out in the wind the body loses heat many times faster than in still air at the same temperature. That’s why washing on the line drys more quickly on a windy day and is cold to the touch. Your body is providing the heat required to evaporate the water on the surface of your clothing and with a never ending resupply of that water it can be a major problem.

The simple answer should be a good insulating layer to slow the transfer of heat to the outer surface, covered by a wind and waterproof layer to stop the evaporation from your thermals. However, nothing is that simple. Too many thermals and you will sweat, which spoils their insulation value, but too few and you won’t have enough insulation. A certain amount of experimentation is needed. I find it most difficult to judge when I’ve had a few weeks’ gap between trips and the weather has become much colder. Plainly the more you go boating the better!


The level of activity also has a great bearing on what to wear. If I’m out for a blast in my racing boat a good thermal and often no cag is usually enough. On the other hand, bumbling down the river with a group of novices would probably need two thermals and a long sleeve dry cag. Coaching or leading often provides the biggest challenge as the day can alternate between lively activity and periods sitting in an eddy or delving into cold water to rescue people.


The risk of capsize also has to be weighed carefully. Going into freezing water when hot from paddling, especially with no waterproof layer, can cause a sudden spasm within the chest (cold water shock) that stops one from breathing for a time, which is just a bit alarming. For that reason I wear a buoyancy aid in the K1 whereas I usually don’t in the summer. Consider reducing that risk by using a more stable boat. If you are worried about capsizing then you probably will!

Clothing ideas

The conclusion of this is that no, I’m afraid I can’t tell you what to wear, but hopefully I can give you some ideas to try. After all, it’s not the weather that’s usually the problem but the wrong clothes.

A drysuit is the ultimate piece of cold weather kit, but if you are on a budget separate cag and overtrousers work well. A wetsuit will keep you warmer in the water than wet thermals but they restrict movement, making you tire sooner. Without wind proofs over the top it can be very cold on the bank. Don’t let that put you off, that’s all we had back in the hair shirt days! Just be aware of the limitations and perhaps be less ambitious on the length of trip.

Thermals: kayakers knew the value of a onesy way before they became a fashion must have. The big advantage is no cold gap round the waist. Two thinner thermals are better than one very thick one: one can be removed if it becomes too hot.

Extremities are the parts that suffer the most. The body’s natural reaction to a cold temperature threat is to shut down the periferal blood flow to protect the core. Keep your hands and feet warm to start with and this is far less likely to happen. First defence for hands is to ensure your wrists are warm under your cag; keep your hands warm until the moment you jump into your boat. If it’s really cold consider using pogies or open palm neoprene mittens, which make a massive difference.

For feet, try to keep them dry. They are inactive and resting against the cold hull so think about some thick thermal socks. If you are buying a pair of river boots look for some with a loose inner footbed, which can be taken out in the winter allowing space for thick socks. (If the socks are not crushed flat by tight boots they work far better.)

Look after your head with a woolly hat on the flat or a thin skull cap under the helmet in the white stuff. If you are weir paddling an absolute must is ear protection. Prolonged squirting of cold water down the ears causes exostosis (bony growths) in the ear canal.


Remoteness adds extra demands. Consider carrying a map and a mobile phone and familiarise yourself with emergency egress points from the river. An item of group kit to carry is a nylon shelter or bothy bag. Usually good for four to six people according to its size, it’s effectively a survival bag for a group. I’ve used one twice, once while waiting for a shuttle and once when abandoning a trip due to heavy snowfall while waiting for drivers to fetch the cars. Top tip for shuttles – ensure your dry clothes are in the car that’s left at the take out! You’d be surprised how many people don’t think of that.

Water conditions and hazards

Lastly, levels and flow. Rivers tend to be higher in the winter, which brings added hazards. You can usually tell that a river is in spate by the colour of the water and the debris carried by it. When the level rises the width increases and the water flows through trees and bushes on the bank. Any stationary items (trees, landing stages, moored boats, bridge piers) in the current are major hazards to kayakers. Keep well clear and remember you will be carried by the current much more quickly than at summer levels, so look and think ahead.

Never ever go near the bows of a moored boat. They are always facing upstream so you could be trapped between the boat and the bank or far worse, pushed underneath and trapped there by the rudder or propellor. Awareness is the key! When a river is in spate it is flowing through a river bed that has been shaped by a far smaller volume of water – hence it does strange things. You will find boils, folds and eddies that are not there at normal levels and will need to keep your wits about you to deal with them. Bear in mind also the difficulty of getting out if you swim. There are many stretches of river where this becomes impossible, so avoid paddling alone and ensure your friends know how to assist. A club member once said to me, “buy the best throwline you can afford and give it to your mate!”

Hopefully I haven’t put you off. Winter paddling can be very rewarding and with planning and thought you can be warm and positive rather than cold and miserable.

Stay safe! See you on the river,

Tim Ward

Further links and tips.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s