Taking the plunge into cold weather paddling: 5 tips to help keep you warm


If you’re like me, you greatly dislike being cold. Not the dry, crisp cold that refreshes your entire body when you take a breath, but the bone deep wet, soggy cold that makes you want to jump in a  fire because you feel it the only way to warm up.  I love paddling on those pristine sunny days when you don’t have to wear anything but a swim suit top, unfortunately for us “cold babies” some of the best rivers and creeks are only runnable when the air and/or water is quite chilly.  I guess you could just hang up your PFD and call it a season but then how would we feed this whitewater addiction?    There are some great ways that you can stay toasty during those polar bear plunge type paddles…


Watauga November 2014 Photo by Rich Moore
Watauga November 2014 Photo by Rich Moore
  1. Fuel up! Prep your body by eating nutritious food and staying hydrated.  As kids we learned all about how our bodies turn the food we eat into energy. We ingest the food, the body breaks it down into glucose, it’s absorbed into the bloodstream, and then our bodies either use it or store it as energy. When it’s cold this energy is used to keep the body warm.  Science is cool!   To help keep your energy levels up make sure you eat something before hitting the river.  Fruits, veggies, nutritional bars are excellent choices.
  2. Layers, layers, layers.  It’s not only important to wear layers but the types of layers will make a huge difference.  Rule number one: no cotton!  Cotton will absorb the water and hold it against your skin actually making you colder.  The first layer to put on should be made of moisture wicking fabric. These moisture wicking materials help keep you dryer, thus warmer.  The second layer is your warm layer. Choose materials like wool, it’s a natural insulator even when wet.  The down side to wool is it can be very heavy if it gets wet and can restrict movement.  Wool socks are great and you can get them in fun patterns and colors, because it’s all about looking good right? J Synthetic fleece is another great option for a warm layer.  Its quick drying, will remain warm when wet, and is much lighter than wool.  I like to wear fleece on top and wool on the bottom. The last layer should be a “weather” layer, a waterproof/ wind proof layer.  This is your dry suit or dry top and dry pants.  Snug fitting gaskets and good waterproof material are a crucial part in staying dry and warm. One word: Kōkatat.  In my opinion buying dry gear is like buying shoes, you get what you pay for.  Think of it as an investment in warmth and happiness. Other key players on the layer team are your skull cap, gloves or pogies (mittens for kayaking), and your shoes.  More than 50% of your body heat is lost from your head, feet and hands so cover them up.  I prefer gloves because I feel freer in them compared to pogies but pogies are super warm and allow you to feel the shaft of your paddle.
  3. Keep Moving! Moving will help keep blood flowing to all parts for your body.  When you get to a less intense or flat section of water, paddle through it instead of floating along.  My hands are always the first thing to get cold on me.  To warm them up I’ll shake them to force blood into my finger tips and open and close them a lot.  There is also no shame in walking a rapid, get out of your boat and move, walk, run, dance, etc. Anything you can do to keep that circulation going.
  4. Dry Hair Days! Instant brain freeze when you flip over in cold water.  Yes, we would all love to have dry hair days all the time but what fun would that be? Flipping over is a part of the sport, but rolling back up is crucial to staying warm. It takes a lot of energy to warm up a body that has been fully submerged in water, especially if you are not wearing a dry suit.  So work that brace, roll, t-rescue whatever it takes to stay in your boat.

Watauga November 2014 Photo by : Derek Keaton

Watauga November 2014 Photo by : Derek Keaton

  1. Change locations.  Paddling in 27 degree weather is not appealing to everyone; there are other ways to stay warm in your boat throughout the cold season. Travel.  There are several tropical locations that offer whitewater trips and instruction during the winter months.  Check out the link for information on Costa Rica trips offered through Girls at Play https://mindbodypaddle.com/womens-kayaking-retreats/costa-rica/.  Another option that is a little closer to home would be the pool.  Pool sessions are a great way to keep your skills sharp or work on your roll while staying warm.  I purchased my first whitewater boat in December when I was living in Ohio. I practically lived in the pool learning and perfecting my roll. 5 months later, when it had warmed up, I finally went out for my first trip down the river in my “new” playboat.  Yes I flipped over a lot but I was super confident in my roll swam very little. Check out the indoor pools and clubs in your area for open roll times.   https://mindbodypaddle.com/blog/upcoming-rolling-sessions/



Safety is always and important factor in all river trips.  An extra dry layer in a dry bag is never a bad idea.  Also adjust your first aid kit to include a thermal blanket (or as I like to call them burrito blankets), hand warmers, and a high-sugar food that can help with the onset of mild hypothermia (I like chocolate).  Once you are off the river get the car started, the heat going, and change out of your wet gear ASAP, a hot beverage and snack is always good too.

Even the biggest of “cold babies” can handle paddling in Nordic like conditions with a little preparation and prevention.  Just remember to feed your body, layer properly, move your body, stay “dry” (if that’s even possible in a water sport), and move to warm water.    We all look forward to those sunny 80 degree days, but why not embrace the beauty and fun of our sport year round!

 Big Creek 2014

Big Creek November 2013