Winter paddling can feel like a chore, stress, or a mental barrier with colder weather and chilly water. Flipping this on its head it is generally when our rivers carry more water and flow making them exciting and challenging. It’s all a balance of enjoying the Autumn and Winter Paddling whilst remaining safe, warm, and paddling within your abilities.

For many paddlers, we look forward to winter to ensure more challenging conditions and rivers at higher levels. As global warming has become a reality we seem to be witnessing much dryer conditions followed by bigger storms, heavy rain and more cats and dogs type weather! This article is aimed to provide some simple tips and ‘paddling hacks’ to make it easier.

Clothing and layers

The old adage from my expeditions ( is there is no such thing as cold weather just the wrong clothing! That said there are different options depending on the activity, conditions, and you / your paddling crew.

Dry suits – dry suits are expensive but they are a game changer, Check your zips to avoid the school boy/girl error. Layer up underneath to suit your personal heat needs. Be aware if you are working hard you may sweat inside and get cold and dry suits can feel a little bit bulky especially if you haven’t ‘burped’ them (removed / squeezed the air out).

Waterproofs, layers, and thermals – Waterproofs, layers, and thermals are an option versus dry suits, and pros and cons include generally cheaper, more versatile in terms of opting to wear trousers not top and vice versa. If you are working hard, paddling hard and it is not raining it also offers less chance to overheating, sweating and getting cold.

Thermals and rash vests – a different option but less helpful if is it truly windy and cold. I often wear shorts and warm thermal layers. Today I was out paddling around at Falkirk in shorts, crocs etc but certainly didn’t plan to be immersed.

Wetsuits – Wetsuits offer a different option again with your body temperature warming the water layer next to your skin. Personally, I try to avoid thicker wetsuits after a lifetime of windsurfing and watersports

Wear Your BA / PFD

Buoyancy aids / personal floatation devices are essential kit. There are no occasions I can think of on the water where I don’t wear a BA. In winter it gives you floatation to reduce the risk of cold water shock / panic . At least you are floating whilst getting your breath back.

Back up options

It is important to consider your paddling plan and ‘what if’ questions if things don’t got according to plan. An example of this was training for the Devizes to Westminster 125 race and aiming for a 4 hour session. Somehow, the only time we did, we swamped our super wobbly racing canoe about 30 mins in to the session in November. Our options to cancel or keep going. We paddled ourselves warm and completed the session.

Back up options include a DS (deep Sh*t bag) and ditch kit with spare clothes. This may also include an emergency blanket, survival bag, spare hat and warm fleece as examples. We have used these with groups on many occasions when people have taken an unplanned swim or felt cold.  A group shelter is a versatile bit of kit to allow people to get out of the wind and rain or for changing after an accidental dip.

We have also ensured our DS bag as a range of spares to cover basic repairs on the river bank. My Leatherman has saved the day (and night) on many occasions repairing rudders and seats in kayaks, gaffer tape has also repaired plenty of problems as well as carrying cable ties, glues etc. A decent first aid kit with paddling related extras is also an essential item in the DS kit.  You can read more of our top tips on your padding first aid kit in our blog.

Manage your body temperature

It is important in winter or cooler conditions to manage your body temperature. If you get cold it is hard to raise your core temperature and in addition you will burn energy levels. The extreme example of this is hyperthermia, as a simple rule if you can keep moving you should be ok.

Ways to maintain your body temperature include wearing a hat and protecting your heat loss from your head. Equally if you do over heat you run the risk of sweating and cooling down. Managing your layers and activity pace and exertion is critical to this.

In particular avoiding fall in or reducing your session time can make a huge difference to the activity and your enjoyment.

Manage Your Energy Levels

Staying fed and watered with good energy levels is a key factor in winter paddling. Your bodies are working much harder to stay warm and consequently your calorie burn rate is higher.  Make sure you bring snacks, malt loaf and food to maintain your energy levels. It goes without saying to avoid any form of energy drink as they lift your energy and then let it drop.

Try and ensure you have some hot drinks, tea, hot juice or similar in a flask. Bring a small stove to heat up food, noodles or similar.  Planning a trip with regular pit stops for a warm cup of tea is a great way to warm up, just make sure you don’t stand around too long.  Carry a group shelter to stay warm in cold winds and drizzle.

Be aware of wind chill

Wind chill can be a real factor in the onset of hyperthermia and cold water immersion. Layers, hats and windproof outer layers can prevent shivering, getting cold and hyperthermia.

Taking Care of your extremities

Fingers, toes and other extremities can be rally painful in colder conditions. In general in UK waters we are a long way from frostbite but chill blains are a reality.

Consider the options between gloves, mitts and pogies for your hands. (Pogies can be long or short and provide a loose gauntlet around the paddle and work well for kayaking in particular. Thicker gloves can lead to cramp in your forearms. Simple mitts with an open palm can be more flexible for SUP and Canoe paddling. In the old days, we did also style it out with marigolds in rapids as snow coated the banks.

Make a plan

Plan your paddling trip or session allowing for the worst to happen including capsizing (spare clothes, dry suit etc), broken equipment (spares and repairs) and making contact with help if you need it (charged mobile phone and plan).

In your planning complete a dynamic risk assessment covering:

People – their experience, who’s leading, current rescue skills, rolling ?, self rescue,

Craft and Equipment – Are you selecting the right craft and equipment for the conditions and people. For example spraydecks, deck pumps, stable SUP’s, dry suits ? Adapt your plan to avoid issues

Conditions – What’s the conditions on the water such as onshore / off shore , wind strength, flow on the river, trees and hazards – check it out

Check your plan and where possible agree it with the team. Check weather and flow including

  • Windfinder Pro - great source of wind direction and speed
  • Tide App – check the tides and ensure the plan makes sense if tidal
  • River App – check flows and local hazards
  • UK river Guide Book – check for hazards or issues
  • Ask a local – get local advice where possible e.g. rip tides
  • Magic seaweed and cameras – have a look at conditions

Top Tip: avoid weirs and man made hazards in winter and flood conditions. If you are not sure what you are looking at then you shouldn’t be there

Weirs and bridges and rapids can create difficult white water for paddlers including weirs and stoppers which can be fatal. A stopper is a recirculating flow of water that will trap and keep a paddler struck in the weir. Big weirs and stoppers can have a tow back of several metres which are fatal in flood or higher flood conditions. Bigger flows can also create other hazards such as bridges with pinning risk, syphons (syphons is where the flow passes under an obstacle such as rock) and undercuts(an undercut is where the white water erodes the bank creating a risk of the craft being dragged under). Strainers are where a tree in the water or hazard in high flows allows the water to pass but would pin or hold the kayak , canoe and paddler.

Once you have developed the skills then bigger flows and faster white water is the mecca of many paddlers for playing and testing paddling skills. Get lessons and learn with an experienced coach or leader to reduce the learning curve and risk.

Go Big and Do Go Home

Don’t be afraid to change your plans and go home if conditions seem a little overwhelming. Remember the lights on the dashboard, 2 -3 red lights may include reasons such as;

  • People in the group feeling unwell, tired or unconfident
  • Kit – broken or wrong kit for the conditions
  • Conditions, cold, strong winds, off shore, rip or spring tides

Night Paddling

Don’t forget winter paddling means shorter daylight hours. Make sure you have torches and lights to be seen and also ensure you can see if paddling at night or in the dark is a possibility.


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