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. A recent paddle is an example of 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 off-season paddling
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.
I don’t have to travel as far to paddle.
This means less driving to and from launch sites. It saves gas and time. Winter paddling is logistically easier.
And those closer paddle locations mean I can still have a great day on the water and be home before dark.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Dress for immersion
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)
Given these temperature ranges, except on the warmest days during the summer, and in conditions well below my skill set, I am in full immersion gear. The only real change I make for off-season paddling is adding an additional base layer or two under my drysuit to handle colder air temperatures.
My choice of base layer has been 32 Degrees medium weight base layer pants under a pair of winter running pants (mine are rated to 30°F / -1°C) and their medium weight top. I got hooked on the brand early on as they were inexpensive. I have stuck with them as they are warm, easily layered, and quite frankly….they work. And the price makes them a no-brainer. On long paddles, I do carry an extra set of base layers in a dry bag….just in case.
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.
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. 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.
Hands – My glove of preference these days is Level Six’s Granite Gloves. I still love my NRS gear, but I needed to make a change due to supply chain issues. At 3mm these are toasty warm (my hands get cold fast) and flexible.
Toes – There isn’t much change here for me. Like my hands, my feet get cold. Since I’m standing in the water for up to an hour at time while coaching, there is a pair of socks, again from 32 Degrees under a pair of Merino wool hiking socks. For shoes, I alternate between my Astral Hiyak shoes and my NRS Kinetic booties.
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
- My MSR Pocket Rocket 2, a pot, and a fire source.
- A bivy shelter
- A tarp
I’ll rarely need to use them, but they are part of my winter paddling kit to handle hypothermia. And the last two items – they’re part of my first aid/emergency kit and honestly carried on every all-day paddle as hypothermia can occur regardless of air temperatures.