Today is the first day of winter, and many paddlers in colder climates have already packed away their boats for the season. That's too bad, because with a little gear and good planning, you can boat straight through the winter while having a great time and staying safe. We caught up with four paddlers in the blustery Northeast who have the right attitude, and these tips to keep you going strong through the winter.
1. "It's better to stay warm on the river than to try and warm up later," says Joey Tee of the BadNews BoatSquad in Massachusetts. Just like when hiking or skiing, wearing many layers is key. Start with a base layer of thermo skin (long johns) both pants and shirt. Cover that with heavy layers of fleece before jumping into the dry suit. As for the hands, Tee's bet is to go with pogies. They keep hands warm generally down to 0 degrees and offer quick exit so the paddler is free to do rope safety when needed.
Tee's winter trick: "I usually carry birch bark and a lighter in a dry box. It's always good to have a fire if needed."
2. "Combined water temperature, air temperature and paddler IQ should equal at least 100 before I'll paddle in winter," Jeff Swett, president of Merrimack Valley Paddlers, New Hampshire. Swett cautions against taking any unnecessary risks when paddling through the winter. Checking for strainers, paddling with friends, the usual safety plans that are important during the rest of the year could become crucial in winter. Also be knowledgeable of winter rescue and safety: what to do about hypothermia, etc.
Swett's winter trick: "I always have a thermos of tea or cider either in the car for the takeout or in the kayak for longer paddles."
3. "Winter is the time to train," Jeremy Laucks, owner of Blackfly Canoes, New Hampshire. Winter is the season to step back a bit and stick to familiar water. It's the perfect time to hone in eddy catching, ferrying, and stroke technique and skills. "I really look at winter paddling as staying in shape to be ready for when the snow melts in the spring," Laucks says.
Laucks' winter trick: The final crucial piece of gear is a good neoprene hood. I’ve got one I made out of an old sprayskirt, though the dive hoods work well too."
4. "Look out for ice," – David Brucas, whitewater trip leader for Appalachian Mountain Club, New York. In the winter, ice can add danger to otherwise easy rivers by acting as a strainer or undercut. Ice along the banks can also make putting on or getting off the river a little precarious. Before hitting the river, scout as much as possible for ice shelves, especially in eddies along the banks that force you to look elsewhere when catching them.
Brucas' winter paddling trick: "I keep chemical heaters (reusable sodium acetate liquid packs) in the truck for hypothermia victims. Trigger them on, then stick them under their armpits. Also have a few big ones for the seat and back."
The coming of winter does not have to mean the end of boating. Rather, knowing how to prepare for winter paddling can offer boaters a new way to experience the rivers they love the rest of the year.