Winter Kayaking – Gear Up to Keep Warm

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Winter Kayaking – Gear Up to Keep Warm. 

Kayaking in winter with the snow-covered vegetation in the background and icy waters is quite magical.

There is an indescribable still in the crisp air, and the entire surrounding seems to be in a trance.

There are fewer chances of coming across a boat or a ship, and the blood-sucking insects have all gone on their winter breaks.   

But despite its charms, winter kayaking is not for the underprepared or the less skilled. Gauging the dangers and challenges of frothing and rebellious whitewater is much easier than trying to read a cold and silent sea.  

The threat of cold shock, frostbite, and hypothermia can sneak up on you faster than you can comprehend.

If you plan to go winter kayaking despite its challenges, read up your fill with this post.

You will learn everything about how to gear up to keep warm while winter paddling.  

How do you keep a kayak warm? 

  • Technically, you cannot keep a kayak warm. It has an open design with very few areas of it being enclosed. It is also in constant contact with the water, which can be below freezing in winter. These are not the ideal conditions to keep the boat warm. 

What you can do is keep the kayak dry. There are a number of situations where water can get into the kayak.

If you don’t get rid of the water immediately, it becomes a safety hazard in two ways.  

  1. It will weigh down the boat and
  2. It will accelerate your feet and body temperature towards freezing and possibly suffer frostbite.  

There are a number of ways to get rid of the water that has accumulated in the cockpit. However, most of the methods are not ideal when you are paddling in icy water conditions.  

The best tip I can recommend is to paddle to the shore and get rid of the water as soon as possible.

Winter Kayaking

Another great alternative is to install a bilge pump in your boat before you go out into the waters. Here’s a great one at Amazon.

This way, you will get rid of the water completely, and you will also not have to take breaks for the shore.  

Do I need a wetsuit for kayaking? 

  • It depends. Most experts will agree that you don’t necessarily need a wetsuit or a drysuit when the water temperature is 21o Celsius or 70o Fahrenheit and above.  

But when the water temperature is anywhere from 21o to 15o Celsius, wearing a wetsuit or a drysuit is mandatory.

If you are an experienced paddler, you might be able to get away with wetsuits that do not cover the arms.  

According to the American Canoe Association, when the water temperature drops below the 16o Celsius mark, it creates a condition called cold water situation.

Under these circumstances, an accidental immersion in the water without a wetsuit or a drysuit can kill a person within minutes.  

A wetsuit or a drysuit that has a 4/3 rating is a must when the water temperature is around 7o Celsius or 45o Fahrenheit.

This paddling suitfrom Kokatat is a great option. It provides excellent insulation and comes at an unbeatable price.  

Below the 7Celsius mark, you need to be covered from limb to limb. Apart from the paddling suit, you should be wearing the following essentials: 

  • Thermal pants, preferably with wicking properties  
  • Gloves 
  • Lifejacket or a PFD  
  • Headgear such as a balaclava 
  • Protective boots 
  • Neck seal 

In addition, you should also wear a number of mid-layers to keep you warm. Remember, it is always better to remove layers when you feel warmer than to risk the cold and face possible life-threatening situations.  

Winter Kayaking

What should I wear for kayak fishing in winter? 

  • The best attire you can put on during winter kayak fishing consists of the following items: 
  1. PFD – I would never tire of insisting that you wear a personal floatation device for any type of kayaking. This seemingly small and fancy vest can save your life. Check out this heavy duty lifejacket from Kokatat. I also love the Maximus Centurion from the brand.  
  2. Drysuit – A drysuit is best for winter kayak fishing. It works even better than a wetsuit as it has gaskets for the ankles, wrists as well as the neck. It seals your entire body, making you safe. This nylon drysuit is a good choice.  

However, some of the gaskets are made of latex so if you are allergic to latex, look for those drysuits without the latex gaskets.   

