Select Page

How to Keep Warm Winter Playboating

When the water/air temps drop and the snow starts to fly…is it time to hang up the playboating gear? Nope! Not at all, if you have the right mindset, and the right gear to keep getting out there. Here’s how I stay warm-ish playboating during winter in Iowa.

I start with a wicking base layer, like a rashguard type t shirt. Next is an insulation layer of a fleece long sleeved shirt and pants or a union suit. My favorites are NRS rashguards, NRS, Expedition Weight base layers, and Immersion Research Thick Skin (check out the links at the bottom). Lastly, a good pair of wool socks for toe warmth.

Over the base/insulation layers I’ll ether wear a long sleeved dry top/splash pant combo or a drysuit. NRS, Immersion Research, and Kokatat are my favorites for dry wear. A snug spay deck that interfaces well with my drywear is essential for keeping out as much cold river water as possible. The Immersion Research Klingon bungee deck is my go to. My lightweight, minimal PFD provides another core layer of warmth too. The Astral YTV is my favorite playboating pfd.

How to Keep Warm Winter PlayboatingReady for snowy river fun!

For my head and neck warmth I wear a neoprene hood that gets tucked into the outer neoprene neck of my drywear top. This helps me keep warmer for longer from repeated rolls and howling winter winds. The NRS Storm hood works well, it’s flexible and has a fuzzy liner that makes putting on a wet hood more desirable. Under my hood I wear silicone ear plugs to protect my ears from forming bony growths in the ear canal from repeated exposure to cold water/wind (also known as Surfers Ear). I get my ear plugs from my local pharmacy in an 18 pack. My adjustable lid adds another layer of protection. In addition to impacts with rocks and the riverbottom, the helmet visor shields my eyes from stinging snowflakes and sleet while paddling. The Shred Ready Super Scrappy adjusts well from summer to winter and back again for head layering. Plus, helmet-cicles are just plain cool!

How to Keep Warm Winter Playboating
Post playboating ice formations.

For my feet I wear either neoprene boots or a river shoe. The key for me with river footwear is not having it too tight for winter paddling as it seems to cut down on my circulation and makes my feet colder quicker. I go up a half or full size for winter paddling. I like the Astral Hiyaks as they provide protection from rocks and still fit well in my playboat.

For my hands, I prefer mittens for maximum warmth. My digits get cold quick so having my fingers all together helps them stay warmer longer. I use a 5mm mitten. It’s just the right amount of flex, warmth and paddle grip for me.

In my playboat, Rockstar sm, I adjust the outfitting for winter by reducing the seat height slightly and removing a layer of foam from the front foot block. This is plenty for fitting into the boat with all my winter layers then. For better grip on my paddle, Werner Double Diamond & Player, I wrap the grip area with electrical tape and coat with a layer of base coat cold weather surf wax.

How to Keep Warm Winter PlayboatingWinter flippy floppies. PC: MJC

When I’m finally all dressed up and ready to hit the river, energy conservation is key. Taking into account the water levels, the weather, wind, wind direction, sunshine or lack thereof, and how I’m feeling that day, I make a plan of the goals I aim to hit in my session. As needed in between rides I practice lean cleans and edge drills while waiting in the eddy to help generate heat in my core and extremities so I can boat a few minutes longer.

If I’m also river surfing, I’ll wear my 5/4 wetsuit instead of dry wear for both surfing and playboating. The wetsuit is ideal for riversurfing, but it’s not the best choice for kayaking as I get colder quicker when playboating. Dry wear does not work for me when river surfing. It feels like I’m swimming in a parachute! So, considering my winter river session goals for the day, the warmth sacrifice of playboating in a wetsuit saves me from expending extra energy to do a wardrobe change between surfing and playboating.

How to Keep Warm Winter PlayboatingFrom River surfing to playboating, squeezing in as much winter river fun as possible.

Additional winter goodies I use are:
A premium, non-petrolatum, spf lip balm. Not only do I apply this to my lips but also any exposed facial skin. Just don’t balm up your nose if you use nose plugs. The balm helps with wind/cold burn and skin moisture retention.

A thermos of hot water. Having some hot water along to quickly warm up your hands and mittens extends your river time. It’s also handy for helping to thaw your way out of your gear at the end of your session.

Warm food/drink for after your session is heavenly. By the time I’m done playboating, I’m starving! Having those warm snacks readily available saves a lot of people from hangry post boating grief.

Cozy, warm clothing to climb into after your session. I bring my winter puffy coat, snow pants and fuzzy hat to wrap up in after climbing out of the glacial river. It helps to bridge the gap between changing out of frozen gear and getting the vehicle up to temp.

Each winter season is a further testing and refinement of my gear selection and personal cold tolerances. I enjoy the challenge mentally and physically of staying active all year long no matter what the weather is. If I waited for perfect weather in Iowa, the paddling season would be extremely short!

To quote Alfred Wainwright, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”

What’s your favorite gear/way to stay warm winter boating? (other than driving south).

See you on the river…or slightly above it.
-Hannah Ray J

Check out these links to the layers/gear I use.


Dry Wear




River Shoes