Winter paddling is beautiful and peaceful but there is a lot more to it than summer paddling.
The biggest obstacle is the investment with the additional gear you need to be safe and comfortable. See below for more details!
The second obstacle is the location(s) where you are able to paddle. In Canada and parts of the Northern Hemisphere, it snows and temperatures stay cold long enough to freeze waterways.
Luckily for me, the Great Lakes (where I do most of my paddling) don’t typically fully freeze over. This is mostly due to their vastness. There are sections that do freeze and winter is known for surfing on the Great Lakes due to the winter winds. Yes, I said winter surfing on a lake! You also need to be careful of the ice forming close to the shore. Unfortunately, all of the protected and smaller lakes and rivers do freeze over. The west coast has a milder climate and can have favourable water conditions on the ocean between storms.
You are at the mercy of the weather more than ever and it’s important to know your area! Winter paddling is not for beginners.
Ultimately you need to know the area you are going out in and feel safe and confident. If you’re unsure, go for another outdoor adventure and hike to check it out. If the water and entryway looks good this can be a great way to also test your winter gear in the water before going out paddling. Ask locally, there are lots of great paddling groups and communities out there with loads of helpful local knowledge.
Winter paddling has a lot more overhead and isn’t as easy and accessible to get out. Remember that winter paddling isn’t for everyone and if it’s not for you, summer is right around the corner!
What To Wear?
You need a wetsuit of a suitable thickness (see below) or a drysuit for winter paddling. Always dress for the water temperature. Not the air!
Wetsuit or a drysuit? Overall for paddling, drysuits are more comfortable and versatile than a wetsuit but they are an investment as they are much more expensive!
Made from neoprene, their thickness is rated on the water temperature. The colder the water the thicker the suit you need. As the name suggests you are wet in the suit but kept warm! *The first number is the thickness in mm of the main body of the suit and the second number is the thickness in mm of the extremities such as the arms. SCUBA wetsuits are typically the same thickness throughout the suit since movement is minimal.
13-18 C (55.4-64.4 F) – 2mm or 3/2 full suit
10-14 C (50-57.2 F) – 4/3mm full suit plus 3mm booties, 2-3mm gloves and maybe a hood
8-12 C (46.4-53.6 F) 5/4mm hooded full suit, 5mm gloves and booties
< 8 C (<46.4) 6/5 or 6/4 hooded full suit, 7mm gloves and booties
Neoprene was designed to keep you most warm when you’re in water since the material is designed to trap heat by holding a warm layer of water against your skin with a protection layer of small bubbles in the neoprene on the outside.
If it’s windy and super cold out neoprene won’t help protect from the wind if you’re out of the water.
It’s important to note anything you layer over neoprene can help keep you warm out of the water but what happens if you fall in or the material gets wet? Will they get in your way of swimming safely? Will they drag you down?
Besides the thickness of the suits, there are lots of options such as zipper placement and seam types. Here are some links to great resources if you’re interested in wetsuits.
Although much more expensive than wetsuits, drysuits are more comfortable, act as a windbreaker, are easy to adapt to how warm it is by layering underneath and as the name suggests a drysuit keeps you completely dry.
A few things to consider, depending on budget and what is important to you. Drysuits often have the feet included in the suit but some don’t. Other nice things drysuits have are pockets, cuffs to protect the neck and wrist gaskets and relief/drop seat zippers (front or back depending on if you’re male or female). This is a major consideration and something to look for when buying a dry suit. The shape and style of a male or female drysuit may fit your body better but having the ability to go to the bathroom without taking the entire suit off is key. Most paddlers would say it’s a must feature!
Rear vs front entry zipper. My preference is the front entry zipper as you can easily zip it up when you don’t have a buddy to help and you can visually see that it’s fully closed. Like all features, it’s a personal preference.
There are options for semi-dry suits that have neck neoprene gaskets vs a latex gasket that are more comfortable but don’t fully seal and a small amount of water will get in if you spill. I wouldn’t suggest neoprene gaskets for cold winter paddling because once you are wet you can’t dry off easily and risk getting dangerously cold.
This will likely be the second biggest investment next to your board or boat so you want to make sure it’s one you are comfortable in and have the ability to fit multiple layers underneath. Drysuits are meant to be a little bulky and you can always ‘burp’ (push the air out) the suit to create a tighter fit. Go try a bunch of different ones on and see if you can rent to test a type of suit.
Dry Suit Underlayer: Thermal layers are key! See Cold Weather Paddling for full details. Avoid cotton!
- wool socks
- long underwear tops and bottoms
- fleece pants and top *avoid hooded tops as they just get in the way with the neck seal.
- extra layers if needed
It’s worth renting to test out what works best for you and your budget. When trying on a suit think of all the movements you’d want to do from sitting down to standing to stretching your arms, etc. Maybe you won’t even like winter paddling? Maybe you want something you’ll also use for surfing or SCUBA. There is not one perfect suit that does it all but you can look to hit a balance! Just make sure safety is the number one priority when winter paddling.
It is an investment but you can score deals by keeping an eye on used gear markets (be sure to buy from a trusted source), online paddle communities, touring/paddling certification companies or in the off-season look for sales!
No matter what you land on be sure to test it before taking it out for a cold winter paddle.
Other Wearable Items:
- Toque (hat)
- Neoprene 7mm mitts from Xcel in the coldest conditions.
- Neoprene booties (8mm Xcel or 5mm MEC depending on water temp) or insulated rubber boots *it depends on where I am paddling and the conditions. My feet stay dry in my dry suit. However, if I’m wearing my rubber boots and fall in the insulation in the boot will get wet.
- Neck gaiter – I put this on after my drysuit is fully on.
- Vest PFD over top of my Drysuit. I don’t wear my inflatable PFD in the winter since cold waters can be dangerous even in a dry suit and you can never be too prepared!
On My Board:
- A hot beverage
- Extra clothes such as a fleece sweater and pants, wool socks, an extra toque and my neoprene mitts.
- Hand/foot warmers in case of an emergency
- Fully charged phone in a waterproof case *remember batteries die quicker in the cold!
- I’d also recommend a buoyant tow line if you are going further from shore or out in a large body of water.
You need to be that much more prepared to have a safe and enjoyable adventure in the winter!
- Plan your route and tell a friend your plan.
- Check the area and route a few days before for ice.
- Pack well in advance so you have time to remember everything.
- Check the weather – including the swell and wind.
I stick to places I’m familiar with, close to shore and don’t do extended paddles. You can never be over-prepared!
Things to Keep in Mind:
- Ice forms first in shallow and still areas which typically creates an icy shoreline making it hard to find somewhere to launch or get off the water in an emergency.
- Any water will freeze. This includes your deck pad making it slippery or where your paddle attaches or adjusts. It can also freeze and block your iSUPs inflatable valve.
My favourite part of winter paddling is seeing the same outdoor spot in all seasons!
- Have a hot beverage waiting for you in the car. Not only to enjoy après-paddle but for emergency situations where you need warmth or your iSup valve is frozen shut.
- Rent or borrow the gear to try winter or cold weather paddling to see if you like it.
- Always pack extra clothes
- Bring portable phone charger/battery bank
- Find a friend or a group of people that also winter paddle.
- Stick to what you know, your ability and your comfort level. I like to stick to places I’m familiar with and don’t venture too far.
- Safety is the most important thing to remember! If you aren’t comfortable or find it’s just not fun for you then that’s okay! If winter paddling isn’t for you, you can still enjoy winter in the outdoors. Plus summer is always around the corner!