Kayaking in Winter: 9 Tips for Staying Warm and Safe

kayaking in winter

Already longing for summer so you can enjoy a good weekend paddle? Don’t hold yourself back, girl—kayaking in the winter can be just as magical! With a little preparation and the right gear, you can kayak safely and enjoy a warm winter paddle—free iceberg selfies included. 

Best Spots for Winter Kayaking

Winter kayaking requires solid preparation to stay warm and dry, but these destinations make it allll worth it! With amazing snowy views, crystal-clear waters, glaciers and icebergs and more, bookmark these for your winter bucket list and you can say goodbye to the winter blues.

winter kayaking in patagonia
  • Alaska. In Alaska, “winter” kayaking takes on a whole new meaning, since you can kayak among icebergs almost year-round. If you don’t want to venture out in the dead of winter to get incredible views, Alaska is the perfect place. 
  • Norway. The weather outside may be frightful, but the crystal-clear icy waters and snow-capped fjords are SO delightful! You can even kayak with a guide under a blanket of stars in the night sky. Norway offers calm kayaking for both ocean or inland paddles, so it’s great for beginners.
  • Lake Superior, Michigan. A totally underrated destination that’s a lot closer to home for many of us! Giant sea ice to paddle through and coastal ice caves make for an otherworldly experience.
  • Iceland. Does “kayaking through icebergs in a glacial lake” sound like something that needs to be on your bucket list? Add Iceland to your list, then, because that’s what you’ll find with winter paddles there!
  • Patagonia. You won’t believe your eyes paddling in glacial rivers and lakes at the base of some of Patagonia’s most glorious peaks. Patagonia’s snow-capped peaks and winter paddle views are unparalleled.
  • British Columbia, Canada. The dreamy winter paddles in BC are definitely off the beaten path—in fact, the “path” only comes around certain times of year! In the spring, winter snow and ice start to soften and melt, creating runoff rivers and glacial lakes you can kayak through. 
join us on a hut to hut trek in patagonia

How To Dress For Kayaking In Cold Weather

Dressing well is essential for safe winter paddles. The most important thing to keep in mind? Dress for immersion! 

Even if you’re a strong kayaker, an unexpected wave or a loose iceberg can easily tip you off balance and land you in the water. In warm water, this is often inconvenient but refreshing; but in freezing water or winter weather, this can be dangerous.

Here’s a few tips to remember to stay warm and dry when kayaking in cold weather. 

Dress in layers. 

Wearing multiple layers is the BEST way to keep your body warm in the winter, no matter your activity. Without the appropriate layers, you can get wet and cold easily from all kinds of things: sweat against your skin, spray from the water, rain or wind, or just the cold air. 

When kayaking in cold weather, you should have at least three layers: a base layer, an insulating layer, and an outer layer.

Explorer Chick's enjoying the view at Aonikenk Trail Lookout, Patagonia
Explorer Chick’s enjoying the view at Aonikenk Trail Lookout, Patagonia

Your base layer should keep your skin nice and dry, so any moisture-wicking fabric, such as nylon or polyester are good. Merino wool is also an excellent choice: it’s warm and natural, like wool, without the itchiness. A wetsuit can also serve as a base layer (and an insulating layer, if it’s not too cold—double-duty!).

For your insulating layer, warm clothing is key. Thick fleeces, wools and other insulating jackets and pants are perfect for maintaining your body temperature.

Your outer layer protects you from the elements and keeps you dry. If you’re wearing a dry suit, that will form your outer layer. Otherwise, cover up with a wind- and waterproof outer layer, like this paddling jacket.

Get a dry suit or wetsuit. 

Speaking of wetsuits and dry suits, they’re a must for cold-water paddling. After all, if you accidentally fall in, you need to be protected both in the water and after you get back in your boat, now soaking wet. Dry suits and wetsuits both help keep you warm, but they work in different ways. 

Dry suits work as an outer layer, with special seals around the neck, arm and leg openings to ensure no water gets in. It’s kind of like a space suit, but for the water! While they are pretty expensive, they keep you protected and dry even if you have to do a wet exit, and have lots of room for extra layers underneath.

Our favorite paddling dry suits for women: the NRS Axiom Drysuit or the Kokatat Hydrus 3L

Wetsuits work as a warm base layer, trapping a thin layer of water against your skin under a barrier of warm neoprene, keeping you warm by warming that thin layer of water. Wetsuits are a lot cheaper than drysuits, but they’re only protective down to a certain water temperature (depending on thickness).

Our favorite paddling wetsuits for women: this sleeveless “Farmer Jane” option for warmer days and maximum mobility, or this 5/4mm hooded option for colder paddles. 

Keep your extremities—head, hands and feet—warm. 

