The Beauty of Winter Kayaking

Aqua Bound ProStaffer William McCluskey has graciously offered us his best advice on kayaking in the winter to take full advantage of this wonderful season. The remainder of this post was written by William:

Winter Kayaking is an Extreme Sport

The first thing I would say to people about winter kayaking is that it’s an extreme sport—even in the most serene places. It’s for experienced kayakers, or at least in a group with others who have experience.

I paddle solo, and wouldn’t encourage that either! Even with over 40 years of paddling experience behind me, I’m still learning.

But the thrill, the challenge of paddling in extreme cold draws me to places others wouldn’t dream of! I paddle all year around, and mostly alone. Whether in storms, surf, rock-hopping or marathon paddling—kayaking fills my life.

Here in Norway a winter can last several months. Months I can’t sit indoors and wait for the ice to melt or snow to disappear!

The Beauty of Winter Kayaking

In winter the air is different. The scenery speaks for itself. Wildlife sightings may be less common, but still a joy in winter months.

The light is different in winter. From a photography point of view, it’s almost like filming in black and white—what’s called the “blue hour” in countries with very short days like Norway. The slow-moving and glass-like inland waters are a joy to paddle on. With the still winter air and the right conditions, it’s like entering a different world.

Boat traffic is less of a problem in the winter, although an eye must always be kept on the lookout. One winter I was almost run over by a speedboat! It missed the back of my kayak by only about two metres.

One of the biggest bonuses about winter paddling is: no insects! Not one of the tiny flesh-eating gnats, as opposed to thousands found on many coastal areas here in Norway—and also in my Scottish homeland—during the summers.

beauty of winter kayaking
The beauty of winter kayaking!

Winter Kayaking: Your Health and Your Safety

There are many things to take into account while winter paddling.

Your health is the first to be considered, and I would advise a check-up, if in doubt. Asthmatics, for example, tolerate cold less than others. Cold, cold shock, hypothermia, frostbite…all can take lives.

Cold shock is one of the most common causes of drowning, and must be considered. Training in cold water can help avoid this to an extent.

Rolling practice is essential. I practice rolling in waters around freezing, without gloves or a neoprene hood. This conditions my body for the worst, should it happen. A roll is much better than coming out of your kayak in extreme conditions, even for the shortest of times.

I’ve paddled at temperatures below -20º C (-4º F) in comfort, with no wind. Another time I paddled in the same air temperature with only a slight wind. My hands got wet while operating my camera and I lost feeling in them within a minute. The result was mild frostbite. It happened so fast I didn’t feel a thing until I tried to switch off the camera.

On that particular day fate may have played a role, too. Within ten minutes of coming back to land, the tide came in fast with large sheets of thick, broken ice. I could easily have been trapped if I had been on the water longer.

So tide and ice movements are something to take into consideration. Remember, you can predict tide movements but not ice movements.

In the video above there are four short clips. In the last clip, if you look closely, you can see I’m paddling a little bit faster and through thin ice. That ice wasn’t there on the outward journey, but began to form as the day went on and as the temperatures dropped.

A get-out plan must be high on your priority list. There I was close to the bank, but I had been caught longer out on a fjord where slush started to form and then thicken. I was at least two kilometres from my get-in point. The closest I could get to land in this steep-sided fjord was still 1 km ahead. Again, luck was on my side. As the wind picked up, so did the waves, dispersing the forming ice in an instant.

winter kayaking
“I had been caught longer out on a fjord where slush started to form and then thicken.”

Winter Kayaking: Your Clothing

Clothing is of utmost importance when you kayak in the winter.

I used to wear neoprene with windproof Dry Cags (a paddling jacket) for many years, and always suffered from cold, especially if I was only slightly wet. Coming to land, it was a battle to get into dry clothes as fast as possible.

After paddling for over forty years, I decided to invest in a drysuit before a winter trip in northern Norway. I will never use neoprene wetsuits in winter again! A drysuit with the correct underlayers is essential for winter paddling.

For my upper body, I like to use two thin merino wool layers, then at least one fleece jumper. On my lower body, I use one layer of wool, one of acrylic with wicking ability, and then a fleece layer. Two pair of wool socks go on my feet. This is my personal preference and it works for me.

Too much and you sweat, which isn’t good either. Better to start with too many layers and take off if you’re too warm, than to start with too little.

On long journeys I also use a thermal compression layer. Compression clothing helps increase blood circulation, which is important when you’re sitting in a kayak for hours at a time.

Latex seals harden and are easily ruined at temperatures below -10º C (14º F). Neoprene seals on my dry suit are more comfortable, and a neck scarf between my throat and the seal is very warm and comfortable.

The right gloves is a difficult one. I find neoprene gloves freeze when wet and lose their insulating properties. I also like to have my hands directly on the paddle shaft. Pogies are my personal choice. Keep at least one wool pair of gloves close by, too. I advise oversize mitts, as cold fingers are hard to fit into ordinary gloves.

A wool hat is very comfortable. A helmet is also very comfortable, but not once it’s wet.

The Extras to Bring Along

I carry two sets of vacuum-packed clothes in my kayak, a warm jacket, extra shoes and the usual emergency supplies carried on any tour.

I bring at least one thermos with a hot drink, and another thermos with hot water—that’s good for instantly warming your fingers. This I have found at very low temperatures can give more problems than help. The warm effect is instant but the moisture quickly freezes and from experience I had a lot of difficulty getting them warm again. Keeping your hands dry is essential. I found it much better to pull a thick pair of wool socks (freshly washed) over your hands rather than trying to get gloves on in a hurry.

If I intend coming to land, I’ll carry a dry bag with birch wood and firelighters. Cold creams on your face is also a good idea—you don’t want to come home with a nose that would make Rudolf the reindeer jealous!

There’s a lot to consider before getting into winter paddling, but it’s well worth the effort!

All photos and video courtesy of William McCluskey. Head on over to William’s Instagram page to see more of his kayaking photos.

winter kayaking

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