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submitted by Christina Kossis 

Winter is in full swing here in West Virginia with temperatures averaging below 30 degrees each day. For those that dare to continue kayaking, it is important to be aware of the many hazards involved and be as prepared as possible for the things that can be controlled. Below is my list of 5 river hazards, 5 gear hazards, and 11 ways to be better prepared:

River Hazards

1. Hypothermic Water and Air Temperatures
• Swimming should be avoided to all extents
• Hypothermia happens quickly even when dressed properly
• *Wear ear plugs – cold water in the ears can lead to a condition called “surfer’s ear” where exostoses develops and causes bone growths which can close your ear canal
2. Frozen Rocks and Riverbanks
• Getting on riverbanks can be a daunting task as they are likely slippery sloping iced banks that will be a challenge to traverse
3. Undercut Ice Caves
• As snow thaws and refreezes icicles form especially at overhanging rocks and can create frozen undercuts
4. Frozen Eddies
• If the weather has been below freezing for more than a few days, eddies can begin to develop layers of ice that become so solid you could ice skate on them
• Watch out for areas with slow moving current or that see less sunlight
• This is a major hazard for kayakers and especially swimmers
5. Shorter Daylight
• The sun sets earlier in the wintertime making unexpected delays in a kayak trip increase the risk of paddling out in the dark and when temperatures are dropping
• *Bring a headlamp in your drybag

Gear Hazards

1. Frozen Skirts
• Skirts are much harder to put on when cold, especially rand skirts
• Skirts are even harder to put on when wet and frozen
• Limit the time spent out of your kayak when your skirt is wet to prevent it from becoming a frozen block
2. Frozen Throw Bags
• Throw bags are useless once frozen
• Be prepared to use a wet throw bag quickly when you take it out of your kayak
• *Dry your throw bag/store it indoors before paddling, do not leave throw bags in your kayak overnight, consider storing it in a dry bag that is easily accessible.
3. Frozen Gear (whistles, knives, buckles, zippers)
• Keep your knife in a dry place in the winter
• You may not be able to get out of your exposed gear quickly or into the pockets
• Using a rescue strap is not an option for winter kayaking
4. Frozen Glasses
• Glasses are likely to freeze over and fog making it difficult to navigate rapids
• Glasses are not advised if possible
5. Cracked Kayak
• Plastic is more brittle in colder temperatures, this can increase the chance of your kayak cracking
• Paddle a reliable kayak, one without previous welds or that has not seen heavy wear

Ways to be better prepared

1. Plan for worst case scenario
• Set up a check-in person outside of your group who is not paddling with a designated time you will be sure to let them know you are off the river and safe.
• Setup a communication plan with your crew for river evacuation, hike out locations, and access
• Have a means for contact if an emergency takes place (I carry a Garmin Inreach for sending texts or SOS)
• Know who to call when something goes wrong depending on the extent of the incident. Whether it be contacting other kayakers, having those kayakers contact emergency responders, etc.
2. Lighter, Fire Starting Kit, & Thermal Blanket
• Always keep this in your drybag
• A lighter will serve many purposes including warmth and kayak/gear repair
• A thermal blanket should be part of your emergency kit, they pack very small
3. Extra Layers
• Always bring an extra top layer in your drybag
• You may underdress for the day, weather conditions can change, you might get sweaty and then cold, or layers might somehow get wet and need to be replaced.
• Additional items to consider bringing in drybag:
o Gloves
o Beanie
o Socks
o Gaitor
o Hand warmers
4. Extra Pogies or Neoprene Mittens
• It is pertinent that you carry a break down paddle with you in the wintertime, any sort of mishap involving a lost paddle could leave you stranded with temperatures dropping
• With your breakdown paddle, always include a neoprene replacement or something similar to keep your hands warm
5. Food
• Food is energy and when your body is cold it uses more energy, having sustenance to refuel may bring you comfort in addition to more energy to finish your run
6. Scout Rapids (from your kayak if possible)
• Scouting from your kayak is a good skill to exercise in the winter
• Look for frozen eddies in the runout of rapids or treacherous undercut ice caves that could pop out in bends
7. Paddle Familiar Runs
• There are more dangers and the class of whitewater is higher when dealing with freezing temperatures
• Wintertime is not always the best time to “step up” your paddling difficulty or paddle runs you are unfamiliar with
• Consider pushing limits in other ways such as attainments in stretches of moving water that are not frozen, harder moves in easier rapids, or strength conditioning off the water
8. Crampons
• Crampons are small and can be easily stored in your dry bag kit
• Whether it’s the hike in, river scouting, or an emergency hike out, these will prevent you from sliding down trails and riverbanks
9. Patch Kit
• It is inevitable that all plastic will crack eventually, and plastic is more likely to crack in the winter
• Simply carrying gorilla tape and a lighter could get your kayak patched up and moving down river without taking on water
10. Thermos
• A hot beverage or even just hot water is a good resource to bring for fast warmth and can be used to melt ice quickly during an emergency
11. Take-Out Preparation
• Make the takeout vehicle keys easily accessible and ensure everyone knows their location
• Remind everyone to leave a change of clothes, shoes, gloves and jackets at the takeout as you will freeze quickly once off the river

Be mindful, stay safe, and have fun out there!!

Photo Credits: Jared Seiler, Justin Harris, Mike Kalanick