Paddling into thick fog

Not long ago I took advantage of some nice weather and grabbed one of my boats and headed up to a local lake. It didn’t take me long to be in the water and on my way. The sky was blue, the sun was bright; what could go wrong? Well there was this low fog bank that looked fairly temporary. It just happened to be where I was going… I was very familiar with my directions and thought that the fog would be no problem.

This fog was the thickest I have ever encountered and before I knew it, I couldn’t even see the water. I thought, no worries, I’ll soon run into a shore where I could wait out the fog… Before that ever happened, the strangest thing began to happen. I began to lose my sense of balance. Yeah, I could feel the water with my paddle and stay upright. but the feeling was very unnerving and uncomfortable. I was dressed for the cold water, but the last thing I wanted to do was end up in it. Fortunately, the fog finally did begin to rise and thin out enough that I could vaguely make out something like a shore line. That “shoreline” turned out to be the Cascade Mountains that were a number of miles away, but at least it was something to give me a sense of which way was up… Shortly I paddled out of the foggy gloom into bright sunshine. The lesson learned–at least for me is never paddle into a fog if you don’t have to.


Without a compass you will paddle in circles too.


I’ve heard that something similar happens to pilots who are not trained in instrument flight (IFR) and fly into a dense cloud.


We had something similar happen on Banks Lake. The fog just seemed to envelop us as we were paddling back to the take-out. We just kept talking among ourselves to stay together and knew that the shoreline was to our right - if you can call basalt ledges and cliffs a shoreline.

I caught this photo when the fog suddenly lifted for about 30 seconds and then just as quickly rolled back in. We paddled in that fog bank all the way back to the take-out. Had to hug the shoreline to make sure we didn’t paddle past it.


PS: I was in a solo canoe so had to really pay attention to “up” vs “down”. :wink:

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During the early days of flying, the story goes; don’t go aloft in fog without having a cat and a duck aboard.
Why is that?
Well, because ducks don’t fly in bad weather and will always fly safely to the ground. So throw it out and follow it down.
So, what is the cat for?
Well, because while in bad weather you could end up inverted which makes for a very bad landing outcome.
Cats always land on their feet - so before landing, if the cat is standing on the floor, you’re ok. If the cat is standing on the airplane’s roof, roll the plane over.


I do not like fog at all. I don’t trust power boats, especially ferries and tugs with barges.

I was fishing in my powerboat one November day at Lake Almanor, CA. All at once the wind came up and there was a snow squall. My brother and I hauled in our gear and headed for home. The swirling snow had the same effect as fog. We lost contact with shore. We ran on a compass bearing and the depth sounder. I knew there was a reef between us and the far shoreline. Depth went from 50 to 30 to 12 to 8 then got deeper again. We headed deliberately well south of the boat ramp. We ran until we could see the west shore and followed it north to the boat ramp. The spray was coming over the rail and freezing on the deck. There was no one at the boat ramp and no help anywhere around. We learn from these experiences to be careful and stay calm.

One of my favorite ways to get into the western Adirondacks is to paddle in on a long skinny reservoir, wide at one end. It is often shrouded in fog, when it was especially thick one fall morning. I couldn’t even see the end of my canoe from the solo middle paddling position. There is a “safe” channel used by motorboats to navigate around and between several islands and rocky shallow shoals. The islands matter to me, the shoals not so much to a canoe. I set my compass to follow the straightest line to thread myself between a couple of islands toward the far end, almost 5 miles away, and then I set off from the public launch. With compass on the bottom of the canoe between my legs set to hold a constant course, I had one of the best silent paddle trips in memory. Sky, water, and canoe all blended into one fuzzy horizonless scene. About an hour later as the sun began to thin the fog enough to see more than a few yards, I found myself in the channel exactly between the two islands I expected to be at. I had no spatial disorientation or balance issues as described by the OP. Maybe because, although I have thousands of hours in a USAF aircraft, I was the navigator, not a pilot. it was a great enjoyable and accurate way to travel that foggy morning.image

I got lost hiking in a swamp close to home when the fog moved in. I realized that I had no idea which way to go. I had read that you can keep from walking in circles by picking a tree and walking to it, then pick another, etc. I did that until I found a familiar spot.
The only problem with that in a swamp is you have to go through any water in your straight line.

Watch this video to see what happens when people think they are traveling in a straight line. I show this during my land navigation classes when someone says they have good directional sense without using a compass or other external nav aids.


I haven’t experienced the loss of sense of balance, but certainly know that I can’t rely on any sense of direction in the fog. A compass and a general idea of the heading to the closest point of safety is a must, and a chart if you actually want to paddle toward some destination. It’s really pretty to putter around shore on a foggy morning when the fog starts to burn off, and while the goal is to avoid motorboat traffic and navigation channels, I have a small radar reflector (mounted about 30 inches off the deck) and marine radio in an effort to be a little safer.

So much depends on the situation - a thick wall of fog where there may be motorboat traffic on a large body of water. That’s scary. (I don’t recall ever having it affect my sense of balance, though I don’t doubt that it might.) In the situation originally described, I’d be wanting to get a compass bearing before I was engulfed and be plotting the quickest way to a place where I could sit it out or reverse my course. Its one of the reasons I ALWAYS carry an “unhappy bag” with a compass in it, though I’ve only had to actually use it a couple of times over many years, largely because I mostly paddle on rivers.

