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How To Dress for Winter Paddling

Posted by on December 15, 2011

It’s time for a more season-appropriate virtual instruction post: How to dress appropriately for winter paddling. Winter paddling can be a fun, surreal and unique experience. Things are quite out on the water; no boat traffic, crisp air, and snow on the beaches that were home to bikini-clad sunbathers just months ago. With this unique paddling environment comes its unique hazards most notably the cold water. Immersion in cold water can lead to rapid onset of hypothermia sometimes in as little as minutes. However, you can do a lot to protect yourself and make your winter paddling experience more enjoyable by dressing appropriately.

Dressing for winter paddling is tricky because it can be a bit of a balancing act between dressing for immersion (which you should definitely do) and over-heating. Wearing too little can leave you at risk in the case that you are immersed or the wind picks up. Wearing too much can cause you to over-heat, sweat and paradoxically become cold. The best way to balance these forces is to use a three-layer clothing system like a winter hiker would. A three-layer system includes a moisture wicking base-layer, an insulating fleece layer, and a waterproof and windproof shell layer.

For the base layer, I recommend a long-sleeve polypro shirt and polypro long underwear to wick moisture away from your skin as you perspire. Do not wear cotton as a base layer because it will hold the moisture against your skin and can accelerate hypothermia. A solid insulating layer would consist of a fleece jacket and pants. Kokatat makes a one piece, polar-tec fleece suit that is cut so that it doesn’t interfere with drysuit gaskets. Finally, there is no substitute for a water-tight dry suit as the outermost shell layer. This system will help to balance your temperature while paddling and buy you precious time if you are immersed by keeping you dry.

Certain accessories can also greatly improve your winter paddling experience. I usually choose either a wool hat or a neoprene skull cap/balaclava to keep my head warm. A neoprene ski mask or fleece nech warmer can be added for extra comfort. For my hands I have adopted a two-piece system. I start with a good pair of neoprene gloves. If my hands start to get cold then I’ll pull out the poggies for my paddle and use both. For my feet I wear long wool hiking socks inside of my dry suit “socks” and a pair of neoprene paddling boots. Experiment on your own and see what works best.

Happy and safe winter paddling!

-Kayak Dave

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