Since your body loses a lot of heat from your extremities—your head, hands and feet—it’s important to keep them warm in winter months! Here’s what we recommend for keeping all your fingers and toes nice and toasty during your winter paddling: 

  • For your head: A good hat—whether it’s a wool beanie, a neoprene hood or a balaclava, the key is something that has a bit of insulation, stays on your head tightly, and will keep your head warm even if wet. 
  • For your hands: When you’re paddling, it’s easy for your hands to get frostnip from the wind, spray and cold air temperature. As a result, you really need to have either gloves—we like these Hydroskins—or “pogies,” a mitt that goes over your hands and your paddle. 
  • For your shoes: Don’t get cold feet! Water shoes or neoprene booties are both good options, depending on the weather. If you’re wearing a drysuit, wear your boots over the drysuit booties (if it has them) to protect your drysuit from getting torn. A spray skirt like this one can also help protect your feet and lower body from cold.

Avoid cotton.

This is so important that it deserves its own tip: avoid cotton at all costs for your wintery paddles.

Cotton is a lightweight fabric that doesn’t provide much warmth, and it retains water when wet. You can do the math: non-insulating + heat-draining when wet = higher risks of hypothermia. 

This is especially important for any layers touching your skin—and that includes your skivvies! 

PRO-TIP: merino wool undies are super soft, comfortable, and moisture-wicking, which means less sweat year-round. 

winter kayaking in patagonia

Winter Kayaking Safety Tips For Beginners

Good preparation starts with knowing how to dress, but it doesn’t end there! To ensure you get a magical winter kayaking paddle, take note of these safety tips for beginners before you go. 

Always wear a PFD. 

Your PFD (personal flotation device) is a MUST anytime you’re on the water, but especially in the winter. A life jacket helps prevent drownings from the gasp reflex (that involuntary gasp you do when you get into cold water) and can help keep your head above water in case you need to swim to shore or be rescued. 

Strong swimmers take note: when you’re in cold water, it can take as little as 10 minutes for your muscles to cramp up and provide diminished movement and control, so a life jacket is essential for you too! Buying a PFD designed for women can make it more comfortable to wear for all-day paddles. 

Eat up and bring plenty of snacks! 

Fun fact: your metabolism actually speeds up when you’re outside in colder temperatures, because your body needs more calories to generate heat to keep you warm. As a result, it’s essential to eat plenty of food (don’t have to tell us twice!) both before and during your adventure. Bringing along hot drinks in a thermos—tea, hot chocolate, or even soup or broth—is another great way to stay warm and keep your energy levels up. 

snack break while kayaking in winter in patagonia

Bring a friend, phone a friend. 

The golden rule of paddling in colder months: never go at it alone. Bring at least one friend with you, and tell at least one friend (who’s not with you) where you’re going and when you expect to be back. In the winter, having a buddy can help assist with self rescue—allowing you to get back into your kayak quickly if you capsize—and help assess plans. 

Carry an emergency kit. 

A simple dry bag attached to your kayak and stocked with some safety gear can make all the difference in a less-than-ideal situation. Your emergency kit might include things like: 

  • additional layers and wool socks, in case temperatures are colder than expected, or dry clothes for changing into after paddling
  • hand and foot warmers
  • your phone or a GPS device
  • a map and compass
  • a bilge pump
  • repair tape 
  • an emergency whistle 
  • a first-aid kit

Always double-check the weather!

Winter weather conditions can change in a flash. Ensure you’re adequately prepared for whatever the weather forecasts call for, and don’t venture out if there’s a chance of fog or storms.

Check the weather reports consistently before your trip, and keep in mind you’ll have less daylight than in summer months, so plan ahead!

Make sure you and your kayaking buddy have a backup plan in place too if the weather turns and you need to return to shore quickly. Many experienced winter kayakers say they tend to plan routes with lots of shoreline and avoid going too far from land in winter for this reason.

Kayaking, According to Explorer Chicks

Even these cold temperatures can’t slow down Explorer Chicks! You can find tons of winter kayaking tips and advice from other adventure-loving women in our Explorer Chick Facebook group. From advice on how to load a kayak onto your car when you’re flying solo to finding co-adventurers to take on a winter kayaking trip with you, our online community has your back.

“Wait what? There’s actually a trip somewhere close to me?!?!” one Explorer Chick asked. Yes, there are! Explorer Chicks chimed in to share Meetup trips they’re joining—join one near you for a taste of the Explorer Chick life.  

Ready to Get Kayaking?

A winter kayaking adventure with Explorer Chick is the perfect way to warm up your winter kayak skills, with expert guides and new friends there to help you each step of the way—and obsess over the amazing views with you, of course. 

Join an Explorer Chick meetup for winter paddling close to home, or take on a big adventure in places like Patagonia or Alaska!

join us for an adventure tour in alaska
Rachel Bicha

About The Author | Rachel Bicha 

Rachel is a hiker, traveler, writer and adventurer. Whether she’s home in New England or halfway across the world, she’s probably just looking for her next mountain to climb. If she’s not traveling or hiking, you can probably find her sketching, taking long walks around town, reading on the porch or perfecting a new recipe. 

Favorite outdoor adventure: solo-hiking through the Dolomites in Italy!

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