Winter kayaking – Things We Need to Consider To Stay Safe

Doug Williams
Kayakers off the coast of Raspberry Island (Alaska). Photo credit - Nancy Heise
Kayakers off the coast of Raspberry Island (Alaska). Photo credit - Nancy Heise

Kayaking in a frozen landscape can be exhilarating. The air is clear, the sky on a sunny day is magnificent, and you can see some beautiful ice formations and ice caves.

However, in order to kayak, the air temperature must remain above 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Even open, flowing water will begin to freeze below that and can make kayaking difficult and unpleasant. There are a number of things you need to consider if you want to take to the water in the icy months.

  • How to dress

When dressing, consider the ways your body loses heat. Your body will lose heat not only to the air, but to the water, as well as travelling through the hull of the kayak. Also, you lose heat through the perspiration generated by the activity.

Consider too that you may have a mishap and become immersed in icy water. Without protection, you have between 10 and 20 minutes to get back in your kayak before you experience cold shock. Cold shock manifests itself in hyperventilation. During cold shock, there is a high chance you may swallow water and drown.

To stay safe, dress appropriately in an insulated drysuit, a life vest, neoprene hood, gloves, socks, and boots. Heel pads and a seat pad will provide comfort and minimize heat loss through the kayak. Bring an emergency kit as well: extra clothing, hot drinks, first aid equipment, and something to start a fire.

  • Things to watch

There are a number of things that are important to observe while kayaking in cold conditions. Deck ice can quickly build up from water sprayed on board by your paddle.

Your bungee cords can freeze, rendering them fragile, and solid objects like a bilge pump can freeze to the kayak and make you become immobile. Consider using traditional Greenland decklines and sliders.

Similarly, your sprayskirt and grab handle may become frozen to the kayak. Continually break the ice off these items.

Pack ice will move with the wind as well as with the current, so beware of both. If ice blocks access open water, you will find it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid breaching.

Be ready for an icy landfall. The shoreline is often covered by deep ice shelves.

Know the signs of hypothermia and react immediately once you recognize them in yourself and your partners. Besides the physical symptoms, such as shivering, there are also mental symptoms like confusion and disorientation.

Know your strengths and limitations. Be prepared and be skilled. Know the conditions you will paddle in. Have a well thought out plan and be prepared for the worst. Winter kayaking can be fun and thrilling, but you can also die if you don’t know what you’re doing.


fmssolution is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival