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Winter Paddling and Safety Guidance

Paddling through winter can be as enjoyable as paddling in the summer sun, but there’s often slightly more planning needed to keep you safe on the water. From cold weather clothing considerations to spare clothes and cups of tea, here are our top 10 winter paddling tips. 

​1. Check the weather, check the water

The weather will make a huge difference to how enjoyable your paddle may be. Rain, snow and sleet could be a consideration in winter, as could glaring winter sun on the water (so don’t be too hasty to pack away your sunglasses), but be mindful about wind too. Not only will wind potentially make your boat more unstable, but it will also add the dreaded wind chill factor, making it feel a lot colder than it actually is. Don’t forget the Environment Agency has a really useful river and sea level tool on their website.

2. Plan your session

If you plan your session, you’re more likely to be prepared for the conditions you face. Being prepared makes life a whole lot easier, both on and off the water! If your session is all gym based, you won’t need to think about a wetsuit or dry suit, but if you’re heading out on the water, some considerations would be: 

  • Where you paddle - Moving or tidal water would require different considerations to perhaps a trail on the canals, including rising river levels (especially important in winter) and changing tides. 
  • Your session length - If you’re out all day, more careful planning will be required in comparison to a short 1 hour session. Planning your session, even just loosely, will mean it becomes a lot more enjoyable for all involved. 
  • Let a friend or family member know when and where you are paddling and what time you expect to return. Tell them what to do if you fail to ‘check in’ with them on or around your expected return time. 

3. Be prepared for cold water and dress appropriately

It sounds pretty obvious, but when the winter sun is shining on your back, you sometimes forget how cold that water is… especially if you haven’t fallen in it for a while! Prepare for getting wet even if you have no intention of falling in. You never know exactly what will happen on the water, and some circumstances will be outside of your control, so if you’re prepared for the cold wet stuff, it lessens the risk of water shock, or in extreme cases, hypothermia. 

Dressing appropriately is vital for winter paddling. This will always depend on the type of canoeing or kayaking you are undertaking, or the type of session ahead, but considerations should be made around: 

• base layers
• hats, buffs/neck warmers, Poggies or neoprene gloves 
• wetsuits
• dry suits
• buoyancy aids
• spray decks and cags 

Think about what will be most suitable and take layers if you think you might need them. It’s always easier to be able to cool down rather than warm up in winter. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

4. Be a social paddler

Paddling in groups, no matter how big or small, is always advisable but especially in winter for two reasons – 1. If you fall in and/or get into trouble, there is someone around to help you before hypothermia or other weather-related injuries set in and 2. Most sessions will take place in the dark with limited daylight hours in winter, so paddling in groups makes it a lot safer. 

Where possible, be social. There are always like-minded people you can paddle with, whether you befriend them at a club, centre, organised event or through social media groups. There are plenty of options, so stick together on the water where you can. 

5. Wear a buoyancy aid

Not only does a buoyancy aid help you float if you fall in the water, in winter especially it comes in pretty handy as an extra layer to keep you even toastier both in and out of the water. It should be a staple of every paddler’s wardrobe. 

6. Take a phone or VHF radio

If you get into trouble, especially if you’re paddling on your own, you need a way of calling for help. Always carry a phone in a waterproof pocket or aquapac and if you’re paddling on the sea, it’s worth investing in a VHF radio and a personal locator beacon too. These simple pieces of equipment really can save your life should the worst happen.

7. Take spare clothes

A change of clothes when you get off the water is vital, especially if you’ve got a little wet! Where possible, always take a spare pair of clothes to put on after your water session and have a hot shower where there’s one available. Driving home in damp clothes isn’t ideal, especially during the winter months. 

8. Think about food and drink

Again, this will depend on the type of session you have planned. If you’re only going to be on the water for an hour, perhaps a hot drink in a flask will suffice. If however you’ve got an epic challenge ahead of you, you need to think more carefully about the food and drink you pack. Flasks, energy bars and gels, meals and snacks all need to be considered… staying fed and watered can help you stay warmer for longer. 

9. Stay hydrated

You might be surrounded by water, but you need to drink plenty of it too! Even though it’s not Mediterranean temperatures outside, your body will still lose water during exercise so it’s important to take enough water for your session. Consider a hydration pack so you can drink on the move. 

10. Enjoy your paddling!

The most important point of all… enjoy your paddling through winter! There are so many ways you can mix up your winter paddling and try something new, including:

• trying a new canoe trail or challenge route

• finding social paddles and events

• joining a club

Hopefully these 10 top tips will help you stay safe and enjoy paddling over winter. You can find out more about safety and good practice on the British Canoeing website here.