Fall/Winter safety

Looking for help with safety during cool weather.

I live in Portland Oregon and am new to paddling. I have an inflatable kayak (literal test -the-waters-of-the-sport-boat that will upgrade next year). I like to paddle solo (escape pandemic-impacted house), flat water, small urban/suburban rivers (200 feet wide max), slow moving water, fall water temps averaging 50 and above. Since I’m alone, paddle upstream and back, average 5 miles/a couple hours.

I’ve exercised outdoors in the rain in the fall and winter my whole life. On land, I wear short sleeves/shorts comfortably at 50-60 degrees and raining. I find that the exercise keeps me warm and I don’t like the feel of wet clothing.

I think I would feel comfortable paddling in the (air temp) 60s in my bathing suit and pfd. If I immerse, I can swim to shore in under a minute. Back in my boat, with no wet clothing, it seems like paddling would raise my core temp quickly.

I’m wondering if in my situation (mild climate, urban river, close to shore) carrying a towel and wool blanket, hat, gloves, socks, in a dry bag would be safe?

Lots and lots of people fall into rivers with water temperature around 50 degrees or a little higher without protective clothing such as wet suits or dry suits. So long as you wear a PFD, can swim, and can expect to get out of the water fairly quickly you should be fine.

The Nantahala River is one of the most popular whitewater rafting and boating rivers in the eastern US. It is a dam release river and the water is discharged from the bottom of a reservoir so that the water temperature remains around 50 degrees year round. On busy weekend days probably hundreds of individuals take short swims in that river and do just fine.

I paddle spring-fed rivers in the Ozarks where the water temperature is likewise close to 50 degrees and have not used a dry suit or wet suit even in December. Although people tend to call water of any temperature less than 60 degrees “ice cold” it is far from it. Most fit individuals can survive over an hour of full immersion in water of that temperature before becoming incapacitated.

IMO not enough layers.

Even in Portland you are talking water temps more like in the 40’s by now or very soon. Respect to pblanc but unless someone brings up some measurements, I believe your water is colder than the Nantahala.

Here is the reality of being in cool water versus cool air. Water immersion causes you to lose body heat 25 times faster than in the air, including getting caught in some rain.

I get that you are near shore etc, and certainly that gives you some wiggle room that being offshore a mile does not. But I still think you are short a layer for the water the way it likely is going to be pretty soon.

I would say try and center your paddling around Sauvie island for maximum solo safety. The bigger lake on the island is calm and you could stand up in most places, and the Willamette channel in that area is dotted with float houses so you are near safety, plus fishermen abound so even solo you aren’t alone.

Here is some info on water temps on the Willamette, which may be similar to where you paddle: http://www.portlandwaterfrontproperties.com/blog/2014/9/16/how-cold-does-the-willamette-river-get-how-warm

In general, when water temps are below 60 I have some form of immersion thermal protection (wet suit or dry suit). Mid-50s or lower and it is dry suit.

But you are close to shore and in a vessel that presumably you can re-enter quickly, so you likely could wear a bit less and still be safe. But when the water temps get down near 50 (or below), I would think that some form of immersion thermal protection should be worn.

Here is the data for my go-to put in spot. https://waterdata.usgs.gov/monitoring-location/14207200/

I generally paddle the Tualatin in West Linn and Tualatin. Tons of private docks. I would never trespass, but I think if I were in trouble, I would use one with care. Lots of fishers, too.

Under 50 degrees (oops!) F at this point, which was pretty much what I expected.

No, IMO not a bathing suit. Need neoprene or something.

Thanks all. It looks like I’ll be storing my boat for the winter. I’ll have to be satisfied with researching what I want as an upgrade.

My inner temper tantrum (I wanna keep going and my boat is stable and the water is calm and I’ve never fallen in and…) is quieting. I’m still grumpy but trust that as a beginner I need to heed safety advice of more experienced folks. Going out on it boat is not worth not coming home.

But, drat. I wanted the answer to be different.

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The Tualiatin area should be good also.
I used to live in Scappoose so I know the Willamette channel in that area and the waterways on Sauvie itself are protected and generally near enough to a source of emergency help. I would say in that area dress warm with some rain protection and call it good. For the most part in the worst case scenario you are unbelievably close to help the whole time. Close to an after paddle beer also!

Yes, it would certainly be safest to have neoprene or a paddle suit, but if the river is small and slow, the banks are nearby and accessible, bailout is easy at all times, and a neighborhood is nearby, you can probably paddle if you mitigate risk as much as possible.

Cool/cold water should still be highly respected, but if safety is on your mind going into this you should likely be ok on small/calm/urban bodies of water. Just be realistic about your abilities in cold water, so maybe go for an intentional swim at the put in. Swim for a few minutes back and forth in your clothes, then stand outside for a few minutes to simulate you changing clothes. How cold are you? could you paddle back? a short trial at a beach or ramp will tell you what you need to know pretty quickly :slight_smile:


My friend fell in up to his neck at the put-in today. Fortunately an unusually warm day and he had spare clothes in a dry bag. We talked about how easy it was to be a bit underprepared. So I’d say make sure you have some nice synthetic clothes as a base layer to reduce the chance of thermal shock (gasping reflex) if you end up in the water and bring a full set of dry clothes in your dry bag because they really don’t take much space but you sure want them if you need them.

