Paddling tips, tricks, news and gear reviews from an Unsponsored point of view

Winter’s Coming: Paddling Through Shorter Days And Frosty Mornings

After a turbulent year, we suddenly find ourselves on the cusp of winter and the endless combinations of cold, wet and windy days presented by the good old British weather. As we say farewell to our shortie cags and board shorts until next year, let’s remember to pack the essential clothing and kit which can make a cold day on the water more comfortable and reduce the risk of hypothermia, cold-water shock, frozen fingers and hours shivering misery!

Layers like an onion

There’s always a monopoly on how many layers we should wear; it all depends on the proposed activity, whether you are a “hot” or “cold” person and getting that balance between being warm or being able to actually move (think of the Michelin Man trying an eskimo roll!)! Finding the right combination of layers which keep you warm but also wick away any sweat from high-intensity activity is key to being as comfortable as possible.

Personally, I like wearing a Reed Chillcheater thermal or a Helly Hansen long-sleeved Merino top as a first layer, followed by a Mountain Equipment fleece and/or thin thermal gillet depending on how cold it is. The gillet keeps the body’s core warmth whilst allowing for better flexibility in the arms and shoulders. There’s also some fabulous onesies out there: everything from a cheap Primark tiger print to a plush Kokatat Polartec suit allow for a range of budgets.

I’ve even met a few people who have home-made their own unique paddling suit complete with embroidered initials, very clever! Finally, remember that cotton garments are an absolute no-go so ditch those t-shirts and hoodies!

The Wharfe: Gorges are inherently cold and hold onto the frost a little longer

Head, hands and feet

“I can’t feel my hands”, “I can’t feel my toes” and the painful brain-freeze hit after a dunk can really ruin a paddling trip. Neoprene caps are certainly worth the investment even if you do look like an Apollo 13 crew member.

The Peak Headcase and Palm Pilot fit nicely under helmets but there are many other options from surf, diving and wild-swimming kit manufacturers. Frozen hands, the dreaded “hot-ache” fingers and circulatory issues can really affect our paddling performance. I’ve moved away from using neoprene gloves, with the exception of safety and rescue, and much prefer open-palm mitts for canoeing and pogies for kayaking. They give better contact and greater feedback from our paddle and are easier to take on and off. Finally – a good pair of thick socks (again, NOT cotton!) and/or some neoprene socks can keep your feet and toes nice and cosy. Remember that you might need footwear a few sizes larger to accommodate more layers and allow you to wiggle your toes to encourage circulation.

The Ruchill: Pogies protecting the hands from wind, water and snow.

Fancy a cuppa?

I’m a huge fan of a brew and medals. Whether it’s a flask, an après-paddle tea room visit or fresh off a stove, a hot drink can really elevate your mood and warm your heart! Space in sea kayaks and open canoes allows for packing a small stove, a few cups and a pack of biscuits (homemade shortbread if I’m feeling particularly generous!). At the moment, I use a small Jet Boil with some cheap but cheerful collapsible silicone cups accompanied by a selection of hot chocolate, tea and coffee sachets.

Other good stoves, cups and utensils can be purchased from MSR, Alpkit, Light My Fire, Lifeventure or Trangia and are a valuable investment for lunchtime hot drinks and soup. In kayaks, there’s always room for a small flask, some snacks and a sugary drink of your choice. My favourite is a strong Vimto (also amazing as a hot drink) or Cola with some chocolate bars. We often forget to keep hydrated on the water, so make sure you always have a drink with you: A 5% drop in hydration causes a 20% loss in function and a shivering person can use up 400 calories per hour – so top up those energy and fluid levels regularly to get the most out of your day!

Delays, stoppages and emergencies

As soon as we stop paddling, our body temperature drops and sweat condenses and cools us. We must make sure that we have enough kit to keep us warm and comfortable in the event of any stoppage, planned or otherwise. My personal clothing includes an extra layer/jacket with a warm hat packed into a drybag with additional group kit including a group shelter, bivi bag and a large foil blanket or Blizzard Bag as a minimum. Group shelters do not have to be reserved for emergencies, they are great for escaping the elements during lunch or brew-time but it’s recommended to have an “air-change” after 30 minutes otherwise it turns into a human sweat sauna!

The Peak Ocean Bothy, Kokotat Storm Cag and Reed Chillcheater Coverall Cag are also good options for an extra waterproof-windproof layer which can fit over a buoyancy aid. For warming cold extremities, it’s useful to have a few hand warmer packs to help improve dexterity when making a cuppa, applying first aid or managing safety and rescue. It’s essential during the short winter days to pack a good waterproof headtorch and a few glowsticks for those unexpected late finishes and packing up kit in the dark. Make sure that your torch is checked, charged and of sufficient lumens to be functional. Finally, if you have stopped your paddle or your present activity levels are not maintaining a cosy body temperature – shake it up! Warm-up activities, games or stepping-up the activity can help our muscles re-warm, engage our brains, raise our spirits and add variety to our paddling adventures!

The Tay: Warming-up after wild camping on a frosty Autumnal morning

Stay safe and look after each other

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to cold. Check that your team has the right clothing and kit before, during and after your paddle. Monitor for those early signs of hypothermia and cold-induced misery then address it before it becomes a major issue. Recommend others to change out of all damp clothing, have a nice warm shower, a hot drink and a hot meal at the end of the day to finish on a positive note. Have a brilliant and safe winter paddling season, wrap up warm and enjoy the plethora of British weather with the right equipment and clothing.

Some highly recommended articles on the signs, symptoms and treatment of hypothermia:

Article and photographs by Kirstie Macmillan.


  1. Alison

    Great article. When skiing in Italy we were told ‘ vestigial come uma cipolla’. It’s is some of the very little Italian I know (apart from due bird port favore, paghera mio marito). What do you think of open palm it’s for kayaking? I haven’t tried them in really cold weather yet…

  2. Alison

    Sorry, should read…vestiti como uma cipolla……

  3. Moulton Avery

    It’s a huge disappointment to read an article like this as we head into the off season. Absolutely nothing in the article address the prevention of cold shock, incapacitation, swimming failure or hypothermia. In fact, it says zip about wetsuits or drysuits.

    • Kirstie

      Apologies but this was not the aim of the article and I appreciate your feedback. It addresses small gains in changing and adding kit in the colder months and considering changing our activities. Wetsuits and dry suits are premier all year round, not just in winter. Cold water shock and hypothermia is another beast, something which has been addressed more thoroughly by others – thankyou for sharing the link. If you’d like to write an article, Unsponsored is very good at accepting.

      • Moulton Avery

        Well, you sure fooled me. You make the following statement right at the beginning of the article:

        “…let’s remember to pack the essential clothing and kit which can make a cold day on the water more comfortable and reduce the risk of hypothermia, cold-water shock, frozen fingers and hours shivering misery!”

        Then you proceed to talk about layering. I’ve read far too many articles that address dressing for off-season paddling by recommending a hillwalker’s approach to gear, and this mimics them. If you can be specific enough to mention neo gloves and pogies, you can also be clear about thermal protection.

        Speaking of which, if you’re going to favor pogies, you should include a caveat noting that as soon as you remove your hands to do anything, you have zero protection, and recommend that a neo glove be worn underneath. We provide a classic example of this problem on our web site under Golden Rules – Rule #3, Case #2. That incident with pogies resulted in numb, useless hands and the loss of a paddler’s Nordkapp.

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