Whitewater kayaking is becoming more popular each year. The number of kayakers on the river has swelled to an almost intolerable number on some stretches, particularly park and play kayak spots.
One sure way to avoid the crowds, however is to strap your boat on in the winter months. The normal summer boat crowds will be nonexistent and you’ll have the same great water all to yourself. The only other kayakers you’ll chance upon will be hard-core junkies like yourself. After all, what other class of boaters would put in with snow on the riverbanks.
Of course the obvious disadvantage is the temperature of the air and more importantly, the water. The good news is, though, that modern cold weather kayak gear is very good. Gone are the days of heavy wool sweaters and leaky splashguards bought at the local Goodwill outlet. Now you have bombproof dry tops, dry suits and state of the art fabrics that keep you warm even when wet.
Heavy neoprene gloves and pogies are also good options for winter time boating, however make sure you’re comfortable with how the paddle feels while wearing gloves or pogies. The first time you boat with a pair of pogies over your hands you may feel constricted in your normal movement. Most wintertime kayakers opt for the more versatile and comfortable neoprene gloves.
Another piece of essential winter kayaking clothing is a warm skullcap. These fit tightly on your head beneath your helmet. Since most body heat is lost through your head, it’s important to keep it toasty. If you don’t wear a skullcap you can expect to get some nasty ice cream headaches if and when you flip over.
Speaking of flipping over, you might not be as inclined to do much play boating in the cold, since there’s a higher likelihood that you’ll have to Eskimo roll. Instead, focus on doing day trips on the river not just park and play. Make sure you run your shuttle before you put on though; you don’t want to do it at the end of your river trip when you’re wet and cold.
While floating the river, you’ll notice how different it looks and feels during the winter months. Yes it’s cold, but it’s beautiful in a stark crisp way. It never ceases to amaze me how snow and frost can make a familiar river seem like something from another world.
If you’re into play boating despite the cold, you’ll probably come across some river features you haven’t seen during the summer. Higher winter water levels may form more extreme whitewater features. The waves and holes will be bigger and more challenging. Be vigilant about what’s upstream of you, higher flows can fill the river with all sorts of nasty debris. Back surfing for extended periods isn’t recommended. You don’t want to take a floating log in the back.
Another tip for winter whitewater boating is to take longer breaks between surfs and hole rides. Let your body warm up between dousings. Most likely you won’t be able to play as long as you do in the summer. Joints and muscles get stiffer quicker when it’s cold. Also don’t expect to rip it up quite as much as you’re used to. You’re wearing lots more layers than just your lifejacket, and the extra clothing can be restrictive.
It’s even more important to boat with a buddy during the winter. Hypothermia can set in quickly if you happen to take an unexpected swim in 40-degree whitewater. You’ll need someone close by to get you to shore in a hurry. In fact, if you’re not completely confident in your kayaking and rolling abilities, winter boating probably isn’t a good idea…unless you’re in Florida.
However, if you’re up to the challenge, winter whitewater kayaking is an amazing adventure. The extra effort you need to put into your river trip will be well worth it.