What to wear while winter canoeing

I’ve been kayaking for a long time and have always dressed for the water temp - wetsuit or drysuit in winter. Sometime near the end of January I will be getting my first canoe (a pack boat actually) and am wondering if the same rules apply. I feel like I have more often seen canoe paddlers, even in winter, wearing land garb (e.g., sweater, shell, wool cap). Maybe the thought is that canoes are inherently more stable, and most often in flat water environments like lakes and slow-moving rivers that make an unintended swim even less likely. Plus, you’re often closer to shore if on a lake or small river (vs an estuary or the ocean). I guess there’s best practices and common practices, but not sure what the “official” recommendations are for canoe-ing. I live in Georgia by the way, so the water gets cold but not icing over cold. I’ve tried looking this up on the internet but virtually every return for searches like “winter paddling canoe apparel” have to do with kayaking not canoe-ing. Also, although it may partly reflect the nature of the forums I visit, virtually every paddling-related cold-water fatality I come across is of a kayaker rather than a canoe-er, supporting the view that canoe-ing is considerably safer (or that possibly canoers but not kayakers don’t go paddling in winter).

You are quite mistaken that virtually every paddling related cold water fatality is a kayaker. We lose many in canoes in the spring… Your view is quite dangerous.
You need a wetsuit in your area. I would need a drysuit and fleece. Inattention to your body position and putting your head in a high center of gravity position and getting it outside the gunwales is the prime reason for capsizing. Not waves!. Not all canoes are stable!

The carrying a spare set of dry clothes in a dry bag and fire making stuff is not a good idea in the winter. Its a tactic used by some in calm waters where they can basically stand up and exit the water easily.

IIRC correctly canoes can be rented in GA in the winter. Of course you will see those being used by normally dressed people whether or not it is a good idea. Most don’t have a wetsuit before they own a canoe!
Splitting hairs over the type of watercraft used in the winter is counterproductive. You have the cold weather gear. Use it.

Canoes may run drier on flat water and quick water (with a single blade anyway) but as often repeated, it’s the potential risk of immersion that determines how to dress. You’ll see canoeists in clothing that looks more suited to snowshoeing than winter paddling but once in the water it’s important to be dressed for the water. A dry suit would be ideal but I’ve gone for swims in the winter with a wet suit on and it did work. However, I was pretty f’ing cold after getting back into the canoe and paddling for another hour even with poly underwear, a wet suit, thick fleece pullover, and paddling jacket. If I’d had to keep paddling for any longer I would have stopped and put on dry clothing.

I’m really cautious when canoeing in cold weather and water, always thinking about where the wind might push me, how far I’d have to swim pulling a swamped canoe, and how long I might be wet. Sure, I bring a change of clothes but if I get back into the canoe and dump again then it’s survival mode and time becomes the factor that might kill me. I tend to avoid paddling in places that would require a long walk back to the car for that reason.


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My answer to what I wear when canoeing in colder weather is “it depends”.

When paddling whitewater in winter I would always wear either a dry suit or a dry top (in a kayak) once I had them. But I remember whitewater day trips on New Years Day that I did in a wet suit before I had either.

For non-whitewater trips I might wear a dry suit but I seldom do. I do remember wearing one on a pretty cold downriver overnight trip on December 26 a few years back. I honestly can’t remember the last time I wore a wet suit.

I seldom do recreational day trips on non-whitewater these days if the air temperatures are in the 20s or below. For a day trip on a moving flat water or Class I river where I know the chances that I will wind up fully immersed are really quite remote and the river bank is nearby I will often wear a synthetic wicking layer with one or more synthetic insulating layers covered by a windproof shell of some type with velcro neck and wrist gaskets and perhaps a pair of waterproof splash pants with velcro ankle gaskets and a neoprene waist band. I can recall only one instance in which I wound up in the water on such a trip. It occurred quite a few years ago and I actually went over at the put in. Even though I did have a change of clothes with me, I didn’t bother with them. I found that after a few minutes of vigorous paddling the water retained by those synthetic layers warmed up as much as water trapped under a wet suit would have.

I recall the days of early whitewater canoeing well before dry suits were widely available. Some open boaters wore wet suits but many wore army surplus woolen long underwear, old wool sweaters, and the like.

Dress for immersion in any light water craft.
Ignore people that break the rules.
I have seen photos of people on stand up paddle boards on Lake Tahoe in winter with street clothes and no PFD. Don’t do it.
The uniform for a lot of people that fish in winter in drift boats is chest waders and no PFD.
These are examples of people asking for serious trouble.

Interesting observation. I’ve never heard anyone claim that canoes are inherently safer in winter than kayaks.

