Paddling in Cold Weather: A Safety Guide

Winter paddling can be a lot of fun, but it requires more planning—and often, more gear—to ensure a safe trip.


To newer paddlers, canoeing and kayaking may seem like warm weather sports, but those who have been paddling awhile know that colder months bring some of the best water levels to their favorite rivers.

If you love to paddle, don’t let the cold stop you. 

Below, you’ll find some tips for getting out on the water when it’s cold. 

Learn to Identify Hypothermia

One of the greatest dangers of cold weather paddling is, you guessed it, getting too cold. Hypothermia occurs when you are exposed to cold temperatures for prolonged periods and your body loses heat faster than it can produce it.

In short, you’re cold, and you keep getting colder.

Hypothermia can sneak up on paddlers, as being wet speeds up the condition. Though it may not seem that cold, being submerged in water (or rained on) can cause paddlers to become hypothermic when they least expect it.

A hidden danger of hypothermia is that it causes confusion, so a victim may be unaware they are hypothermic, and when they do diagnose the condition, they may be too confused to treat it properly. For this reason, all members of your paddling group should learn to identify the signs of hypothermia in others.

Hypothermia occurs in stages, and if untreated, it can lead to death. The Center for Disease Control offers this simplified list of symptoms:

  • Shivering
  • Exhaustion or feeling very tired
  • Confusion
  • Fumbling hands
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness

If you spot any of these symptoms in a member of your paddling group, stop the trip immediately and get treatment.

How to Treat Hypothermia

Outdoors enthusiasts can tend to be stoic, and it can be easy to dismiss early signs of hypothermia and suggest that your buddy tough it out.

But remember: hypothermia can escalate quickly and it can result in death. If you notice the above symptoms, consider it a medical emergency and begin treatment.

If you forget specific treatment options, at least remember this: Get them warm and get them dry.

For more detailed options, the list below offers professional guidelines:

  • Get the person into a warm room or shelter.
  • Remove their wet clothing.
  • Warm the person’s core. Since you’re outdoors, use dry blankets, clothing, or even skin-to-skin contact.
  • You can give them warm (not hot) drinks, but avoid alcohol.
  • After their body temperature has increased, keep the person dry and wrap them in a warm blanket.
  • Get the person proper medical attention as soon as possible.


Dress for the Weather

The best way to prevent hypothermia is to dress appropriately for the weather and the paddling conditions.

While you can break your budget shopping for cold weather paddling gear, you can start with these basic principles to help you choose the right clothing:

  1. Avoid cotton. When it gets wet, cotton holds 100% of its weight in water, and water wicks away your body temperature about 25 times faster than air. 
  1. Focus on layering with synthetic apparel. Rather than relying on one piece of gear, add an extra layer or two that you can remove if you get too hot.
  1. NRS suggests you “dress for the swim,” meaning think of how long you’d be in the water if you were to fall out of your boat. That’s a worst case scenario, but it forces you to choose clothing that will ensure you stay safe.

Make an Emergency Plan

No matter the weather, you should always leave a float plan with a trusted friend or family member that tells them where you are going and when you expect to return.

This is especially true when paddling in colder weather as the danger increases when you factor in issues like hypothermia.

Before you paddle, study a river map and identify some take-out points in case of an emergency. While your trip will begin with a set take-out, remember that injuries or the onset of hypothermia can force an emergency evacuation. Deciding on your evacuation points BEFORE you go can greatly increase your chance of survival.

Want a Safe Introduction to Winter Paddling?

If you’re in central North Carolina, consider booking a winter paddling trip on Saxapahaw Lake with us. 


You’ll paddle a canoe on calm water and receive instruction on staying safe on the water in colder weather. It’s a great family experience, and if you want to build on these skills, try one of our introductory paddling courses, which can be tailored to your needs.