This article is aimed at new paddlers looking toward their first winter of paddling in the Southeast. The winter rains bring free-flow back to dry rivers, and give us a lot more options than the same summer dam-released rivers. The rafts are gone, and its just the die-hard paddlers out on the rivers. So what do you need to enjoy the winter paddling season?
During my first season, I bought a wetsuit, polypro long underwear, splash jacket and gloves.
A couple cold swims convinced me that: (1) I needed to learn to roll, (2) I needed to learn the skills to stay upright, and (3) I didn’t have the same gear as the other kids.
Before my second winter, I had ditched the wet suit and gotten the standard stuff. Here it is:
For your hands – Pogies are essential for winter paddling. They are neoprene mittens that attach with Velcro on your paddle and capture the heat from your hands. They should have a fairly wide opening so that you can easily get your hands in and out as needed. They aren’t intended to be water tight or dry, but they do keep your hands warmer as your fingers can warm each other, like a mitten. Pogies are worn without any gloves and are much warmer. Order early – pogies can be in short supply by Christmas, as my wife found out.
Body – A drysuit with booties is everyone’s best friend. With latex gaskets at the neck and wrists, you’ll stay dry inside the suit and can wear technical layers under it as appropriate to stay comfortably warm. Polypropylene, wool, or fleece work well without adding too much bulk. Don’t be surprised if you sweat inside the suit while actively paddling. Many drysuits are one-piece, entered thru a zipper in front or back. Some newer designs are two-piece that zip at the waist, and there are also some that are separate pants and top. Drysuits without booties will have latex around the ankles. Most drysuits offer a relief zipper. Drysuits can cost as much as a new kayak, and should be cared for. Rinse them in clean water to keep them free from dirt and sand after each use.
Wetsuits, like the Farmer John, are a less-expensive option, but many paddlers will upgrade to the drysuit after their first season in a wetsuit.
Feet – Wool socks can be worn inside drysuit booties, and wear river shoes over the drysuit bootie. You will likely need a larger shoe to accommodate the drysuit bootie and wool sock than during summer paddling, although I’ve been able to use the same stretchy neoprene boots both summer and winter. Take extra care with drysuit booties, they are probably the most likely place to develop a leak. Don’t walk around in them without a shoe protecting them, and use a towel or matt to stand on when changing. Getting sand or gravel on the booties will shorten the life.
If not wearing a drysuit with booties, neoprene socks can be worn inside river shoes or neoprene boots.
Head – a wool or lightweight neoprene helmet liner should fit inside your helmet, adjust your paddling as necessary.
PFD – expect to need to let out the straps a bit to accommodate the extra winter layers.
Boat – adjust your hip padding as necessary for the extra layers. You may need to take out a foam insert or two.
Other: pack as appropriate for winter paddling, which may mean lighters, hand warmers, etc added to your first aid kit. Many winter runs aren’t roadside, so consider a float/storage bag with a change of warm clothes and other supplies, in case you have to spend a cold night on a remote river.
Winter runs offer a lot more variety than the summer, but can be harder to plan. When the rain comes, I’ll be waiting for my favorite rivers to peak, then I’ll catch it as the level comes down. They may have enough water for just a day or even a few hours, so it is important to have the right gear and be ready to go when the time and levels are right.