I don’t buy the “lower probability of a problem” argument even if it’s true. Sure, paddlers may naturally go further offshore in kayaks and some kayaks are much better for self-rescue than canoes. But that’s like saying it’s safer to get in a cage with 2 lions than 3.

I do lots of winter paddling in canoes on relatively slow moving water. Around a month ago I nearly knocked myself out on a tree when I didn’t duck far enough. I was alone in the middle of nowhere. Around a week ago I came around a corner and suddenly realized I was about to hit a mostly-submerged log that was hard to see in the wind and current…I backpaddled HARD and came within a foot of it. It was hung up in another fallen tree and it would not have been a good spot to swim with the current pushing me into the downfall. Another smaller local river is just full of downfall and this time of year I’m sometimes blinded by late afternoon sun and that can lead to some memorable thrills with the current pushing you along.

==> just a few recent examples but I have to say I’m amazed at how often one can experience something that has never happened before

I also stay close to shore genetally but one may cross the river occasionally or just have to go a little bit offshore to get around a fallen tree. But rivers have current and if your boat swamps in even mild current you can’t assume that it will be easy or even possible to get it to shore so you may need to spend more time in the water than you expected.

I think that one reason kayaker deaths may be more common is just that kayaks are so much more prevalent than canoes.

We had an open boater (and her dog) go in a couple of weeks ago getting back in the boat after taking a break - I’ve seen many more people go over getting in and out of the boat than paddling. She was not wearing cold water gear, but at least she wasn’t wearing cotton. We turned around and headed back to the put-in, but she ended up being fine. Her dog was shivering though.

For me in the northeast, dry suit with appropriate insulating layers starts around Nov and continues through May. I’ll sometimes wear a wet suit in early fall or late spring depending on the temp. I think spring is the most dangerous time for most people since the air temps are higher but it takes a while for the water to catch up.

Thinking back, I took a swim in May. I was joining a group to paddle the White River in VT. Its a three-hour drive for me, and I was running late. I was the last to arrive at the put-in, and I could tell by the looks when I drove in that the rest of the group was ready to go.

As far as I knew the forecast for the day was sunny and warm, but I hadn’t checked in a few days. I didn’t want to hold the group up any longer so I grabbed my boundary boots, left my hat, drysuit and spare cloths in the car, and headed out.

About a mile downstream I was navigating through a boney section of quickwater and it happened. I hit a rock and over I went. The recovery was quick, but the damage was done. I was sopping wet. I got my boat to shore, put on my splash top (the only spare cloths that I had) and hoped for the best.

Unfortunately, the sun didn’t come out. Instead, it started to rain. Everyone pulled out their raingear, but I just got colder and wetter. Fortunately, I was able to borrow some dry cloths and finished the trip fine.

It happens to everybody – no matter what your boat, no matter the type of water you are paddling in.

I paddle all winter I can find open water and generally wear the same in a canoe as I do in a kayak…the “rule” of thumb for me and you’ll hear ad nauseum is dress for immersion. Practice swimming in cold water is good advice. Reality for me tho is finding the balance between dressing for immersion and becoming hypothermic due to internal moisture from too many layers. I’ve got it pretty well dialed in for myself probably leaning a little away from the immersion side. Of course I like the most breatheable outer layers I can find.

We do capsize from time to time(last winter one was in Feb with an air temp below freezing) so it’s good to know what you’re in for….

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I was canoeing in Connecticut in January with a drysuit and layers on… I was practicing freestyle which has a higher risk of immersion and did fall out. My canoe never capsized and sailed off in the breeze across the lake with me swimming after it.
Moral was: have a painter line on the boat even in flatwater. I almost got it some half dozen times but not quite is not good enough. I was swimming after it a good 15 min… If it were not for the drysuit I would have never gotten the boat.

Depends on what your doing, you can swim in anything over 60 degrees. It’s not gonna be fun but you can do it. If you are a strong swimmer, I know cape code life guards who swam 50 degree water for 2 miles in the summer.

I have a really stable canoe and I typically wear carhart Storm Defender bibs and jacket. If you don’t go in the wind is what’s gonna ruin your day so be windproof with a warm second layer wool(at least a 80:20 blend) is always good because even if it’s wet you stay warm. Fleece gets cold when it’s wet. Get some boat shoes, sterns, laCrosse, etc.

Yes, although many people would characterize water at 50 degree Fahrenheit as “very cold” average adults actually have a pretty long survival time if fully immersed.

At 50 degrees F, although some loss of dexterity might occur within 10-15 minutes, the average adult can swim for 1-2 hours without flotation or specialized protective clothing and survival time with flotation but no protective clothing is on the order of 2-3 hours. So barring entrapment if one is paddling near shore or on not very wide river, there is generally plenty of time to self rescue to shore especially if one is wearing a PFD.

