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The most common question I get in the winter when I go boating is, “aren’t you cold?”.    I can deal with 100+ degree heat of the Zambezi and enjoy that, but I dont’ like getting cold.   I don’t mind the cold weather, as long as i have the right equipment to stay warm.  Iwas always this way, as my slalom buddies used to say, “wimpy” when it came to the cold.   I used to wear long sleeves when the wore short sleeves,  I wore pants and booties when they wore shorts and bare feet, and i wore pogies when they didn’t.     I am telling you this to share that if there is one thing I am very good at, it is staying warm.   When it comes to staying dry, I am not quite as good because I paddle so hard that i sweat alot even on a 10 degree day (F ,  – 13 C)  all part of being hot, verses being cold.

I always go out in the coldest days of the year.  This year our coldest morning was 9 degrees and it warmed up to 22.   I was on the water with my family at 7am at 9 degrees.     Here are some tips for dressing warm.

First off- the two things that get cold first in paddling that you’ll be uncomfortable if you don’t have the right stuff are your hands and your head.  Ice cream headaches and hands that stop working are not fun.  

HANDS:   for your hands your options are pogies or gloves, or both.  Here is how you decide.

1.  water temp is still 45 f (8c)  or warmer but air is cold- Pogies are best.   With pogies your hands spend alot of time in the water and they only warm up when the wtaer drains out of the pogies.   For river running and creeking pogies are the first choice if it is warm enough.  You can get your hands in and out easily for using ropes, etc..  However, if you are scouting alot, or running safety, your hands can get super cold and stop working then, making gloves safer and better.     For playboating, gloves are the ticket.    Here is what I use:

Pogies:  Easy in and out are the key- short (barely over the wrist) are WARMER if you are really paddling and 10X easier to use, making them much safer too.  If you are creeking you need to be able to get your hands out quick and then back in.   Pogies that are tight on the wrist and go up the forearm are simply poor designs from the 70’s and 80’s and while it makes sense that they are warmer, they just trap more water in.    the SECRET to keeping your hands warm in pogies is using your thumb to open a small hole next to the shaft and blowing into them.  It warms the air to 90+ degrees inside and allows your hands to warm up quick if they get cold.  Here is what I am using, the Microwave Handwarmers.    Mine are blue because they are three years old and pogies last forever as long as you don’t lose them. 

Gloves:  I wear gloves most of the time and Glacier Gloves are the ticket!   they are warm and dry, and the easiest I have ever seen for gripping your paddle comfortably.  The two main issues with gloves are they make the paddle feel too thick and they can be slippery against the paddle.    Glacier gloves have two options, of which so far no glove is very durable.   you must get two sets for a winter if you want them to stay dry.   The key with gloves is to get them on before  you go out in the cold if possible.   If you let your hands get cold before putting them on, you may or may not be successful in warming them up.  Frozen gloves really mess you up.   Don’t leave them in your boat outside!  


For the coldest days, I wear my glacier gloves under my IR pogies!   My hands sweat in 20 degree weather!  Awesome!   This makes all of the difference.

HEAD GEAR: OK- keeping your head warm:    I don’t usually go all of the way here and stick with a simple skull cap.    i like the ones that have a chin strap to keep it tight to my head and add a little warmth over more of my head.    I use the IR Thermohood   which with my helmet works awesome.  the less holes in your helmet the warmer.  My Shred Ready Standard works great for this.

LAYERING: Now- keeping your body warm and dry.    Let’s start with a peice of gear that is something I will make myself if other’s stop making it.   The Union-Suit fleece.    Clearly fleece is the best layering material for under your drytop/drysuit.    The question is how much and what pieces.    I do it like this:

If the temp is between 40-60 (playboating) or 30-50(creeking) and the water is cold I wear my union-suit and that is all: 

If the temp drops to 25-40 degrees (playboating)   20-30 (creeking) i wear a fleece top over my union suit for double thick layering.    I don’t feel any cold water on me when I am upside down in 35 degree water, as if I was sitting in my living room as far as my body goes.  

Super Cold Weather and Water:  I go all out and wear two Union-Suits at the same time.   The key to the union suit is that there is no seperation at the waist.   This meens that your backband never touches your back, and you don’t have to deal with trying to keep your top tucked into the pants, etc.. It is just WAY better than pants/top combo.     The IR ones I use don’t have a zipper, but instead you climb in through the neck.   At first, coming from a zipper one, I wasn’t sure that was a good idea.  But the second you have the world’s most comfortable pajamas on, without a metal zipper down the front, you’ll realize that this is the way to go!

