The coast of Maine is different in winter. On some days, bigger, louder, more powerful, and awesome. On other days, quieter, more intimate, and entrancing.
While many SMSKN members move on to other activities after Labor Day, there is a dedicated crew that comes alive with the arrival of crisp winter air, long Atlantic swells, and the ever-changing landscape of this magical place we call home. And, you can do everything in the winter that you can do in the summer … minus mosquitoes and black-flies! (Although, sadly, ticks are a bit more tenacious.) Our SMSKN winter paddling members are out there doing gentle nature paddles, surfing or rock gardening, and even camping!
We urge other SMSKN members to consider trying a winter paddle as part of your 2023 kayaking goals! You may never want to go back! For those of you interested in trying it out, this article summarizes some general guidelines we’ve collected from our winter kayaking experts to help guide your preparation.
Of course, the discussion below assumes members understand and follow the minimum standard safety procedures for paddling the Maine coast in kayaks–including sea kayaks with bulk-heads, personal floatation device (PFD), spray skirt, paddle-float and pump, VHF radio, whistle, flares, fog horn, compass, chart, etc.
Here then are additional things to consider…
Understand and respect the impact of cold water / cold weather on human physiology
A prerequisite for cold weather paddling is having an appreciation of the physiological impacts of cold water on the human body. In October 2021, SMSKN was fortunate to have a presentation by Moulton Avery, the founder and director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety. (Link to SMSKN presentation / Link to Center) We strongly recommend viewing the presentation and/or visiting the Center site to read through cold water safety materials to familiarize yourself with key facts. There is so much good information in this site and it fundamentally changed my entire mindset around how I think about our Maine coast.
Start with the inside …
In general when on the water, it is easier to keep the body warm from the inside rather than the outside. So be thinking about how we keep our body warm through active paddling and increasing tempo if necessary to keep blood pumping to extremities. Having quick sources of food on hand to address low energy can help keep the body fires burning. And, try to find a paddling rhythm that keeps you warm without sweating, since sweat will evaporate any heat.
Always remember to bring a thermos of hot beverage to help keep you hydrated. Some folks use hot chicken broth which is savory and includes additional fats and sugars to help provide energy.
Any serious paddler on the Maine coast should have solid rescue skills and know how to save themselves and others. In winter paddling, the margin for safety and recovery is much smaller and instant reaction is critical. Every additional moment spent immersed creates greater risk and limits rescue options.Winter paddlers need to communicate well and be especially prepared to move quickly to get a swimmer out of the water.
Gore Tex Drysuit
MANDATORY. If you’re going to paddle Maine waters after Labor Day, you will need a drysuit.
If you have any experience doing anything outdoors in Maine winters, you know the best way to stay warm is having multiple layers. Winter kayaking is no different. It is the layers beneath that will keep you warm. In fact, I use all my insulating layers (i.e. wool and/or fleece) collected from my skiing days under my drysuit for winter kayaking. Remember as well that the drysuit provides no insulating properties on its own. It’s just a big, full-body Gore Tex rain coat with gaskets.
Drysuits are a big investment, so it makes sense to ask around to see if you can borrow one to try and see if you like it. There are also used drysuits for sale if you keep your eyes open. I just purchased an almost new set of Kokatat Gore Tex bibs (mate with dry-top = drysuit) that normally retail for $900 for only $200. So, you need not spend big money if you look around. But, make sure it fits correctly and check the seals / gaskets to ensure good fit and condition. If you find a drysuit for sale that needs a little work, we are fortunate in Portland to have a great scuba shop, Aqua Diving Academy, on Commercial Street that does great drysuit repair work. (Link)
Preventing cold hands is a frequent topic of discussion in our group. The three most common options are:
1. Neoprene gloves;
2. Neoprene mittens; and / or
3. Pogies (basically a “tent” for your hand that secures around the paddle) (See this link).
Most of us have more than one option with us while on the water. Usually a mix of neoprene gloves and / or mittens of different thicknesses based on our preferences and cold tolerance. Recently, I have found good success mixing a light (0.5 mm) neoprene glove with Pogies. These gloves by themselves would not suffice for winter paddling. But, when combined with the Pogies, they have worked well for me.
