8 Cold-Weather Paddling Tips to Keep You Warm
by Wes Kisting
If you've ever done any late-season paddling, or taken an extended expedition on a lake as cold as Lake Superior, you know that cool air can quickly put a deep chill in your bones. Even if you're tough, cold paddling weather will eventually take a toll on your comfort and your morale. In some cases, it may even give you a severe case of hypothermia. So if you want to enjoy paddling in the late season, or expeditioning on colder bodies of water, try these eight great tips to improve your paddling comfort.
Knit Stocking Cap
A lot of cold-weather paddlers think of the obvious cold-weather paddling gear (wetsuits, drysuits, paddling gloves, and so on) yet forget to pack along a standard knit stocking cap. Most people associate stocking caps with the snowy weather of Winter, but they can be incredibly valuable for paddlers at any time of the year (even in mid-Summer). Remember, you lose most of your body heat out the top of your head, so when a long day of battling waves and wind leaves you chilled to the core, a stocking cap can be just the thing to help you recover your body's core heat. I keep mine stowed in a small waterproof stuff sack behind my seat or in the day hatch compartment, where I can get at it even while I'm still on the water. It's a supremely cozy treat to put it on when a cold, dreary day starts to dampen my spirits or freeze my morale.
It would be impossible to overemphasize the comfort factor of a good pair of thick wool socks. For paddlers, wool socks are the ideal campsite companion. Wool dries quickly and fends off odors well, so a single pair can be comfortably worn around camp for a week without making your tent smell like a men's locker room. Even better, wool is oh-so-cushy against your feet. After a long day wearing neoprene paddling shoes or wading through cool water, wool socks feel like heaven. Combined with a good pair of sandals, they also make the best around-camp footwear in existence. I even hike in mine! Perhaps best of all, however, is the comfort factor they add to sleeping. When the weather cools down enough to test the limits of your sleeping bag's temperature rating, a good pair of wool socks can make the difference between sleeping as snug as a bug in a rug, or waking up every fifteen minutes with ice-cold toes. Trust me, wool socks are the way to go. Get the kind made with Merino wool, as they're much softer and more comfortable than standard wool socks.
PVC Rain Jacket
In The Thrifty Paddler, Jesse Rusch recommends packing along a cheap Stearns (or comparable brand) PVC Rain Jacketand for good reason. Even if you already own a fancy paddling jacket, a PVC jacket offers cheap, packable, lightweight protection from the elements. You can wear it hiking, cooking, or during any other activity which might tear, burn, or otherwise damage your more expensive paddling jacket. Even better, PVC is definitely non-breathable, so it traps body heat and blocks wind extremely well. Under normal conditions, this quality makes it undesirable, but when you find yourself in cold water, it turns into a real advantage by helping to keep you warmer. Plus, since PVC rain jackets are so cheap, you can "use and abuse" them freely. Among other things, this means that when you go ashore for lunch on rainy days, you can spread your PVC rain jacket on the ground to avoid sitting in the mud. When you're finished, swish the jacket through the water a few times to rinse it off, then stow it away behind your seat. No need to pack it in a dry bag or worry about keeping it clean. At a cost of $10 to $20, you could almost afford to buy a new one for every trip, but since PVC is also surprisingly durable, you'll probably find that your jacket survives many, many trips, despite extremely rugged use and abuse.
Most expeditioners have the know-how to build a good fire under most conditions (I hope!), but even the best expeditioners can recall stories of times when they simply couldn't get their campfire to start, despite their best efforts. When you're cold-weather expeditioning, this can be a real pain, a serious morale-buster, and potentially dangerousespecially if you're already hypothermic by the time you get to your campsite. On cold-weather trips, I carry a nifty reusable fire-starter brick called the "EasyFlame Fire Starter" which is actually made from the same material as the tiles of the space shuttle. It absorbs white gas and burns for about 20 minutes without getting hot, so when I find myself in need of a quick fire or confronted with damp wood, I use my fire-starter to get things warming up quickly, with no fuss. Aside from the EasyFlame option, there many other excellent fire-starting materials on the market, any of which can help you build a quick, lasting fire in a hurry. If you're cold-weather paddling, fire-starters are a real treat to help warm up a cold morning, too.
A lot of paddlers wear basic sandals, watersocks, or neoprene paddling shoes when they paddle. While these options are terrific most of the time, they often fail to offer adequate warmth for cold-weather paddling. Fortunately, the simple addition of a cheap pair of 2 mm or 3 mm neoprene socks can transform almost any piece of footwear into good, warm protection for your feet. Keep in mind that neoprene socks will add a fair amount of bulk to your feet, so before you buy them, make sure you will still be able to fit your feet inside your shoes while wearing neoprene socks. If you can't, consider purchasing a cheap pair of sandals to wear over the socks instead of your usual paddling shoes. Unless you have super-insulated paddling shoes to begin with, a cheap pair of neoprene socks and sandals will amost certainly be warmer.
Waders offer an excellent boost to comfort, as they allow you to wear dry clothes underneath and trek through the water all day without getting wet. For cold trips down smaller rivers and streams, waders are ideal, as they take the dampness and chill out of launching or going ashore. They also help hold your body heat, so I put mine on when I wake up on a chilly morning. They make the task of breaking camp a lot more comfortable, and when it's time to launch, I'm already set to go! In fact, if you buy a pair of waders with sewn-in neoprene booties like I did, you don't have to pack along a separate pair of neoprene socks. Your feet will be plenty warm with the waders alone. Despite these wonderful benefits, I wouldn't recommend wearing waders if you're paddling on a large open body of water, like Lake Superior, because while waders will offer comfort and protection near shore, they offer no waterproof protection or insulating ability (and may actually become dangerous) during a capsize. Waders are strictly a near-to-shore solution for cold-weather paddling.
If you're a smart camper, you already own a nice sleeping pad to sleep on at night. If so, then you also know that a sleeping pad dramatically increases your warmth by insulating you from the oh-so-chilly earth. How would you like to enjoy the same insulating benefits during a lunch or rest break? If you're like me, you probably don't want to have to unpack your sleeping pad just for a cozy stop on shore, so I recommend packing along a small closed-cell pad to sit on during brief mid-day stops. A few companies sell specialized, closed-cell, butt-sized cushions for this purpose, but if you don't want to buy one, just cut out a butt-sized piece of foam (a 10" x 14" piece should be sufficient for most butts) from a Yoga mat, an exercise pad, or an old sleeping pad. Make sure it's closed-cell foam, so it won't absorb moisture. That way, you can stow it on or behind your kayak seat without having to pack it in a dry bag. When you stop for lunch, use it as an insulated seat to cushion you from cold, hard, or wet ground. If desired, you could also cut it to the exact size and shape of your kayak seat and use it while you paddle as well.
Chemical Hand Warmers
Chemical hand warmers are normally considered to be Winter-only items, but for paddlers, they can provide a much-needed boost of warmth at any time of the year. Stock up on them during the Winter months (when they're readily available in stores), but pack a few along on every paddling trip, regardless of the season. Stuff a couple in the foot of your sleeping bag to fend off a chilly evening, pack a couple in your pockets to warm up your hands around camp, tuck one under your hat to warm up your head, or slip one inside your PFD to help keep your core warm while paddling. For someone suffering from hypothermia, chemical hand warmers are an outstanding safety and recovery aid. Best of all, they're small, cheap, and packaged in waterproof plastic, so you can stow them just about anywhere without need for a dry bagready to tear open (and provide warmth) at a moment's notice!
Is it Drafty in Here?
© 2006, Wesley Kisting