When the temperatures start dropping along with the leaves and commercial outfitters halt their summer operations, a lot of rafters and kayakers rejoice for the coming rains that raise river flows. If you’re just getting into kayaking or rafting in the Pacific Northwest, or you’ve been in the game but tend to separate from your boat during the colder months, we’ve got some cold weather paddling necessities and tips to help you extend your paddling season.
Here’s our head-to-toe cold weather paddling guide for frosty days on the river.
Skull Cap or Hood
Every brand makes one. Some people prefer a skull cap, some people prefer a hood. Whatever you like. If it’s real cold, a hood is going to be warmer by protecting your neck.
Immersion Research Thermo Cap – $24
Not a big factor here, but some helmets are warmer than others. Full face helmets are probably the warmest but also probably excessive if you’re only thinking about warmth on a paddle that doesn’t demand a full face. Big tip here is if your helmet has removable ear pieces and you don’t have them in all summer, you can certainly pop them in for the colder months.
If you’re going to be boating in cold water, like Washington’s White Salmon River, you should be wearing ear plugs. Yes, we all want to hear better on the river, but how about hearing better on AND off the river… FOR LIFE? There’s a condition called Exostosis, aka Surfer’s Ear or Kayaker’s Ear, in which the ear canal instinctively defends itself against cold water by abnormally growing additional bone within the ear canal.
“Exposure to wind and cold water causes the bone surrounding the ear canal to thicken and constrict the ear canal, sometimes to the point of complete blockage (known as “occlusion”) which can lead to substantial conductive hearing loss.” Read all about it here.
**Bonus** Dermatone – Right from their website: “Dermatone was created in 1981 with one goal – to offer athletes and outdoor enthusiasts the highest quality skin protection possible.” It protects skin against wind, water, and cold, and unlike other products, it has no water content, so it won’t freeze on your face.
When both the water temperature and air temperature are below 50 degrees a dry suit is a must. They’re expensive but they’re life-saving equipment. Plus, it feels darn good to get off a 15-mile river trip, take your dry suit off and be totally dry—amazing. What goes into your dry suit choice? Cost, zipper locations, style, material, and brand preference all play a factor into this purchase.
Whether you wear your ski base layers or an expensive kayaking onesie, you need something to insulate under your dry suit. The cool thing about onesies is that there are minimal-to-no zippers, buttons, or clasps. If onesies do have zippers, those and the seams are engineered to be in ideal locations to prevent discomfort. Some, like Kokatat’s Outercore Habanero Liner, even lines up the women’s relief zipper on the onesie to the women’s relief zipper in their dry suit! A good classic: Immersion Research K2 Union Suit ~$90
Gloves, Pogies, or Lobster claw mitts?
Again, it’s all your personal preference. Some people like the warmth and dexterity of gloves, some people like that you don’t lose your touch on the paddle with pogies, some people like lobster claw mitts simply because they are the warmest.
I like Snap Dragon Hyper Hands Pogies. They’re $40, they have a big, wide opening and the material they’re made of makes them retain their shape so that opening is accessible. In real cold weather, some people will wear a neoprene glove inside of a pogie in case of swim (pogies stay on your paddle so you don’t have hand protection in the case of a swim). NRS has more glove options than you’ll know what to do with at all different thicknesses and price points. Stolquist makes some low profile 2-3mm neoprene gloves for less than $40.
Some people wear booties, some wear river shoes, some wear old running shoes and some no shoes at all (ok, maybe not so much in winter).
Booties or river shoes?
Depending on who you ask you’ll get different answers here, but you need to think about grip, warmth, comfort, durability, cost, style.
However you prioritize the order of those options is your call. I like river shoes because grip is usually my priority. If cost isn’t a big factor, I suggest a different pair of shoes for summer and winter. I size up for my winter pair of river shoes. I like to be able to have a wool sock on under my dry suit, and a sock or neoprene sock on outside my dry suit inside my river shoes. That means that I have a wool sock, a dry suit, and then another sock all inside my river shoes, so yes, I size up. Am I crazy for doing this? I don’t know. Comfort-wise, it is fine if you size up, and having something on the outside of your dry suit feels like it protects your dry suit booties from wear.
I like the Astral Designs Rassler – $125.
**BONUS** If you’ve got a dry suit you can wear toe warmers. Don’t think you need them? Suit yourself, but those who run cold love them once they try them. In fact, those who run cold have been known to tape hand warmers in key spots around the inside of their dry suit.
On those real cold days, in case of a rescue or just for the takeout you’ll want some backup gloves, a hat, a pack-able puffy jacket, and maybe some hand warmers.
Author Mikey Goyette works on Wet Planet’s Marketing team. When he’s not in the office, you can find him in his kayak on the river, or on the river bank playing Spike Ball.