From the Shop: Winter paddling tips and/or Holiday gift guide.
I consider myself somewhat of an expert on cold weather paddling. I’ve paddled year round- at least once every month- for the past 19 years. Living in New Hampshire and paddling in the winter might seem like things that don’t go together. Our coldest day on the water last winter was 3 degrees. But it’s taught me a few things about staying warm and happy on the water. As winter is setting in, I figured I’d share a few tips, and favorite pieces of gear that might make it on your holiday wishlist.
The first thing to think about when it comes to winter paddling is to step back a bit. Short, brutally cold days aren’t the best time to step up or push your limits on long wilderness runs. I like to think of these days as days to build skills so when the weather warms and the sun sets later, you’re ready to step up with control and confidence. I like to do shorter, easier runs, and push myself harder. Catch every eddy, surf every wave, as the saying goes. Paddling harder also keeps you warmer. Find moves you can’t quite make, and work them until you can. Running laps on shorter stretches not only lets you warm up between runs, but also lets you stop when you’ve had enough of the cold.
Of course, winter paddling isn’t fun (or safe) without the proper gear. Fortunately, there’s a lot of great gear out there, and I figured I’d share a few pieces that I’ve found work well for me.
If there’s one piece of gear that makes winter paddling enjoyable, it’s a good drysuit. I’ve been wearing a Gore-tex Kokatat drysuit for the past 12 years (actually, two of them, but the older is still in great shape after a few tuneups). They’re the gold standard in drysuits, and you pay for it. I can’t really recommend anything else, because I haven’t had cause to try anything else.
Union Suit (~$150)
A few years ago, I was listening to Car Talk, and they suggested “If you don’t know what to get a man as a gift, get him a cordless drill.” You can never have too many cordless drills. I feel like union suits are like this for the paddler who has everything. (I wear a medium, in case you need to know). I’ve been know to not take mine off for several days at a time on paddling trips because they’re so warm and comfy. (I see Kokatat has a new version with a waist zipper that would…uh…solve the only problem I’ve encountered with not taking it off for several days). I’ve also always been impressed with the zipperless design from Immersion Research.
Mittens (vs Gloves vs Pogies) (~$50)
This seems to be the perennial debate of cold weather paddling. What to wear on your hands that will keep them warm but also allow enough dexterity to grip the paddle. First, we’re going to just cross gloves off the list. They’re neither all that warm, nor do they allow a good grip on the paddle. Pogies allow for the best grip on the paddle, and if you keep your hands out of the water, they’re nice and toasty. But if you stick you hand in the water while paddling, they don’t help much (not much of an issue for canoeists, but if you’re play boating in cold water, it happens). They also only keep your hands warm when you’re holding the paddle, and if you’re a hand-switcher like myself, they make it tough to do that. I’ve found that neoprene mittens work the best, and my choice are the NRS Toaster Mitts. Because your fingers are all together, they’re much warmer than gloves and give a better grip on the paddle. They keep my hands warm on and off the water, and I still have enough dexterity that I can do thing like tie knots and clip carabiners if I need to in a rescue situation. In really frigid weather, I’ll add a pogie over the mitten on my shaft hand- I find the top hand still stays warm enough with just the mitt.
Thin Neoprene Socks ($29.95)
If you own a drysuit, you should own a pair (or two) of these really great, very thin Neoprene socks from NRS. (If you need a stocking stuffer for the paddler on your Christmas list, these would be great for a stocking stuffer, because who doesn’t like getting socks?) They do add a marginal amount of warmth for your lil’ piggies, but more importantly, they protect those fancy dry socks sewn in to the drysuit that you paid a lot of money for. It’s cheap insurance against having sand ground into the feet of the drysuit. I find that I always end up with sand in my shoes. And when you do inevitably get pinholes in the drysocks, it’ll help slow the rate of leakage.
Neoprene Hood ($34.95)
If I’m going to cram something between my brain bucket and my massive melon, I want to something warm, especially when the water is cold enough getting splashed feels like getting slapped in the face. Those stretchy fuzzy rubber skull caps don’t cut it for me. I want a nice, thick neoprene hood. For years now, I’ve been using hoods I’ve made out of old spray skirts, and they work great, but my most recent one is giving up the ghost, and the closest thing I’ve found commercially availible is the Storm Cap from NRS. I’ve been really impressed with the quality of all of the neoprene gear I’ve gotten from NRS recently, so I’m going to give it a try.
Blackfly Condor ($1850)
I can’t do a gear guide without including my own boat! I really like the Condor for winter paddling because it’s so dry, and it’s so much fun to crush every eddy on the river, I find myself working up a sweat paddling it. Then again, I enjoy those things in warmer weather too.
I know everyone is different and some things might not work for everyone, but these are just a few items I’ve found to work well for me. Winter paddling is one of those things that can be tough to get motivated for, but I’ve always found it to be very enjoyable and rewarding once I get geared up for it (I often get geared up before leaving the house). But let’s hope for an early spring.