The Benefits of Winter Paddling – and Why I Prefer it

The weather has officially changed.

It’s been colder. For many in the PNW, that means an end to their paddling season, if not already ended.

Mornings are darker, with the sun rising later. Temperatures are colder. The rain has returned. Daylight savings time ended leaving us with shorter days.

I’ll admit it. The older I get, the harder it is for me to get out of a warm bed at 5 or 6 AM when it’s cold and dark. I don’t like ending a day on the water with a long drive home, again in the dark. But, I push through those thoughts.

Here’s why:

It was roughly an hour drive north to meet three friends at Flowing Lake… in the dark and fog. That was after getting my ass out of bed at 5:30 AM to grab a bite to eat, make my coffee, and hit the road. The temperature hovered just above freezing when I arrived. There was frost on the ground. The air was still and fog hung thick over the glass-like surface. The lake is all of two miles around, but it could have been endless. It was quiet and still. This is my equivalent of stopping to smell the roses.

Photo credit: Graton Gathright Kayaking 

The rewards of paddling in winter

There is beauty in nature

The Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful places I have lived and explored. I find it only gets better as the weather changes. That alone is enough to get me up and out on the water. 

While I spend most of the year looking for new waters to paddle to feed my adventure, the winter months allow me to paddle closer to home and in familiar places without the boredom I usually feel from traversing the same areas over and over again. 

The changing scenery – from the colors to the way the landscape is lit by the sun lower on the horizon – means every place I have paddled before takes on a new look and feel.

Less traffic both on and off the water

With the seasonal change, pleasure boats, personal watercraft – most watercraft for that matter – are safely stored or happily tucked into their slips for the winter. It’s one less concern when we head out into open water. The risk of collisions drops. Plus, it’s just quiet.

Off the water, there’s less traffic getting to launch points when we do travel. Parking is easier to find. Places like Don Armeni boat launch in West Seattle allow single vehicle parking from November to April, opening up new places to launch. Other locations suspend paid parking.

In Gig Harbor, access to the water is challenging. There are plenty of places to launch, but limited parking without potentially being in the way of traffic, a sidewalk, or a long carry – when you can find parking! No such issue the in the winter!

A slower pace

I find the group I kayak with tends to be less hurried as the weather changes from summer to fall. The trips we plan are more relaxed. There’s less rush to get on the water. Our cadence on the water changes. We move at a slower pace.

We’re taking advantage of the quiet late fall and winter provides and just ‘going with it’.

With trips less about getting somewhere and more about the paddle, there’s time to work on technique. These off-season paddles provide a chance to maintain and improve core skills. They’re a perfect opportunity to dial in strokes. There’s always time to work on balance exercises and recoveries…as well as roll practice.

Stepping up our game

When we’re not moving slower, we’re stepping up our game. 

For those with the skills, sea kayaking in the off-season provides new challenges and new adventures. As the seasons shift, rain isn’t the only weather pattern to change. Wind speeds tend to increase. Direction changes. Waters off Point Defiance, West Point Lighthouse, Deception Pass….become more challenging. 

Tidal patterns change. We’ll see higher daytime tidal heights during winter months. 

Winter months are the perfect opportunity to get in some adventure and play in bigger, more challenging conditions while working on more advanced skills. The off-season makes for invaluable practice conditions not as readily available the rest of the year

For those beginning their sea kayak journey, the off-season paddling offers an additional benefit….

For those considering getting on the water this winter….

Be prepared. 

For the most part, there is little change in my gear and outfitting for winter paddling, but there are some important ones.

While air temperatures dropped considerably during the winter months, Puget Sound water temperatures stay fairly consistent. The average coastal water temperature compiled by the US National Oceanographic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for Seattle is 51°F (10.5°C) with a range from 46°F in February and March, to a high of 56°F (13°C) from mid July until mid September. Even off Port Townsend, which has the coldest average temperature, it’s still 49°F (9.4°C).

Dress for immersion

Given these temperature ranges combined with the lower air temperatures I am in full immersion gear with several base layers. The goal is to be warm without overheating paddling while having enough thermal protection in the event of a capsize – once back in your cockpit, hypothermia can still set in.

What you wear is somewhat personal. It can take time to dial in what works. 