The most dangerous time for cold hands starts when you stop paddling and get on shore. That is when our hands get exposed to the wind and cold as we exit boats and pull out gear or lunch. Make sure your “Hypo Kit” includes warm gloves, mittens, hand warmers, warm head-gear, and anything else you may want immediately to address cold hands and head off the water. (More details on Hypo Kit below.)
Aside from hands, cold feet is another topic with many opinions, but all involving the use of layers with drysuit protection.
Most drysuits today are made with a Gore Tex “sock” for the feet. So, when searching for a drysuit, ensure the sock has enough room to fit one or two layers of bulky, winter wool socks. For footwear, I purchased a set of NRS Boundary boots (Link) that go up above my calf and are sized generously to fit with my bulky layers. There are lots of options out there for consideration. Locally, our Portland dive shop, Aqua Diving Academy, has an extensive range of neoprene foot and hand gear to consider.
Another product I like personally is waterproof socks by SealSkinz (Link). While nothing is ever truly waterproof, I have found they help keep my feet dry and are a nice, additional layer in winter. I have developed a four layer system that works for me and includes:
- Heavy merino wool socks as my base.
- SealSkinz water-proof socks over the wool socks
- Drysuit Gore Tex booties
- Neoprene Boundary boots
There are many other things folks do to help with feet cold management, including cutting up a yoga pad to place under your feet in the boat to serve as a layer of insulation.
No matter what you decide, make sure it works for you.
Emergency clothing and shelter / blanket.
Things can go bad quickly at any time on the water, but particularly in winter. When a situation develops where you or one of your partners gets wet or experiences a potential hypothermic situation, get to shore as quickly as possible and find / deploy shelter to prevent further heat loss. Especially on windy days. (Remember your VHF radio in case you need to call for help!)
To prepare for this type of situation, consider any combination of the following:
Hypo Kit: Previously mentioned, each winter paddler should carry a drybag of warm clothes including puff coat / jacket, hat, mittens/gloves, hand/feet warmers, and other items the paddler may desire to help them get warm quickly. Each paddler should carry their own Hypo Kit and avoid using their own gear on others unless absolutely critical. This is not to be selfish. It is just to ensure the aid providers do not fall victim to the same conditions they are trying to resolve in with the person they are helping.
Storm Cag (Link) – This piece of versatile gear is very useful for both on and off water protection from the wind, cold, and rain. It is designed to fit all your kayak gear, including PFD. I carry this right in my day-hatch for ready access for myself or one of my partners if they are in duress. It is often the first thing I get on when I hit the beach, after my dry gloves!
If you don’t have a Storm Cag, you can easily create your own just using a large, tough plastic trash bag with slots cut out for your arms and head. It does not need to be highly refined. Anything that can be quickly thrown over the paddler to reduce the effect of wind.
Bothy Bag (See article): It’s essentially a big, rugged trash bag with a window you can throw over yourself and your now closest friends when on land to quickly get out of the wind and cold. Bothy Bags are more common in Europe where they are considered essential kit when doing any major outdoor adventure. In the US, people may be more familiar with bivvy sacks, which work well for a single person. Read this article to determine which you prefer. I like the Bothy Bag since it functions more like a tent that I can set in with another person to get warm. While certainly snug, depending on the size, there is still the ability to eat food, drink warm beverages, or administer minor first aid out of the elements.
Winter kayaking is not for everyone. But, for those who take the time to think ahead and prepare, it offers an entirely new world for exploration and adventure.
Let us know what you think! Do you winter paddle? Are there tricks and tips that you would recommend based on your experience? Join the conversation in the discussion link below and let us know.