In January, Highway 17 carves a snowy—and sometimes treacherous—gauntlet along Lake Superior Canadian shore. But with plenty of open water and a prolonged January thaw, I put my skis away, dug out my sea kayak and set out on my first overnight paddling trip of the year.
True to its Arctic origins, the sea kayak is a comfortable vessel for cold-weather travel—as long as you plan a reasonable route, pack the right gear and dress appropriately. Here are five tips for winter kayaking.
#1 Think Ahead
Your margins for error are way smaller in the winter, so choose a route you know, and one with plenty of safe landing options. Analyze weather forecasts carefully. NOAA provides a great online graphical forecast for the Great Lakes, including the critical metrics of wind speed and direction and ice coverage. This isn't a time to challenge yourself in big water, and remember even a light onshore wind will strip away warmth. If winds are minimal, I look for sunnier, south-facing coastlines.
#2 Dress Appropriately
I've long been a fan of two-piece drysuits—an arrangement made possible by mating Kokatat's Whirlpool bib with its Rogue drytop—because they're far more versatile than going onesie. What's more, the bib and drytop create a double-layer of insulation around your core. Choose the warmest footwear you can fit in your boat: For me, that's a pair of Chota Mukluks. It's a good idea to pack two pairs of handwear, such as pogies and mitts, so you have a dry pair to put on after lunch.
#3 Go Pyro
Fire is your friend! Know how to collect dry wood; this is rarely a problem on Lake Superior, where driftwood is abundant. Bring a folding saw such as the Bahco Laplander, which allows you to cut wrist-thick logs into manageable pieces. Trying to burn anything larger six inches in diameter creates a sputtering fire and leaves a mess. I love cooking on an open fire and it's easy to improvise a pot support structure—no need to pack a grill. However, I always pack my trusty MSR Whisperlite as well. White gas stoves like the Whisperlite perform better than canister stoves in cold temps.
#4 Cold Camping
You'll appreciate the heat-retaining properties of a tent with an inner canopy made of more fabric and less mesh—like Hilleberg's Nallo. Setting up on snow creates a freezer effect inside the tent. When possible, choose dry ground. But if you must set up on snow, pack it down and allow it to set for at least 30 minutes before pitching your tent. A candle lantern casts a cheery glow and provides a surprising amount of warmth inside.
#5 Take Your Time
Of course, high-output fitness paddling is a great offseason pursuit. But if you're touring for a day or more, you'll see less and sweat more—a big problem—if you're cranking intervals. Take your time and enjoy being the only boat on the water.
More from C&K:
—From Canoe & Kayak magazine…read about winter sea kayaking on Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
—Check out editor-at-large Alan Kesselheim's gear list for cold-weather canoeing
—Watch our drysuit stress test