DRY- Keeping the water out:    Three main options are dry-top and dry or splash pants, Dry deck  (dry top/skirt combined into one piece) and dry or splash pants, and the third option is a dry suit.    

The absolutely warmest/driest way to go is the dry-suit.    This is because you are watertight from the neck to the feet.   You can wear cotton socks if you want under it and then put your shoes on when you get done kayaking and take it off without changing your socks!     The downside of a drysuit is manueverability.   The suit is thick and the waterproof zipper is very stiff on the back or your front.      All dry suits are not created equal for kayaking!   In fact many dry-suits aren’t designed for kayaking and here is how you tell the difference…

A good kayaking drysuit has the zipper accross your shoulder on the back.  The reason is that it allows your sprayskirt tunnel to keep the water out of the boat.   Drysuits that have the zipper accross the front of the chest on a diagonal create a HUGE gap for your skirt and it goes straight into your boat.   For playboating i have to empty out every 15 minutes with this type of dry-suit making it non-functional for that purpose.   For creeking it isn’t as bad but still doesn’t make sense.   I use the Double D dry-suit by IR.  It has the rear zipper, a great tunnel closure for your skirt and fits really well.     It is so warm and dry that I often jump in the water and float around in the icy weather just because it amazes me each time I do that that i can feel warm while floating it the winter water.  

I wear a dry suit when it is super cold or there is risk of being in the water (swimming).   a dry suit is your safest option for creeking or remote paddling where you might end up in the water.   A long swim and you get out dry, warm up and keep going.   A dry top/pants combo and you’ll be wet after a swim and may or may not recover and get warm enough again. 

DRY DECK: for Rock Island cold water paddling my favorite peice of gear is the Dry-Deck.    This is the driest you can be in a boat (meaning the boat stays dry and your body stays dry too, as long as you stay in your boat).      A dry deck is what I wear 90% of the time.    Why?  1. it is the most comfortable top you can wear.   The neck and wrist gaskets are the same as a dry top or dry suit, but the waist is loose and comfortable allowing range of motion.   You also don’t get that tight feeling from having a dry top inner tunnel, then the tight skirt, then the outter tunnel all tightened down to keep water out.     Instead the skirt tunnel is super loose, (like an XL on a medium waist type of loose) and no water can get in because it is a sealed seam.      There are Three keys of success for a dry deck that are all important to know or the product won’t work well.

1. Your boat must be dry-  Basically if you don’t have a boat with no holes drilled in it, (a Jackson Kayak, unfortunately, is still the only dry boat on the market because we don’t have holes in them and have a cockpit rim that keeps the water out) it will leak.  I don’t recommend using a dry deck if your boat isn’t bone dry.  The reason is because any water in your boat will rush up into your drydeck when you flip over making you wet immediately.   

2. the skirt on your drydeck must be dry and not implode or pop off.   A good skirt is key here.   I prefer to make dry decks with rubber rand skirts, instead of bungee skirts.   A good rubber rand skirt is the driest and most likely to stay on the cockpit no matter what.    The driest bungee skirts have the flap hanging off past the bungee to create a “fold” that fills the gap between the top of the cockpit rim and the cockpit landing.  Of course, that only works if there is a uniform spacing all around the cockpit rim to create that seal, like we have in the Jackson Kayak rims.    You’ll notice that many rims have a huge opening/space on the sides where they attach outfitting using screws through holes in the boat.  That is not a dry area no matter what skirt you use.   IR made a new concept in a skirt they call the “klingon” which is the best bungee skirt I have seen so far.   The problem with a normal bungee skirt is that they are not super dry, but are easy to get on.   A bungee skirt with a big flap is dry, but such a pain to get right that you WILL at some point blow it off while paddling due to not getting it on right.    The Klingon has just enough flap to great the seal, but they bent it around the bungee part way before sewing it, which eliminates the majority of the difficulty in putting it on.    I have used this skirt and really like it, but still prefer the rubber rand skirts because:

1. They “pop on” and don’t pop off the back when you are putting the front on.  

2. they stay on, under just about any circumstance (I have never had one blow since my first one in 1993.) 

