When Is It Too Cold to Kayak?

kayaking in winter

When is it too cold to kayak? The short answer: When the water is frozen solid! For example, here in Wisconsin at AquaBound headquarters we’re not kayaking in February because our lakes have a foot of ice on them.

The long answer is more involved, though—it’s about your safety.

Your Safety Has to Come First

Kayaking is one of the safest activities around, especially on flat water, mild currents and in good weather.

But anytime you’re around water there’s some risk. Wearing a PFD (personal flotation device, or life jacket) almost guarantees safety even in a capsize…unless the temperature of the water is dangerously cold.

Dangerously cold can actually mean different things for different people. Someone who’s used to swimming in cold water and is physically fit will be able to tolerate immersion in colder water better than someone who’s not (source).

But you say, “I’m kayaking—not swimming! I won’t be in the water.” That’s very likely…but are you willing you bet your life on it? Can you guarantee you won’t run into some kind of emergency?

kayak in the snow

When Is Cold Water Too Cold?

The National Center for Cold Water Safety recommends treating any water below 70 F/21 C with caution. Water temps below 60 F/15 C can be immediately life threatening due to “cold shock”—you lose breathing control, your heart and blood pressure are affected, and your ability to think clearly is impaired.

Kayakers are able to kayak in dangerously cold water—in very cold weather—when they’re dressed for it.

Dress for the Water Temperature with Cold Weather Gear

AquaBound ProStaffer William McCluskey is an expert at kayaking in very cold weather. He lives in Norway and kayaks on the sea and in the fjords there all winter long.

William wrote a blog post for us a couple years ago, The Beauty of Winter Kayaking. Here are some of the tips he suggests for cold weather kayaking:

  • Wear thin wool and/or fleece layers on both your upper and lower body under a drysuit. Your own body temperature will partly determine how you layer. (If your climate is warmer than the coast of Norway in the winter but still has cold water temperatures, a wetsuit may be enough for you.)
  • Wool socks and waterproof, insulated paddling boots will keep your feet warm. William likes a wool hat for his head.
  • Neoprene gloves work well to a point. For serious cold, William likes Pogies with a light wool gloves underneath.
  • Windproof outer layers.

william mccluskey kayaking in winter

Other Safety Tips for Cold Weather Paddling

William offers more suggestions for cold weather kayaking beyond what to wear:

  • Keep a dry bag onboard with at least one complete change of dry clothes and other emergency items—fire starter and lighter, mylar blanket, etc. Some of this will depend whether you’d be able to get help quickly if you need it, or if you’re paddling on secluded waters.
  • Be sure and eat well before you head out and drink plenty of water. Your body needs the extra fuel and hydration in cold weather.
  • Have a “get-out” plan in case the weather turns on you. You may also consider sticking closer to shore than you normally would in case of a capsize.
  • William practiced rolling in very cold water. “A roll is much better than coming out of your kayak in extreme conditions, even for the shortest of times.”

So, when is it too cold to kayak? When you don’t have the right gear to keep you safe in the water temperature.

kayaking at sunrise

William wrote an article on winter paddling for his own website, too. Click here to read it and see more of his beautiful photos of winter kayaking. You can also visit him on Instagram.

(All photos courtesy of William McCluskey)

What paddle questions can we help you with? Contact our friendly Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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