Fall Paddling Tips: What to Wear

Stay safe and enjoy autumn

Brule River in Northern Wisconsin. Photo by Aaron Schmidt

Brule River in Northern Wisconsin. Photo by Aaron Schmidt



By Alex Frost

Just because summer is over, doesn't mean paddling season is.

Autumn is a perfect time to get out onto flat water and tour. Getting out and seeing the fall colors is a great treat.

But even when the air is relatively warm, inclement weather, wind, and cold water may present some hiccups during your trip. Some basic safety guidelines and proper apparel will go a long way towards keeping your time on the water pleasant and free from dangerous incidents.

Dress for the Swim

At this time of year, most inland bodies of water are starting to hover around 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Water at that temperature is where the threat of cold-shock begins to loom. Now, I'm not telling you to wear a neoprene hood in October when it's 65 degrees out. I'm not a monster. But some basic apparel guidelines should be followed:

–Wear your wicking base layers, whether they are synthetic or merino wool. Keeping moisture off your skin will go a long way toward keeping you warm if you happen to get wet.

–Put on that insulating mid-layer. Fleece or merino wool will do the job nicely. Though you may be reluctant to do it, and may even be uncomfortably warm at times, being prepared for immersion and the water temperature is paramount.

–A splash jacket or dry top and some waterproof or quick-drying pants over everything will keep you protected from brisk autumn winds, rain, and whatever chop and spray may be stirred up by them. Utilizing a spray skirt, if your kayak can accommodate one, will help mitigate cold water sloshing into your boat as well. For colder water temperatures, you may choose to go the route of a Farmer John or Jane wetsuit as a base layer with a dry top.

–Wear some neoprene booties or water shoes to round out the whole outfit. These will keep your toes and feet happy as you tour around. If it's particularly cool outside, a pair of wool socks may be in order as well.

Dressing in layers like the ones listed above will keep you relatively comfortable. If you find yourself getting too hot, however, de-layering is acceptable for experienced paddlers. Remember, a wet exit into water at this time of year can mean a rough—and dangerous—time. If you aren't confident in your skills post-immersion, it may be a wiser choice to wear a drysuit with your insulating layers underneath.

Even on flat water, it's a good idea to keep a dry bag with some spare clothes in your boat. Be prepared to head back to the shoreline to change if you get wet. Clothes dry much more slowly in cool weather. So remember to keep some dry clothes at the ready.

What Not to Wear

It's hard to believe that this doesn't go without saying, but, AVOID WEARING COTTON. Especially in the shoulder seasons. When it gets wet, cotton will sap the heat from your body like some nefarious fabric vampire. And if you've been immersed, you'll be in big trouble even after you've gotten back into your boat. Don't wear it.

Mind the Light

The sun is starting to set earlier and earlier, and you'll have to keep this in mind as you're out on an autumn tour.

Remember to use a deck light, headlamp, or at least a flashlight while you're out on the water. Visibility should be a priority not only to help you navigate, but also to keep your canoe or kayak in plain view of other boats, namely, ones with motors attached to them.

Another tip for your cold-weather paddling adventures: try to get an earlier start than you might during the summer months. When the days are short, you'll want to utilize as much sunlight as possible.

About the Author: Alex Frost is a content writer at Outdoor Gear Exchange, Vermont’s leading outdoor equipment retailer. Though primarily an avid backpacker and trail runner, his love for the outdoors covers the breadth of activities that can be done in wild places. When he’s not on the trail—or capsizing a kayak—he resides in Burlington, Vermont with his lovely wife, Dharma.