Paddling into thick fog

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

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.


Road (or railroad) noise can be useful, too. You big water wilderness kayakers may not often have that to fall back on, but there are (alas) getting to be very few places left in the rest of the country where it is possible to totally escape man-made noise. There have been occasions when I’ve night paddled on lakes (similar in that your visual cues are severely restricted and a compass heading is real handy) when hearing a passing truck on the right, for example, can give a clue as to location if you’re familiar enough with the place you’re paddling in. Landings are near roads, of course, and some might even have enough traffic to help. I suppose in a pretty desperate situation simply paddling to road noise might at lest offer a way to land at a point where hitchhiking out would be possible and be safer that staying on the water and getting totally lost or blindly paddling “out to sea” or into dangerous currents. Sound is muffled in fog, of course, but it might be the best cue you have in some situations.


Just beyond these islands was a 4 mile crossing of the lake into very thick fog. I had to reach a river that empties the lake in order to reach my vehicle which was 4 miles down stream. Luckily, I had my GPS and just followed my tracks from the paddle in.


Add a little vertigo and a visual horizon becomes real important.


I made a fog crossing on Lake Superior AI from Cat Island to Rocky in 8-20 foot visibility. Shot the heading and watched the compass and the clock. The best part was the 15-18ft swells when I came out of the lee of Cat Island. The weax radio said they were there I thought the forecast was stale. It wasn’t, but I launched in calm water and paddled into that level of energy. I made really good time in following seas. Focused on keeping the heading straight, I was close to the bulls eye. The swells had intermittent white caps, were actually pretty fun, if it had been clear I would have coasted them all the way to Wisconsin mainland. Would have been a once in lifetime chance.
Peace Jeff


Johnnysmoke brings up a good point, sound. It has some reliability issues in true pea soup fog. The droplets disperse sound so finding the direction it is coming from gets hard. But it can still be a very important clue.

My husband, a friend and I took off in fog that was supposed to lift one morning. Sure… we got most of the way to the island we were headed for but heard a lobster boat motor near where the island had to be. They couldn’t see us, other factors including limited landing points on that island so we had to give it up.

We navigated by compass all the way out and back, but I lost my confidence at one point heading home. The shoreline of the last small island before crossing the river mouth to home looked all wrong to me shrouded in fog and at full low tide. I was reaching to pull the GPS unit out of the day hatch when I heard them - crows. Lots and lots of crows.

There were only two islands in that entire stretch we were doing where crows congregated. We were between them, and in the right place.


Canoeing in the Great Bear Rainforest (Hakai Luxvbelus). A combination of fog, haze from wildfires, which obscured the morning sun, and my ego for not turning on my GPS, led my partner and I on a two-hour paddle through 2 m swells instead of a relaxing 30 min paddle across to a calm channel. Because of the swells, I couldn’t take my paddle out of the water to access my GPS or compass. The full story is here: Foggy Brain


Oh Jeez! So you were headed for Nalau Passage and ended up in the open and blind all the way to Calvert. Harsh toke! It’s been too long since I read that trip report. Guess I’ll do that this morning.

Thank you for posting.

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Great animation and background illustrations!

Everybody’s circle went clockwise. Could this bias be an ancient holdover related to the fact that the earth still rotates in the same direction it did long ago?

That sounds like motion sickness. I learned at an early age that I cannot read in a moving car, even though riding in one does not make me ill or uncomfortable. I, too, can check a deck-mounted compass, which is several feet in front, but no way would I want to rely on reading a digital device close to me.

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