Paddling in cold weather

I used to live in Calgary Alberta where winter temperatures can drop as low as -40ºC and everything freezes. For the most part we would train in 0 to -15º quite frequently from October to March every year.

Readers will be happy to hear that the therapy has been successful and I haven’t done this in years since I moved to Vancouver’s more temperate climes (rarely below 5º C and water rarely colder that 10ºC at 1 m, surface temperature changes as a function of wind and air temperature.

Back to cold weather gear…

Believe it or not, there were a few of us who (willingly) choose to practice a paddle sport in the extreme cold of Calgary and Quebec. Admittedly it was not surfski, the boat was a five person canoe (the sport is ice canoe) and when the water was open you would paddle, when blocked by ice you would pull the canoe on the ice and, depending on the surface either push or pull the canoe to the next lead of open water.

If any of you are curious, surf over to for a look. It is in French, but “entrée” is enter and “album photo” is easy.

If anyone is curious I can post a little more on ice canoe later.

Clothing wise, we avoided neoprene everywhere except our feet as we overheated when working hard and froze when taking it easy. As long as you can balance the heat loss with the heat production inside the neoprene you are fine, otherwise it can be miserable. Especially miserable if you’ve just sweated up a storm and then have to stop for a polar bear or wolf to cross the ice (just kidding).

On our bodies we dressed like a cross-country ski racer, layering of polypropylene and windproof. Always hats as you can loose up to 50% of your body heat through your head despite how much hair you might have. Don’t just throw on your summer paddling cap, get an insulated hat of wool or polypropylene.

Before I forget, avoid cotton fabric in the winter. They offer no insulation at all and actually conduct heat from your body when wet. Cotton and winter sports equals hypothermia, and if you are in your ski in open water probably death.

Your PFD is also an excellent insulator and will keep you much warmer than without one. To be honest, when it gets cold I enjoy wearing my PFD because it can be so toasty warm!

On feet, we would use a very thin polypropylene or very thin wool sock (my mum’s Christmas gift of nice lamb’s wool dress socks one year), then a neoprene sock (2-3 mm) and finally a neoprene boot (3-5 mm, side zipper to anywhere from just over ankle height to 1/3 calf). One thing we swore by, through experience, was always take the time to warm the water in your neoprene before going out. There was nothing more enjoyable than watching the newbies dunk their feet through a hole in the ice to get them wet as dry neoprene is no where near as warm as neoprene with a little water in it when the air temperature is below freezing.

On our hands we avoided neoprene (too warm- lead to serious blistering and skin irritation) and used layering again. Some used very thin neoprene when it was mild (around zero) but for cold weather, big heavy cumbersome insulated mittens were in fashion, some might even say “a la mode” 😉

As a ski and kayak paddle in Vancouver I use pogies in the winter. These are shell mittens that attach over the paddle using Velcro and are great. You can even get fur/polar fleece line pogies now. I get mine from Heather McNie of McNie Protective Paddling Gear (look under paddling accessories). Any Canadian or cool climate kayak paddlers will own a pair of these.

Finding a stable enclosed K1 for winter training is also essential.

And never paddle far from shore in the cold winter weather. While the cool ocean water won’t kill you, it is paddling to shore after falling in that can. Wind chill and wet clothing are a lethal mix, and wind exposure on the open water is brutal.

Lastly, you should also paddle with a partner in winter, but the truth of the matter is, if the water is cold and the air is cold, you paddling partner will be able to do very little to save you without seriously endangering their own life. I have fallen in water so cold (while paddling K1 in the fall (October), with a partner and only 3-4 m from shore) that I could barely make it to shore as soon as I fell out. That was less than 15-20 seconds in the water and I was loosing motor control.
Winter aquatic safety is very serious if you live in a cold climate, please don’t think you’re invulnerable.

Alan Carlsson
Engineered Athlete Services


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