The Beauty of Winter Paddling

by norm-hann
Friday, January 29, 2016
Friday, January 29, 2016
With a little preparation and the right equipment there is no off season.

Paddling in the winter can be an amazing and beautiful time to get out with less crowds, picturesque winter scenes, and quiet, calm moments. The key to winter paddling is making sure that you are well prepared. I have complied a few thoughts here that may help and will keep you safe out there there so you can enjoy the tour and the beauty of the winter season.

Safety Gear

Leash - this is the cheapest piece of safety equipment you can have. Make sure it is in good working order. Leashes save lives, wear one! If you are winter paddling on a river, make sure your leash is quick release.

PFD - Wear a good PFD with pockets and reflective material. A lifejacket like Kokatat’s Maximus Centurion or Orbit Tour will not only keep you buoyant and safe but will provide well needed core warmth on those cold day. You can carry communication, snacks or essentials in the pockets.

Delorme In Reach - Whether I am on the ocean or in the mountains I carry my Delorme InReach. Although you need a monthly plan, these units can save your life and if you spend enough time in the outdoors or in remote climates then it is a really good safety item. These units are durable and have great battery life. They are also a great back up if your cell phones die or become submerged. The battery life really drains on those cold days.

Cell Phone - Make sure you have your phone in a waterproof case and there is enough battery life.

Headlamp - Our days in Canada are short in the winter and having a headlamp can help you in many ways.


Dry suits - are very effective for winter paddling especially in more colder climates. They are especially ideal for winter river paddling.They give you the ability to layer appropriately and adjust temperature control depending on your internal engine. I have really been enjoying my Kokatat Gore-Tex Idol dry suit; it’s a comfortable two piece system with the ability to switch tops to a more river or touring specific setup. Our coastal climate is more moderate but places where the temperature drops well below zero, dry suits are the way to go.The initial cost of a dry suit is high in comparison to a wetsuit but it’s well worth the investment if you use it regularly for ocean and river paddling and for the safety, comfort and warmth factors.

Wetsuits - are designed for surfing. I love my Xcel TDC Drylock Hooded 5/4 for winter surfing in Tofino and my 4/3 for summer sessions but I stay away from them for flatwater winter paddling. Wetsuits are meant to get wet and for a layer of water to keep you warm, especially when your in the water but they do not work as well for winter paddling if your standing on your board and not getting the neoprene wet. Even if you do get wet standing in the colder temps will chill you quickly. Thicker wetsuits can be restrictive for paddling. If you are going to wear a wetsuit, a farmer john style like Kokatat’s NeoZip Long John or a neoprene top & bottoms in the winter, it will be a good idea to layer some board shorts over the bottom and a light shell jacket like the Kokatat Tropos Otter Jacket or Gore-tex Pullover up top which will cut the wind and keep some of the heat in. On some of our colder outflow down winding days here on Howe Sound I will wear a 2 mm pant with board shorts over them, a 2 mm long sleeve top and a 5 mm booty. I tend to go with this system over a dry suit because I will overheat too much in the dry suit. Generally on Howe Sound our outflow winds are very cold so I may even go with a 4/3 depending.

Gloves - Neoprene gloves are not always ideal for winter paddling as your fingers can freeze quickly. An option would be to wear a pair of waterproof ski gloves and bring an extra pair if they get wet. I recently paddled down one of our rivers with a pair of Arctertx Beta Shell Gloves on and they were great until I started trying to land a few small waterfall drops, in which case neoprene gloves serve a better purpose.

Insulation - I like to layer with Wool insulation top and bottoms and a thick pair of wool socks for the feet, that works well for me up top here in Squamish, B.C. Some days when I head out for faster, flatwater training runs on my race board I will opt for a more traditional layering system to manage the heat generated. Base layer pants and tops is a clothing system I really like for training paddles or paddles were the probability of going in due to weather, experience and board choice is low. I choose pieces that allow you to train hard without overheating yet they still provide a bit of protection in the event of falling in. These pieces can be layered over top with board shorts and a light shell or soft shell jacket like Kokatat’s X Jacket.

Squamish estuary

You should be prepared for immersion and it depends on your comfort level, experience and the board you are paddling on. If the probability of going in the water is low then you can get away with a little less vs a little more considering you have met all other
safety precautions. Conditions on the water can change quickly so people need to be prepared for that. You should always be asking yourself, “what if?”

With all of this knowledge it is still important to file a trip plan and use the buddy system for those late fall, winter and early spring paddling conditions. Have fun and be safe and if your looking for another option Southern California is nice these days and our 7 day trips to Belize are pretty fun too. Our ocean sup training programs begin this March with our Tofino Surf Weekend.

Thanks to photographers, Jimmy Martinello, Chris Christie and Doug Bains for being out there and getting some shots!

Paddling in the winter can be an amazing and beautiful time to get out with less crowds, picturesque winter scenes, and quiet, calm moments.

Norm Hann photo - Douglas Bains / Mamquam River Squamish BC Photo - Jimmy Martinello / Norm Hann Defence Islands BC photo - Chris Christie