Winter clothing is a question I get asked very often on Instagram. One which is difficult to answer. There are many combinations of clothing and opinions opinions vary from person to person. My findings have come from trial and error, and paddling in temperatures lower than -20C as well as cold water rolling practise in temperatures down to -15C (air temperature). I use different layers of different materials and different functions, beginning with the base layer.
N.B. A drysuit merely keeps you dry, it is the correct combination of layers underneath that keeps you warm.
As some will say the most important layer, Im have to agree that getting this layer right is very important.
Being next to your skin, you want to have comfort and non irritable materials, wicking properties is often mentioned which is of course important, but sweating in very low temperatures has never been a problem for me. All the same, better safe than sorry. Merino wool is the choice of many including myself and my first layer is of Merino wool socks, pants and a top. Non itching, good insulation, quick drying as well as wicking properties makes this an ideal base layer. There are many types, like those on the left and the mesh type on the right. I use a combination with a minimum of 80% wool and 20% nylon.
The second or middle layer that I use has worked for me on many a cold day. Again the material needs to have quick drying properties as well as warmth and comfort. Firstly I use ''Thermal,'' training tights for my lower body, with the emphasis on thermal, as normal training tights tend to cool you down, not ideal whilst paddling in winter. The advantages of compression clothing are debatable, but one advantage is improved blood circulation and less muscle fatigue, a very important factor when you maybe sitting in your kayak for hours at a time. I use a compression top all year round, thermal in winter and normal on warmer days, which definetly ease pain and fatigue in my shoulder muscles over a long journey. In addition I add a second pair of high thick wool socks over the tights.
Lastly before putting on the dry suit, the third layer I use is fleece clothing, either a one piece or two piece. Use a sport specific type fleece and not the ''Onsie,'' type which are made for home comfort only. If the temperatures are very low I add a second >Merino wool jumper under my fleece.
Last but not least, a quality drysuit will keep you dry but in addition to the outer layer we have a bouyancy aid, gloves, footwear and hat. There are many types of bouyancy aid. My prefered type for extra warmth is a high cut touring PFD as opposed to the typical river jacket which is low cut. A high cut covers more of your body with the inner material that aids in flotation but it is also a great insulator.
Gloves is always a difficult question as there are many different types. I often get asked why I am not using gloves when paddling in sub zero temperatures. If there is no wind and hands are still dry then paddling in low temperatures is not a problem for some. But as soon as the hands get wet, they are more susceptible to cold, add some wind and bare hands freeze at an alarming rate. From experience of having mild frosbite on my fingers some years back after removing my gloves to take pictures, in temperatures below -20C, wet and a slight wind it took less than a minute to lose feeling in my thumb. I only noticed as I couldn't work the camera, I couldn't get my fingers back in mywool gloves as they had frozen, luckily I had an extra pair that kept my fingers warm enough to come to land. After thawing out later that day they froze once again, blistering began a few days later and the ends of my fingers under the nails turned black.
The type of paddle mitt I prefer is like the one on the left. Fixed around the paddle shaft and closed with velcro I still have good grip on the paddle. As for taking photos it is easy to slide my hands out to operate the camera and slide in after I get my shot. Neoprene out and thin fleece material inside keeps the wind away from cold wet hands. I have paddled several times with these when the outer neoprene is frozen solid and inside my hands are held at a comfortable temperature.
There are of course many different types of glove and a lot is off personal preference. Open palm mitt as on the right are very popular also. From experience gloves with fingers as opposed to mitts freeze when wet and very cold, ice formed around the fingers keeps the hands cold, better to remove them in this case. Always have at least one extra pair close by. I keep extra gloves between my PFD and body on all winter trips.
Wool gloves or mitts is the choice of many, I don't like the loss of grip on my paddle but that is only a personal preference. I do carry wool mitts for when I come to land to eat.
Look after your feet and they will look after you my grandfather often said. Very true. For many years I tried all sorts of neoprene shoes/boots but never completely satisfied and often had very cold toes especially when coming to land. By chance I was looking in a second hand divers shop not so long ago and found scuba diving boots very cheap (similar to those on the right). Since using these I will never change back to other types of paddling shoe. Thick soles are easier to walk on stony beaches and much warmer when walking on snow as well as giving better protection to my drysuit socks, neoprene material keeps me warm, drainage holes let water run out lessening the chance of freezing, laces give a tighter fit although should be tucked inside boot to avoid snagging.
Headwear goes without saying, a good wool hat is essential. Helmets also have advantages in cold weather, but if the inside lining gets wet it stays cold. If using a helmet a wool hat should also be carried when paddling.
All of the above is meant as a guideline and based from my own experiences over several years of winter paddling from the extreme to the serene. Always my favourite time of year.