I paddle my kayak all year round unlike many who prefer to garage their kayaks over winter. But as far as I am concerned it can be the most beautiful time of the year when conditions allow. But with the added dangers of cold, especially in a climate like here in Norway where I live, extra training and proper attirement are absolutely essential. Kayaking where air temperatures are far below zero and water temperatures are just above freezing, it is for the experienced kayaker or group of kayakers, even on flat water. But even with the extra hazards due to the cold, winter paddling can offer so much in the way of beauty, whether it is in a snow blizzard or a cloudless sunny day the rewards are well worth it.
For an article I wrote on winter paddling featured on Aquabound website, click on logo to the right
The beauty of winter kayaking
My recommendations on this page are from experience, I have been reluctant to give advice through instagram on clothing for example as there is many thoughts on the subject of proper clothing. This is meant to be a mere guideline, a reminder of the risks involved and not a definite rule of practice. But over four winters I have tried and tested different items and have come to a satisfactory conclusion as to what best suits me. I have learned from mistakes which have included mild frostbite. I am by nature the type of person that must find out for myself, regardless of what I have read or heard from others, I have and will continue to go out and push the limits (or push my luck) but I do go out with the knowledge and experience from others in my mind.
Training for cold water paddling.
It goes without saying that the winter paddler must condition themselves for the eventuality of a swim in ice cold waters. Water cools the body 25 times faster than air so getting back in that boat as quick as possible is imperative. Fresh water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius, salt water freezes at -2 degrees Celsius, the core temperature of your body should be around 37 degrees Celsius, hypothermia occurs at 35 degrees Celsius. There are many factors that come into play once you are in the water. Hypothermia is as we all know a high risk. But one thing which is not taken into consideration is the actual fitness of the kayaker. Time in water is often referred to in minutes and presumes that person is fit and well. With age, reduced health from countless sicknesses, body fat and a host of many other things that critical time in the cold before the onset of hypothermia is vastly reduced. High blood pressure or heart problems are just a couple of examples of sicknesses that are known to significantly reduce immersion time. From my own experience only one year ago while practising a cowboy rescue in small waves and low water temperatures, I found out just how quickly the pain in my arthritic knees reduced my ability to get back in the kayak, the cold sapped my strength and the pain was excruciating only in a short time. It ended up with me being rescued by someone else. Embarrassed I might have been, but the major factor was that I found I need to take this into account and it also goes to show how important training in conditions similar to those I paddle in actually is.
Training in rescues is of course essential, comrade rescues and even cowboy rescues have their uses. But the eskimo roll should be mastered, and mastered in ice cold water if winter paddling is for you. In my mind, especially paddling solo there is only one option in the event of a capsize, rolling. After paddling for over forty years I still have to practice my roll in all conditions, I think of it as my only option in winter, especially after my experience from the failed cowboy rescue. I train until my head hurts, dry off my head, warm up and train a little more. Sadistic as it may sound it also conditions me for the cold shock effect. Cold shock is the most common reason for drowning in ice cold water. As the victim hits the water the bodies first inclination is to draw in air, instead water fills the lungs and the onset of drowning begins.
Taking a cold shower is also a way to prepare your body for cold shock apparently, it certainly does work to an extent but the only training is in conditions as close to that as you paddle in. Through instagram I was asked why I did not use a neoprene hood when rolling in water at around 4C and air temperature at -6C. Quite simply because I don't wear while I am on a tour, then I use a wool hat on my head. Recreating the conditions I paddle in is paramount. Secondly I am not a big fan of neoprene in winter, neoprene is designed to keep you warm in the water. But when out of the water, the water it has absorbed freezes quickly doing the opposite of what it should do. I have never used a neoprene hood but have tried several pairs of neoprene gloves, once wet and frozen they do nothing to keep you warm when air temperatures are below zero. With freezing fingers I have found that removing wet neoprene gloves is a lot more comfortable.
My recommendations before you start winter paddling, train to a high standard in rescue methods, especially eskimo roll. Train in cold water, not the local swimming pool. A health check would be adviseable (the doctor may want to check your head if you mention winter paddling). Exposing your body to ice cold water in preperation for cold shock is essential. Clothing is of utmost importance and I will take that up in the next section.