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My 2 cents… I’ve been paddling for > 45 years. My stretch of the river is generally 80 feet across, knee to waist deep, flat water. The stretch seldom freezes due to a dam that warms the water a few degrees above freezing by dumping the river through a pipe from about 15 feet below the reservoir’s surface. I usually manage to get a paddle in every month of the year, although July and August are iffy due to the heat and the deer flies.

I paddle to work out and overheating is a big problem. Perfect weather for me would be 45 degrees, low wind, sunny. That lets me wear a poly shirt and PFD without overheating and without freezing my face or hands. I don’t like paddling below freezing not because I can’t stay warm but because I worry about frostbitten fingers. But I’ve paddled many times when ice built up on the boat and the paddle shaft, and paddling during a heavy snowfall is absolutely magical.

I don’t wear a wetsuit or drysuit. Gasp! Back in the day I had a wet suit to play dodgem floes in local rapids, but I had to immerse to avoid heat stroke. I can tell you neoprene does not in any way protect you from the initial shock of immersion.
I did manage to dump this year in freezing water, first time in 40 years. It was not fun, not safe, and I would have had less of an adrenaline shot had I been wearing a dry suit. Despite that I’m not planning to blow the better part of one large on one.

Winter kayaking is a joy. Its quiet, just you and the animals, and you see a lot that you miss when the vegetation walls things off and boaters scare off the wildlife. If you are confident that you won’t dump then go for it without a dry suit. Carry an extra set of dry clothing, especially a warm hat, invest in gloves and pogies, and enjoy.


If this is a real post, you need to wake up and realize what 50 degree water feels like. It can easily kill you. You need a wet suit (or a dry suit) and you need it before you paddle again. Cold water makes everyone a bad swimmer. If you are solo there is no one there to help. You are literally risking your life. Go buy a wet suit.


  1. It is a real post.

  2. It started with the fact that I’m a beginner seeking the advice of experienced people.

  3. People kayaked before there was neoprene, and wool I has kept northern cultures warm for centuries. I wanted to explore whether that was an option since buying a wetsuit/drysuit is not feasible for me.

  4. I have already responded with respect and appreciation for what the community provided:

  1. Your response feels harsh to me. I’m pretty confused about that.
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My standard responses when people ask about appropriate clothing for autumn/winter paddling:

  1. Don’t guess. Test.

  2. Spring is much more dangerous than autumn.

Re. 1:
You get the best answer from simply jumping into the water and see if you will be able to handle yourself as expected. If you feel confident after that, cool. If not, you need to change your plan.

Of course, when testing, you need some kind of fallback plan, so you don’t end up causing the accident you were trying to protect yourself from.

Re. 2:
Water is usually much colder in the spring than in the autumn. And there are more hot days in the spring, so it is tempting to avoid hot clothes.


Air temperature is irrelevant once you are in the water.

You are much more likely to go into the water head first from a kayak, so having protective clothing to prevent the gasp reflex can be critical. Taking in a lungful of water can be fatal. A crew coach at George Washington University lost his balance and fell into the cold water of the Potomac and never resurfaced. His PFD was in the boat. His body was recovered several days later. The PFD might not have saved him, but it would have made it easier to recover the body.

Also take into consideration the amount of time it will take to swim to shore while recovering a swamped boat, paddle, and any loose gear.


@Allan_Olesen very useful. Thanks. I’ll definitely remember this come spring.

@rstevens15 - I shared the air temp only as part of the data for my question about how to plan appropriately given my personal circumstances. While I still think those circumstances make my situation low-risk for immersion, the consequences of an unlikely immersion will keep me off the water til spring.

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On the New Year’s Day paddle with my former paddling club in Ann Arbor the requirement was to bring a dry bag with dry clothes. In that river one could get to shore quickly. My paddling is similar to kevburg’s and I also rely on synthetic clothes which will help reduce the shock of entering cold water plus I bring lots of extra clothes in a dry bag (I have a dry bag with full change of clothes and that’s inside another dry bag which also has extra clothes). Seems like you should add at least one close-fitting synthetic layer on top of your bathing suit even if you don’t need it to be warm while exercising. As mentioned if you rely on bringing extra clothes in a dry bag then it’s important to make sure you won’t get separated from your boat (and dry clothes) if you capsize since you can get cold fast if you don’t get right out of the water. My experienced friend that accidentally fell in at the put-in a couple days ago said he never got cold since he got right out and changed right away. I’ve been in water in the 30’s and again it was just key to get out fast and have lots of warm dry clothes available. That said there’s always a good argument to be made for a full or partial wetsuit or drysuit since they add safety.