But sometimes fog can be kind of nice. It lends a soft gentle air of mystery to everything. It always reminds me of late season camping and paddling, when the water is warm and it meets the cool air of morning. I love mornings around camp that look like this.

If you time your departure right sometimes the fog lifts like a sheet: You can (carefully) stand in a canoe and put your head in the clear air above to get your bearings and later sometimes duck under the sheet to see under it. Those are magical times that are a very occasional blessing.

Our local club does a New Year’s Day paddle on a lake that’s a cooling pond for a power plant. We call it the Fog Bowl. We do it because the water is always reliably open and getting wet isn’t nearly as threatening as it would ordinarily be at that time of year. The closer you get to where the plant, the warmer the water - 80deg when you get right by the outlet. This, of course, generates tons of fog on calm days with temps that might be in the 20s or so. There’s always a filigree of frost on the surrounding trees that make an otherwise quite unattractive lake palatable to paddle on. You can be 20 ft off shore and feel like you’re on the Grand Banks or something. The power plant is a ready reference point, though. Little chance of really getting disoriented for long.

Here’s one of GuideBoatGuy at the “Fog Bowl” on a pretty mild New Year’s Day.


Called spatial disorientation i.e. Kobe Bryant.

Beautiful description.


I have spent a fair amount of time paddling in fog and I must admit to getting disoriented at times. I don’t like it but it has sometimes been a fact of life. What really gives me the purple whirlies is when I change my focus from deck compass, GPS and looking ahead of the bow for hopes of life. I have found that I am OK if I focus on the deck compass and that I can do it for hours at a time but if I look down at my GPS to read my “course made good” or to look up in hopes of seeing the shoreline I get really dizzy and may have to brace to feel safe.
I posted an experience I had in fog two years ago. It may be interesting

I will tell a funny story on myself involving fog, canoeing and a connection to aviation. Late one afternoon I stopped for the day at a campground on the western shore of Churchill Lake during an Allagash trip years ago. The lake was narrow at this point, only about 1/4 mile across and the campsite was just south of a small cove which was perhaps 100 yards across.

In the morning there was a thick fog which did not burn off before I was ready to go. My course required me to go north across the cove and then continue north along the western shore of the lake. I had a compass, but it was packed away and I was lazy or cocky. I thought if I squared the canoe to the shore before I started I could paddle the 100 yards to the other side of the cove and then continue north along the lake shore. I paddled a lot longer than I thought it should take to get across the cove. Eventually I dimly saw some trees to my left and thought great, I made it. Then I dimly saw the sun, also on my left. The light bulb went off in my head that said if the sun is on your left you are going south not north. I had not paddled across the cove, but across the lake and turned 180 degrees in the process. I felt pretty foolish because I had just retired from a 37 year career as a pilot. I did know better.

I moved the compass to where I could get at with less fuss.



Compass on deck, compass in pfd simple

My brother, who lives in Panama City, FL, shared this story with me shortly after it happened:
Kayaker, Fog and U.S. Navy Hovercraft


Fog can always be a problem. It can be mitigated via what others have said here - compass ready at hand, know to grab a heading before you are socked in, and in general try not to share it with power boats. Pleasure or fishing.
If you are really stuck a mapping GPS is also helpful. But better to know how to get out of it without a battery driven device. Dampness will suck down the batteries in a device faster than in better weather.

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Great advice and to ad one practical thing…practice paddling a compass heading on clear days. Being socked in by fog is no time to learn how to navigate by compass. In fog, trust your compass = your senses are all messed up.


I find fog excruciating to navigate in. Trying to whip up a bearing while sitting in the boat and looking at a fog bank ahead of you can be intimidating. Add in a crossing with possible current sweeping one direction and it’s even better. Do I add or subtract to get my bearing? I always try to guesstimate an eta as well and keep a close eye on my watch to know if I’ve traveled past my desired destination. Start tracking and noting time/s as I begin the crossing. And if I totally bungle this thing which direction do I turn to completely assure I travel towards the largest land mass I hopefully can not possibly miss?
Sometimes helps when after traveling the prescribed time on a bearing to stop and listen, and maybe the sound of breaking waves will help discern the small island that is your destination. And if there are sheep in residence on said small island then you’ll need to find an alternative campsite for the evening, but first let’s squeeze yourself out of the boat to help determine this is actually the island you were trying to find. And in your haste to land you missed the very nice campsite with the gently sloping beach don’t worry, because it’s impossible to launch at your landing spot at low tide anyways. Carrying 17 foot touring boats across a thorny island is always much prettier at sunset. And where did all this sheep crap come from anyways?
Add in the difficulties of traveling in fog with any other seemingly small navigational challenges and things compound quickly. I begin white knuckling my paddle wondering why I didn’t take up golf. Golf. They drive around in carts and there are coolers with cold drinks. Trying to follow a bearing but having to thread through shoals, rebounding waves, current. I question my thinking of not upgrading to a modern stable hull design because I’m too cheap and continue to paddle a 20 year old design with the stability profile of a discarded pizza box. But it’s a classic! And the backband just slipped again but I don’t dare take my hands off the paddle to try and fix it, let alone stop paddling.
All this becomes brutally clear in the lazer focus required to stay upright on what was supposed to be the short easy paddle back to the car. But it does beat golf.