My choice of base layer has been 32 Degrees medium weight thermal base layer pants under a pair of winter running pants (mine are rated to 30°F / -1°C) and their medium weight top under a thin moisture-wicking log sleeve shirt for most of the season. In the coldest/rainiest/snowiest conditions, I’ll swap the lower thermal base layer for a pair of NRS’s Hydroskin pants (0.5). I’ll also add a thin neoprene vest – and no, neoprene under a drysuit isn’t ideal, but worn over my other layers, it does work well. The vest keeps my core warm with limiting mobility….an issue with most tops for me.

A good option for base layers in the winter is fleece or wool, but I got hooked on the 32 Degrees brand early on as they were inexpensive. I have stuck with them as they are warm, easily layered, and quite frankly….they work for me. (The bonus is they also work in warmer seasons and at the price point I can have multiple sets so my base layers are always dry – a big thing when paddling 3-4 days in a row.)

Head, shoulders, knees, and toes. 

Well, more like head, hands, torso, and toes:

Head – My Outdoor Research Seattle Sombrero is worn year-round. Being Gore-Tex, it’s ideally suited for all conditions keeping my head shaded and cool in the summer and dry and warm in the winter. I will add an NRS helmet liner under it for winter paddles – mostly to keep my ears covered. I find this to be a toasty warm combination even when rolling.

Torso – There’s more to consider than the drysuit and base layers. For breaks on shore, I do carry a beanie and regular gloves as well as my Kokatat Storm Cag. The biggest risk for hypothermia isn’t from conduction during the winter, it’s evaporation and convection. The cag is easily packed, can be put on quickly without the need to remove any gear, and it can be worn while paddling if needed. It’s a perfect solution.

Hands – Mitts and pogies are probably the best for warmth, but for me they having significant negatives:

  • Mitts make too many tasks more challenging. It’s hard putting on a skirt with thick gloves but it’s near impossible with mitts! They make it harder to grip perimeter lines during rescues and I have less control over my paddle – less fingertip control
  • Pogies leave my hands exposed in too many scenarios. I can wear thin gloves under them, but that is still a risk for me when out of the pogies. They also affect my ability to slide my hands along the paddle (Greenland stick for me).

I typically wear NRS Maverick and Maxim gloves, but neither is perfect – one too thin at 2 mm and the other doesn’t seal well at the cuff. Glacier Gloves are great, but I find they wear too fast, even with my light grip on the paddle. Level 6 Granite Gloves worked well last year but I am still experimenting.

Right now my glove choice is the Xcel TDC 3.0, and right now, these are an absolute winner!

Pro tip – I wear a thin nitrile glove under them to making getting them on and off easier (plus it keeps them from smelling bad!).

Toes – I typically wear a thin pair of socks from 32 Degrees under a pair of Merino wool hiking socks for most of the year. When the temps drop, especially when I will be standing in the water for some time, I add a pair of NRS HydroSkin 0.5 Wetsocks.

For shoes, I alternate between my Astral Hiyaks and my NRS Kinetic booties during warmer months but shift to the NRS Freestyle Wetshoe for winter. They hold out water better and the coverage over the ankle adds warmth. Since these are worn over the added layer of the wetsock, I go a size larger than normal to reduce the risk of diminished circulation (less blood flows means colder feet).

Beyond the clothing

The remainder of the extra ‘gear’ I carry for winter paddles includes:

  • Hot tea and hot water – tea to warm the insides and water to pour into gloves or booties (though unsweetened tea works well if you want to carry less).
  • Hot lunch for longer paddles
  • Hand warmer packets (always at least one in my PFD). There are more for emergencies if someone, me included gets too cold. 

When leading trips, I’ll add 

  • A compact stove kit, a pot, and a fire source. 
  • A bivy shelter/tarp/space blankets
  • Spare clothing – base layers can still get sweat-soaked and lead to chills so it’s worth carry a spare set. I also carry an extra helmet liner, gloves and a beanie for breaks on the beach, and spare paddling gloves.

I’ll rarely need to use many of these, but they are part of my winter paddling kit to handle hypothermia.

This is, of course, in addition to my full first-aid kit with me on all paddles.

Available coaching

For those beginning their sea kayak journey, the off-season offers an additional benefit.

There’s far less demand for my time…any coach’s time…in the off-season. This means greater flexibility in scheduling time to work with me. For those who prefer not to have an audience, fewer people on the water equates to a bit more privacy. 

So, what’s keeping you off the water this winter?

And how can I help get you paddling in the off-season?

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