  1. Thermal wear – Winter activity in the open requires multiple layers to preserve the body’s heat. Consider wearing a thermal pant and top as your first layer. This is an excellent layering strategy that will keep you warm.  
  2. Footwear – Always wear a couple of woolen socks as these will keep your feet warm while wicking away the moisture. Neoprene wet shoes or booties are a must as well.  
  3. Gloves – Unlike the rest of your body, your hands do all the work while fishing. You need to keep them warm and protected. Hand gloves made of neoprene is a good choice. 
  4. Head and neck – Any exposed part of your body risk getting frostbitten. Good protection for the head and neck will prevent any heat loss.  

As any ardent fishing enthusiast will tell you, kayak fishing in winter can be better than fishing during the other seasons of the year.

The sea is calm, and there are no speeding boats to disturb your rendezvous with nature. 

But unless you are well dressed for the adventure, kayak fishing in winter can have catastrophic results.  

How do I store my kayak for the winter? 

  • In winter, the cold conditions of the weather demand different storage techniques than the other seasons.  

The following tips will help you to store your kayak safely and properly.  

  • Give the kayak a thorough rinse before you store it for the winter. Using lukewarm water usually does a good job. 
  • A good protectant should be sprayed inside and out as well 
  • Remove the neoprene covers as well as the hatch  
  • Cover the cockpit of the kayak so no animals will make a home in it 
  • It is best to store the kayaks inside during the winter. The sun and the cold can cause considerable damage 
  • Plastic kayaks are best stored on their sides. Composite kayaks can be either stored upside down or on their sides 
  • Hanging the kayaks is the recommended way as opposed to storing them on the floor. If you decide to hang the boats, double-check the stability of the racks before you put your boats on top of them.  
  • If you don’t have the space to store the kayak indoors, store it outside on a rack. Keep it away in an area where trees will not fall on the kayak if the area where you live is heavily wooded.  
  • Check on your kayak regularly so that snow does not pile up on it. Continued pressure on the bottom of the kayak is not ideal.  
  • Before you store away the kayak, run a maintenance check. This can include anything from getting rid of the stains and filling the cracks so as to prevent the ice from collecting in it. Kayaks with wooden trims also require the screws from the gunwales to be made loose. This will discourage any cracks from developing during the winter.  

Can you swim in a drysuit? 

  • Attempting to swim in a drysuit can be quite challenging if not impossible. 

It is because the suit covers your body like a plastic bag and gaskets at the extremities.

Although it repels water excellently and works as a great insulator for the cold, it restricts the movements of the arms and the legs, making it almost impossible to swim. 

Some people are of the opinion that the material of the drysuit can make a difference while swimming.

A neoprene suit is typically not crushed and is much more comfortable than a crushed neoprene.  

However, in case you find yourself in a dire emergency, and you need to swim while still wearing your drysuit, try backstroke swimming.

Although the progress will be slow, you will feel the drag a lot lesser.  

How do you stay dry when kayaking? 

Keeping yourself dry and comfortable while winter paddling is a challenge. But luckily, there are several ways you can stay dry while kayaking. 

  • Keep the boat dry – This can be easier said than done. However, it is quite achievable. Use scupper holes to plug the scupper holes and always pack a bilge pump with your gear.  

Dripping kayak paddles can also contribute to the accumulation of water in a kayak. The best tip is to use paddle drip rings.

This way, you will be able to drain all the water and keep the boat dry. The rings also prevent your arms from getting wet as well.  

  • Get your paddles right – Most of the kayak paddles have a concave design that drags the water onto your lap with every stroke. Although these paddles allow you to gain momentum easily, they are not the best paddles for staying dry.  

Upgrade your paddles to those designs which do not have this concave groove. Your speed will be a bit slower, but you will not get any water inside the boat or on you.

Also, consider getting those paddles that have longer shafts. The lower angle paddling strokes will keep the water out of the boat.  

  • Use a kayak skirt – Using a kayak skirt is one of the best ways to keep water out of the kayak and also stay warm at the same time. It works especially great if you are using a sit-inside kayak.  

Kayak spray skirts come in a multitude of sizes so make sure to measure the size of your cockpit before buying one.  

