Kayaking In The Winter

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Christina Bishop



In this post, we’ll cover what you need to know to kayak safely in the winter!

As we approach the late fall and winter Holidays, many kayakers will hang up their kayaks until spring. You can still go kayaking in the winter – you don’t have to give in to the winter blues!

Winter kayaking can be enjoyable, but it is more dangerous unless you know how to prepare for it. Thankfully, this article will cover everything you need to know about kayaking in the winter. “There is no bad weather, only the wrong gear.” -Minnesota Proverb

People die every year from capsizing into the cold water. Even the best paddlers can fall victim to the dangers of cold-water immersion if they don’t follow basic winter kayaking safety precautions.

The biggest threat is not the water itself, but the cold temperatures. Hypothermia happens fast when the water is cold. If you go overboard, physical exertion leads to exhaustion which CAN lead to drowning.

We are now going to cover some essentials and safety tips so that you can be out on the water while others are counting down the days until spring!

Plan In Advance When Kayaking In The Winter


We know it is tempting to spontaneously grab your kayak on a mild winter day, but it is very important to plan ahead for several reasons. The biggest factor is how quickly the weather can change on the same day, especially here in Georgia!

Here are some tips on how to prepare:

  • Be sure you check the forecast well in advance
  • Plan your location and route
  • Check to see if temperatures are favorable for icing
  • Determine the wind speed and direction
  • Have suitable clothing ready to go

Know The 120 Degree Rule


The 120° Fahrenheit rule states that if the sum total of the air and water temperature is below 120°, you need to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit if you venture out into the water.

Falling into icy cold water will shock your body no matter how great of shape you are in. If you are not prepared and properly dressed for submersion, you may DIE of hypothermia. The best way to prevent hypothermia is to dress for submersion to be sure you will make it back home.

Here is a handy chart on how to dress for conditions:

70 °F (ca. 21 °C) <Low3 mm wetsuit or shorty
60 – 70 °FModerate5 mm wetsuit
50 – 60 °FHighDrysuit or 7 mm wetsuit, or wetsuit with dry-top
> 50 °F (ca. 10 °C)ExtremeDrysuit

There really is not a minimum safe water temperature for kayaking. If the lake has not frozen over, and if you dress properly, you can go kayaking while everyone else is indoors streaming TV by the fireplace.

Dress In Layers When Kayaking In The Winter

Here in Georgia, we have a lot of cold mornings and warm afternoons, so we are accustomed to leaving home with a jacket and coming home in a t-shirt on mild weather days. This isn’t such a big deal when you are not on the water. However, your body heat decreases 4x faster in cold water than in cold air at equal temperatures. This means you will need to learn how to dress in layers for kayaking in the winter as your life may depend on it!

The air temperature will change throughout the day, and your core body temperature will change depending on how much you are paddling vs. resting so. This means you will need to be able to add and remove layers of clothing in order to stay dry and comfortable.

Here are the three essential layers:

  1. Base layer: Wicks moisture away from your body.
  2. Middle layer: This is for insulation which keeps you warm.
  3. Outer layer: This layer repels rain and wind.

If you wear a wetsuit, you will not need an additional base layer.

If you wear a drysuit or a dry top, you will not need an additional outer layer.

Cover Your Extremities When Kayaking In The Winter


Your head regulates the temperature of your body, so it is important to keep it covered.

Your mind will signal your body to reduce circulation to your hands and feet in cold weather because it prioritizes our vital organs over our extremities, so it is equally important to keep your hands and feet dry and warm as well. This is why you should Invest in some specialized winter kayaking gloves, shoes, booties and headware.

Remember Your Safety Gear

You should plan on taking some safety gear regardless of how short or long your trip will be. We covered some kayaking essentials in another article, but we will go ahead and share some of the essentials here as well:

  • Spare change of clothes in a watertight dry bag
  • Emergency paddle
  • Rescue stirrup
  • Emergency blanket
  • Firestarter
  • Waterproof First aid kit
  • Communication transceiver (VHF Marine, HAM Radio or other)
  • Personal locator beacon
  • Compass

Don’t Go Solo When Kayaking In The Winter

It’s always a good idea and a fun idea to bring a friend, even if the weather is perfect. It is even more important to bring a friend along when the weather is colder.

You might be a well-prepared, paddling expert, but that won’t matter if you end up falling into freezing cold water.

If you bring a friend, It isn’t likely for you to both capsize your kayaks, so if one of you happens to go overboard, the other can help!

Don’t Go Dark


We know that kayaking is a great way to disappear from the pressures of real life, but please don’t actually “disappear” from your friends and family without them knowing your whereabouts.

