Announcement – Cold Weather Checklist

Paddling in spring can be a lot of fun, but kayakers should be prepared for the cold.  Often the water temperature is significantly colder than the air temperature.  Trying to swim in cold water is difficult and dangerous, and recently an Illinois paddler shared a trying experience that I highly recommend reading.  Here are some tips to keep you safe:

  • Wear a life jacket:  Even if you’re a good swimmer, cold water can sap critical energy you need to get back into your boat or to get ashore.  You can’t see it from most of my photos, but I nearly always wear mine.  You can purchase comfortable yak-specific life jackets (open shoulders and high backs that don’t rub against seats) from decent outdoor shops.
  • Stay close to shore:  A good rule of thumb is to never venture further from shore than you’re willing to swim.  This is especially true when the water temperature is cold.  In March/April I often only do small rivers/creeks because they are so much safer.
  • Know the forecasted wind speed:  Wind chill is a real thing, especially over open water where there is little cover.  Also a strong wind will kick up big and possibly dangerous waves (especially in the late afternoon).  I’m a big fan of for wind speed forecasts.  As a general rule the narrower the creek/river, the more protected it will be from wind.
  • Know the forecasted wind direction:  This is especially true for lake paddles.  Some paddlers underestimate late afternoon headwinds and face challenging situations when they try to return to shore.  Also the wind direction will determine where the waves are largest (downwind side).
  • Wear protective clothing:  Special gear (mostly neoprene) can still keep you warm even if you get wet.
    • Full dry suits:  These offer the best protection but are expensive.  These are well suited for winter paddles or Great Lakes paddling in spring.
    • Wetsuits:  These offer the next best protection, but they are uncomfortable.  These are well suited for very cold conditions.
    • Hydroskin/Terraprene:  I usually wear this under my outer layers in spring.  It can be thought of as a thinner wetsuit and is similar to what some surfers wear, but is more comfortable.  NRS sells this, and I’m a big fan of their boots, pants, shirts, and gloves. Terraprene however doesn’t provide the same protection as a wetsuit…so for very cold conditions it wouldn’t be suitable.  But for small rivers/creeks in March/April it works well.
    • Avoid absolutes:  Some paddlers will advise ALWAYS wearing a wetsuit before May no matter the context.  Simplistic extremes are not helpful and can turn off kayakers to paddler safety.  Something like Lake Superior should be paddled with protective gear AFTER May, whereas some shallow/slow creeks can be actually paddled with no protective gear in March IF you know the correct context.
  • Avoid paddling rivers/creeks at high water levels:  This is one of my most important but ignored pieces of advice.  Creeks/rivers transform dramatically at higher water levels.  With more water, the current is faster and has more force.  Rapids and strainers become much more difficult to dodge and can create dangerous pinning situations.  On the flip side, shallow rivers/streams tend to be remarkably safe.  NOAA and USGS provide real time river depth information throughout the state.
  • Know the forecasted wave height:  On open water, this is a big determinant of kayak safety.  Anything over a foot can be challenging for paddlers.  Often early morning paddles are best to avoid the worst waves. and NOAA do a decent job of providing wave forecasts for the Great Lakes.  NOAA also has a new inland lake waves forecast map that is helpful.  If you can’t find a forecast for waves, you can generally correlate wave height with forecasted wind speed and direction.
  • Pack a change of dry clothes and a towel in a dry bag:  This can be key to warming up after taking a spill.  Also consider packing a hand warmer which many outdoor shops supply.
  • Know the water temperature:  In Kayaking there is the “120° Rule” that says you should wear protective clothing if the air and water temperature together are less than 120°.  This might be a bit aggressive (paddling in 50° air temperature requires 70° water??), but is a good starting point for planning.  NOAA has a nice temperature map for big water.  There are not as many temperature gauges for rivers and creeks.  If you browse the USGS gauges from their main map you can find some temperature readings (like the Sugar River gauge near Verona).  If there is no gauge for your creek/river you can make some generalizations.  Shallower/faster/narrower creeks tend to warm up faster in spring relative to deeper/slower rivers/lakes.  Some small creeks in the southern part of the state will actually spike up to 60° in March whereas some up north big waters can remain in the mid 30’s.  Know your context!
  • Avoid hazards during cold weather: 
    • Avoid wooded paddles with logjams:  This is especially true in high water or where the current is fast.  The logjam itself can create a strainer in fast water and should be portaged from a safe distance.  Be careful when portaging as getting into/out of a kayak is when most paddlers take a swim.
    • Avoid rapids:  In fast water, it is easy to hit a rock, get turned sideways, take on water, and flip.  Most rivers with fun rapids are best done in the summer when it is warm out.
    • Avoid surf:  On big water, shallow areas can have rough waves when it’s windy out.  
    • Avoid fast current in general:  That’s where things can go wrong.
    • Dams:  These are dangerous in warm weather too, but should be treated with extra caution in cold weather.  Stay clear of the recirculating current at the base.
  • Group paddling:  All other things being equal it is safer to do a cold weather paddle in a group.  If you do a solo trip, you should take extra precautions and perhaps let others know of your plans.
  • Sponge:  Always pack a sponge.  These are lightweight, cheap and effective at removing water from a boat in case you take a spill.  The bone sponges are nice because you can stuff them under your seat which makes them very accessible for easily removing wave splashes from your cockpit.

How did your trip turn out? Questions or comments? Feel free to leave your feedback.

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