  • Wear the right clothes – When the temperatures are low, a few splashes of water and an exposed head or limb can be the cause of life-threatening situations. Never go out for kayaking without wearing the right clothes.  

This includes wearing thermal base layers, a drysuit or a wetsuit and of course a lifevest. You cannot also underestimate the importance of waterproof gloves, booties, and head covering.  

The National Center for Cold Water Safety recommends swim testing your gear before you venture out.

I personally find this advice very practical as the slightest tear or a malfunctioning zipper can cost lives.  

Swim testing your gear allows you to catch any faults with the apparel, especially a drysuit or a wetsuit.  

Learn more about swim testing your gear here.  

  • Pack an emergency kit – This kit should include everything from a headlamp, a signal kit, an emergency blanket, a whistle, drinking water, snacks and extra change of clothes.  

In spite of all these precautionary measures, if water gets into your boat and you don’t feel comfortable, head to the shore as fast as you can.

A little amount of water in the summer can be ignored but not in the dead of winter.  

What are the dangers of winter kayaking? 

The winter season presents some unique, if not more dangerous, situations during winter kayaking. The cold conditions combined with the ice can quickly become a death trap in a matter of minutes.  

The dangers of winter kayaking are as follows: 

Hypothermia –

When you are out in the open sea for winter kayaking, it is easy to get carried away by the movie like scenery.

But water freezes at 0o C or 32o F so you can imagine what the temperatures of the water, as well as the air around it, must be.  

Contrary to popular misconception, hypothermia can set in much faster than you think. It takes only a three-point drop in the human’s body temperature to trigger hypothermia.

When the body’s temperature drops from the normal 98o F or 37o C to 95o F or 35o C, it enters a medical condition called hypothermia, and your body loses heat rapidly to the surroundings. 

Hyperthermia can cause malfunctioning of the nervous system and other essential organs. If it is not treated immediately, it can lead to death.  

What you can do: 

The best defense that you have against this life-threatening condition is to dress appropriately. This means that you should wear multiple layers of clothing which include a thermal base layer, woolen garments, a drysuit or a wetsuit and a life vest. You should also cover your head, neck and wear waterproof gloves and footwear.  

Cold shock 

Cold shock is one of the primary reasons for paddlers who lose their lives while winter paddling.

The sudden shock caused to the body by the icy water can result in responses such as hyperventilation and involuntary inhalation, which can lead to drowning.  

What you can do: 

Stay out of the water as much as possible. Practice heavy breathing and holding your breath under a controlled environment.

It also a great idea to practice rolling and taking ice baths to condition your body to the cold. 

If you hit the water, do not panic. Try to stay calm and breathe through your nose as you try to get back into the boat as fast as you can.  


When the weather is in full snow and ice mode, frostbite can happen even without your notice.

Your fingers, toes, and nose are the most vulnerable areas on your body. Frostbite can accelerate significantly if you get wet.  

What you can do: 

Try to keep your limbs and any exposed area covered with waterproof accessories. Get rid of any water as soon as possible.  

Ice sheets 

A half-frozen lake can awaken the extreme sports lover in you, but they are particularly dangerous.

Every expert will agree with me when I say the predicting the movements of the ice is practically impossible. It can form anytime and block your way out. 

What you can do: 

Avoid area that you are not familiar with, irrespective of how well dressed or skilled you are. The tides can bring along chucks of ice and block your boat.  

Double-check the weather report before you take the boat to the river. And never go out alone for winter kayaking.  

Another tip I would suggest is to have an emergency exit plan. Even if you take all the necessary precautions, you cannot underestimate what the winter gods can cook up in a jiffy.  


Winter kayaking is loved by many due to the extreme challenges and the beauty that nature offers.

If you know your surroundings and choose the right time of the day, the landscape can be otherworldly and enchanting. 

But the cold and the ice is not your friend. It can be merciless and very unforgiving.

A buddy of mine once remarked that trying to predict the conditions of the ice is much like trying to read a woman’s mind.

I couldn’t agree more. 

I hope this post gives you the inspiration and the knowledge to gear up and stay warm and safe as you take your kayak into the black and white landscape.