Even if you bring a friend, (and you should!), you should both let friends and family know where you will be and when you will return.

You can’t always rely on cell phones to communicate with friends and family on shore. This is one of the reasons we recommend a portable radio transceiver. You may not be able to chat it up with friends and family, but with a portable radio transceiver you can at least call for help.

Keep Your Eyes On The Skies

A sunny winter day can deteriorate in a dime in most places here in the U.S.

You might know the forecast before you head out, but the weather is more unpredictable in the wintertime.

A sudden increase in wind speed will make bigger waves on the water. This extra wind also means more wind chill for your body to adjust to. Cold rain is not very fun either.

If you see wind speeds pickup or heavy-looking clouds approaching, you might want to start heading back.

Ironically, light snowfall on a calm winter day is more pleasant than heavy rain as long as you are dressed for it.

Stay Close To Shore


If the weather conditions change quickly, you need to be able to get back to shore quickly.

If you get a headwind blowing against you, returning to shore can be a real struggle. If you are close to shore, you won’t struggle as hard to get back if you are too tired.

You can get caught up in having so much fun that you don’t realize how far you have gone and how far you must return. Being close to the shore helps.

Do all you can to ensure that you can get out of the water quickly and safely if you have an unexpected problem.

Fear The Fog

We don’t recommend launching your kayak on a foggy day.

Fog can form over cold water and ice sheets, especially in the late fall and early spring.

Sometimes fog can be really dense with little to no visibility. This does not work in your favor if you are in the middle of the lake and you cannot see what direction to go.

If you decide to go anyway, take a GPS or compass with you, and stay close to the shore.

Watch For Ice


Ponds and lakes might freeze over during winter. Freezing begins from the shore and progresses towards the middle of the lake or pond.

Paddling near the edge of ice sheets is an incredible site, but it can also be very dangerous. Ice may break under the pressure of a paddle, so you should never lean against it.

Clear or white ice is stronger and preferred ice, but you should still use caution and not put too much pressure on your paddle when pushing against it.

The last thing you want is a broken paddle when you are on icy waters!

Sometimes there is wind or currents near the ice. This can make capsizing more deadly because you could get trapped under an ice sheet if you end up in the water. A PFD won’t even help you if you get stuck underneath an ice sheet, so you must use caution to avoid that from happening.

If the wind is blowing while there is excessive ice on the lake, you won’t find us out in the water!

Know Your Limits


If you have made it this far in the article, you are probably still thinking about trying some kayaking in the winter. Conditions can get really interesting during the colder months. The cold water, wind, waves and ice sheets are no joke.

We have made it clear that there are risks, but you can do it if you choose the right weather, the right gear and if you know your limits.

You need to be a strong paddler, ready to fall into ice water, knowing how to rescue yourself and others. You need to know how to paddle thru ice sheets and dense fog. You need to have practiced capsizing in good weather.

Evaluate your limits, and practice anything that you need to get better at.

Perform Safety Checks

When you are kayaking in the winter, that splashing cold water can freeze on essential gear, and that can spell trouble if that happens.

Here are some things to keep in check when you are out in freezing temperatures:

  • Your sprayskirt, paddle float or the bilge pump may freeze, keep an eye on them.
  • Leather deck lines are better than bungee cords when temperatures are sub-0°C.
  • Pack ice moves with the wind and the water current, and it can block your path.
  • If the shoreline becomes icy, it can be difficult to launch and land your kayak.
  • Know the symptoms of hypothermia. Check on your kayaking buddy for any symptoms, and have them keep an eye on you as well.

Fuel Up When Kayaking In The Winter


You cannot afford to let your energy levels drop in these conditions.

During the summer months, we get thirsty and pay more attention to how much water we need.

In the winter months, it is easy to forget to drink enough water because drinking water is not as appealing in colder weather. Drink lots of it anyway!

Be sure to bring plenty of snacks with you as well.

Wrapping It Up

If you follow the guidelines in this article, we are confident that you can have a safe and enjoyable time in your kayak in milder weather during the winter months.

If you do decide to take on the glaciers, we would love to see some photos.

Let us know if you have any questions, and please like and share this article on social media!

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Christina Bishop, an ardent hiker and kayaker, distills years of outdoor adventures into expert guidance for fellow nature lovers. Her extensive experience is the foundation of trustworthy and professional advice on navigating the great outdoors. Christina’s dedication to the wilderness shines through her insightful tips, inspiring confidence and a deeper appreciation for nature’s wonders.