Winter Paddling Safety

Six tips for winter paddling safety

By Krista White

Winter weather has moved into western Pennsylvania, but that doesn’t mean shelving your paddles and boats until spring. The quiet respite of gliding through a river surrounded by banks sprinkled with powdery snow provides a different perspective to paddlers in what most people consider the off-season.

The attraction of winter paddling varies by interest, said Robert Giles, manager, Carried Away Outfitters in Greenville, Pa. Some people do it for hunting or fishing, while others do it for the scenery. Winter paddling provides a different scenic route than in the summer. It affords those brave enough to venture out in the cold a chance to see a snow- and ice-covered landscape, as well as the opportunity to see more wildlife due to lack of foliage, said Giles.

But, before you head out to soak up the crisp, cool air and the solitude, there are a few precautions you should take first.

The big difference between paddling in the warm months vs. colder months is temperature, he said. The biggest concerns in the summer months are staying cool and hydrated, and you can jump in the river to cool off. If you fall in the water in the winter, it’s dangerous – you risk hypothermia.

Check out these six tips for making your winter paddle a success.

Maintain body temperature. The main priority in winter paddling is keeping warm and dry, said Giles. Paddlers immersed in cold water lose body heat four to five times faster than when in air of the same temperature. Such rapid heat loss can lead to cold shock, cold incapacitation, hypothermia, and death (American Kayaking Association 2018). Consider wearing a wetsuit or drysuit, or using a cockpit cover to retain warmth, said Giles. Also, dressing in layers can help you adjust to varying temperatures.

Wear a lifejacket. Wearing a lifejacket is a safety precaution that boaters should take in any season. But, in Pennsylvania, Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices (PFD or life jacket) are required during cold weather months. Beginning November 1 and lasting through April 30, boaters are required to wear a lifejacket while underway or at anchor on boats less than 16 feet in length or any canoe or kayak (American Canoe Association). This rule applies to all Pennsylvania waters.

Paddle with company. Because the inherent risks of cold weather paddling are higher, Giles suggests not paddling alone, especially if you are new to the sport. If you do plan to head out for a winter paddle, consider bringing someone along that has prior winter paddling experience, he said.

Check conditions. Consider the weather conditions before heading out, and make sure to check water levels, said Giles. For example, the Pymatuning Lake feeds the Shenango River, so the height of the water varies depending on how much rain or snow is in the lake. The amount of water being released into the river can affect safety, so you should establish what a safe CFS level is for your area and expertise level. You can check your local river’s water height and flow through apps or sites, such as RiversFlow or American Whitewater. In addition, you can also call your local paddling organization for more information on river conditions. Ice in the river isn’t necessarily a no-go for launching a boat. But, Giles does suggest that you have prior experience on a particular river before attempting to paddle it in the winter months.

Bring extra gear. Take a dry bag that includes a change of clothes, a blanket, or a towel. Giles also suggests wearing wool socks. What else you bring with you depends on what you plan to do on the river, whether you are hunting or just going for a recreational paddle. Hydration and food are also important. And, lastly, make sure to bring along some sort of signal device, he said. 

Have an emergency plan. What your emergency plan looks like will depend on the river you are planning to paddle. Know where emergency services could reach you if something were to happen. For example, along the Shenango River, there aren’t too many exits, so if you fall in the water two miles in, you’ll have to paddle another two miles before you get to an exit, said Giles. This is why having that dry bag with a change of clothes is important – if on the off-chance you get wet, you can pop out of the river and change and get warm, he said.