3. They are the driest if done right.   However, it is a toss up against the Klingon now, and if one is drier than the other I still can’t tell you which, because it is too close to call.

Making a drydeck properly is something that isn’t easy to do.   I am getting IR drydecks made for me and they are the only company I know of in the USA that makes them standard.   There are skirt companies that will make them for you if you send them a brand new top.    IR just recently improved their skirt/top system from a sewn/taped seal, to a glued/taped seal.   This was their weak link in drydecks before 2011.   this seal would slowly start to leak and over time would become the weak link of the system.    Now, while it adds a ton of time to the manufacturing to do it right, it is bone dry and the circuit is closed, the product complete.

so, if your drydeck is a good one, and your boat is dry- you can boat hard, play in big holes, run the entire river and not get any water in your boat or on your body.  It is sublime, to say the least!    Definitely worth the time and money if you can afford it.  (you are buying a skirt/dry top  and the labor to put them together all in one shot).

disclaimer:  There are two reasons/situations where dry-decks are not the best/safest choice.    1. if you are still swimming alot, they are the wetest option for swimming.    It is not hard to swim in them, and you still stay pretty warm, but they get water in them much more than a dry top.    If you are in remote locations and swim you’ll be colder than in a dry top.  2. strainers- while this is VERY unlikely, it happens that you get stuck in a tree or under a rock and the only way to get out of the boat is through the sprayskirt tunnel because you can’t reach the skirt grab loop or it is pinned on the tree.   You can’t climb out of a drydeck.  For this reason I don’t use it for creeking unless i know there are no trees to worry about or the water is super low volume.   I wear a dry top/skirt combo then, or a dry suit.

DRY PANTS/Splash pants:   When you are wearing a dry top or drydeck you need dry pants to go with them to keep your legs dry and warm.   One of my favorite pieces of gear is this pair of Dry Pants that has built in neoprene booties which is NIGHT AND DAY difference for comfort, warmth, and dryness for your legs and feet.     

 I wear only my union-suit and these dry pants for my legs.  no socks needed.    When playboating, I wear Crocs which are lightweight and easy to put on and off and fit perfectly in my Rock Star or All-Star and are warm too and don’t sqeeeze my feet like booties do.     If you have big feet, the NRS “Desperado” booties are the best for trimming down the excess shoe for allowing the biggest foot in the smallest boat possible, and still having great traction in snow and mud and rocks, and offering warmth too.  

OK for creeking i recommend the best, safest shoes you can get.  They are shoes with traction on rocks and anywhere.  There is basically “stealth rubber” and any other rubber in my experience.   Stealth rubber is a 5/10 trade name, but nobody has matched it in a kayaking shoe.   Simply put, climbing shoe rubber and great treads in a shoe makes scouting, portaging, much safer.   My anology in switching from 5/10 shoes to any others I have worn is like putting on roller skates.,

I wear these and they fit perfectly over my Dry Pants. The Five Ten  Savant.    Five Ten used to make kayak specific shoes, but for creeking these are easier on and off and work just as good.   They don’t anything for playboating any more.

Final piece of gear is for OFF the water, getting dressed, getting undressed, or just hanging out.   1-ej-watching-the-action-and-trying-to-relax-before-his-ride

The Boof Gear!   This is a massive, thick fleece poncho that fits easily over your gear and life jacket and has big pockets on the inside, outside, and a big hood for over your helmet.   This makes it possible to stay dressed after paddling and stay warm, or run shuttle, etc.. and not worry about getting cold.   That sums up my How To and the whys behind it for dressing and BEING warm.

Actually, one more piece, sorry!  Your life jacket!   life jackets that fit snug on your body and you keep the tight keeps water from rushing against your mid-section and offers insulation from the outside in.   I find the inner harness that Astral uses to be the snuggest, staying put when you are playing, and warmest.  The Willis works awesome for playing and the Green Jacket for creeking.  The Astral Willis is great for all around paddling, too.Astral Buoyancy Green Jacket Whitewater Rescue PFD

I was pretty specific about the products I use and why.  There are many good companies making good products.    I have not used every product from every company, but know somebody who has, and have a pretty good feel for what is available, and have chosen what works best for me.

Don’t let the cold stop you from paddling!  I hope this will help you know what do do to stay warm now!

See you on the river!