For many paddlers the changing of summer to fall means the end of the paddling season. For many other paddlers the change in season simply means a changing of gear. Shorty dry tops, rash guards and neoprene shorts are put away and the dry suits, pogies and skull caps come out.
Paddling through the winter can be very rewarding if you're prepared for it. Watching the leaves change colour, salmon returning to the river and not having to dodge motor boats and water skiers at your local lake are advantages of off season paddling. Winter usually brings a quiet calm to most paddling spots that used to be busy and bustling with summer recreation.
So how does one dress for cold weather paddling? The biggest issue with winter paddling is keeping warm, in and out of your boat. It's always important to be dressed for a swim. Even the most experienced paddlers are simply 'in between swims'. Just because you're warm enough in your boat doesn't mean you will be if you find yourself submerged in cold water.
The two most popular forms of cold water protection are wet and dry suits. Wet suits have been around for years and are the cheapest way to keep you warm in cold water. Wet suits are made from neoprene and work by absorbing water that your body heats and insulating you from the surrounding cold water. Often people start with wet suits but will soon develop a condition known as dry envy. Dry envy is usually a contagious condition developed from continual exposure to paddling friends with dry suits. Dry envy can only be cured by the addition of a dry suit to their paddling wardrobe or by masking the issue with things like pottery and sewing classes to keep you off the water. Realistically though if you paddle year round and more than once or twice a month you will probably end up with a dry suit at some point in your paddling career. Often a dry suit purchase will be the biggest paddling gear purchase since your boat. It is rarely one that is regretted.
So now that you have your core heated in case of a swim, there are a few things you can do to keep yourself warm and comfortable in your boat. Beanies, as they are often referred to, are made of fleece or neoprene or sometimes both. Beanies, touques or skull caps, depending where you're from, are an easy way to keep warm while paddling. A large portion of body heat will be lost through your head especially since the lower part of your body is insulated in the cockpit with a spray deck. Beanies are easy to put on and take off if you find yourself getting too hot or cold while paddling.
The next part of the body we will try to keep warm are the hands. Hands are often close to, if not in, the water and are one of the first parts of your body to get cold while paddling. Lucky for us though, there is a wide range a hand warming goodies from gloves, mitts, pogies and even fleece lined hand warmers in your life jacket. This is one area where paddler preference is split widely. Gloves are usually made from neoprene and can be different thickness depending on conditions they are going to be used in. One set back gloves have is the loss of feel between you and your paddle. Having 3 mm of neoprene between you and your paddle can make you feel clumsy and feel like you've lost the orientation of your blades. On that note, enter pogies stage left. What is a pogie you ask, well it,s not for dinner. A pogie is like a mitt that attaches to your paddle shaft that you reach into and hold your paddle. This allows you to actually feel the shaft of the paddle while keeping wind and water off your hands. I suggest trying both if possible because this is really a matter of personal preference.
So now that you're comfortable and safe, some other things to consider are where you will be paddling and the conditions you are likely to encounter. In winter and fall, quite often conditions will change quicker. This means you are more likely to be caught out in a storm. Paying extra attention to weather forecasts is a good idea when paddling open seas in winter months. A marine radio will enable you to contact help as well as keep you up-to-date with weather conditions while out on a trip.
It's also not a bad idea to brush up on those rescue skills and re-entry methods before the winter sets in. This is often a good time to check for local pool paddling sessions.
Here is a really informative video on the affects of cold water and how to survive a cold water swim.
So stay safe, and enjoy your paddling season this winter.