Of course, that is for the “average” adult. Those times will vary with body surface/volume ratio and percentage of body fat. And some people can simply tolerate cold water immersion better than others.

I have taken involuntary swims and self-rescued on dam controlled whitewater rivers that have water temperatures in the low 50s more than 100 times in a wide variety of ambient temperature conditions always wearing a PFD but otherwise dressed in anything from nothing more than a pair of shorts to a full dry suit, and the choice of what I wore usually depended on ambient temperature and wind. I honestly never remember feeling cold while in the water in such cases. I worried more about how cold I might get when I got out of the water.

Water temperatures below 50 degrees F and especially below 40 degrees F are a very different kettle of fish. And if I were contemplating the possibility of prolonged immersion, such as a mishap during a long open water crossing over cold water, I would always wear some type of protective clothing.


There’s a huge amount of individual variation in cold water tolerance. (Obviously, when choosing what to wear, best to err on the side of assuming you have terrible cold water tolerance.) Also you can improve your cold water tolerance with training (probably the case with the Cape Cod lifeguards in 50 degree water.) In 1984 an Icelandic fisherman swam for 6 hours in 41 degree water after his boat capsized, and was totally fine. He was wearing jeans and a sweater. The 4 others on the boat died within 10 minutes of being in the water. The guy was pretty fat though, which undoubtedly helped him.

Not many USGS gages still track water temperature, but the couple I found show temps for rivers in southern New England now in the upper 30’s. By New Year’s they will be in the low to mid 30’s.

Most river paddlers will get out of the water pretty quickly, but being cold and wet on shore or in the boat can be almost a dangerous as being in the water when the air temps are cold in the winter.

It’s your life. Just how much do you value it?

I’ll be kayaking today as temps will get up into the 40’s. Water is close to freezing, typically waist deep and I’m 20 seconds from shore. I’ll be wearing poly underwear, poly sweats, poly shirt under cotton shirt (lacking a poly with a pocket), wool socks, Chuck Taylors and a baseball cap. I always bring a wool hat and hoodie in case I dump and thin gloves.

Yes, I have paddled whitewater streams in the northern tier of counties in Pennsylvania in the early Spring months which is as late as many of the small creeks will run. Basically paddling in snow melt where water temperatures were often below 35 degrees F. Obviously I was wearing at least a dry top (in a kayak) or dry suit in a canoe

That is very different. I had to roll quite a few times in that water and occasionally self-rescue in a canoe. Even with good protective clothing vasco-constriction would make one’s extremities clumsy within only a few minutes. Paddling in those conditions without good protective clothing would be courting disaster.

In the southern Appalachians where I did most of my New Year’s Day “icebreaker” runs the streams that are big enough to paddle virtually never freeze. I actually remember New Year’s Day runs on the Cartecay in northern Georgia when it was sunny and 70 degrees F.

Point is there is cold and there is cold. Many people will stick their foot in 50 degree water and declare that it is “ice water”. Just because it is winter and you are in a canoe does not necessarily mean that you are a lunatic and will die if you do not wear a dry suit or wet suit. If you want to get a better estimate of actual water temperature when paddling, get one of those thin thermometer tapes that are manufactured to put on the side of aquariums and apply it to your paddle.

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I’ve frozen my a** off in canoes, kayaks, ducks, and rafts. In fact I would say ducks and rafts are the worst- more exposed- more likely to have feet or legs in cold water. Canoes would be next- again more exposed than in a kayak, canoe may even have a little water sloshy around in the bottom of the boat. On cold days in a kayak or c1 at least the sprayskirt keeps most of the cold water out and some heat in. Sometimes I don’t even want to get out of the kayak on a cold day because I don’t want to lose the heat.

I’ve gotten really bad about getting in and out of kayaks at the beginning but especially at the end of a trip- consider myself lucky if just the feet get wet, up to the knees is the norm, and sometimes I just sort of plop out- not a problem if you are dressed for immersion. You get wet but you hardly notice it. Dress for the swim.

We did lots of stupid stuff when we were young. We made do with farmer johns and sweaters and multiple paddling jackets, wore playtex gloves because there weren’t pogies, and wore old tennis shoes with wool socks instead of booties. Even tried putting plastic bags as vapor barriers around the feet. Then there were the plastic drysuits that were just sweat factories.

Now I like being comfortable and safe. Dress for the water temp. If you get hot then dip your hat in the water and let it cool you or you can roll, or pull over to a sandbar and test out the drysuit. Those are all good ways to cool off.

Hardest times to dress is when you have warm air temps and cold water temps- if you dress for the air temps it is real important that you keep the immersion times short. Desert paddling with cold water is always a challenge. You don’t want to get heat stroke so it becomes difficult to dress for the water temp. The solution is to get out of the water quickly and let the air temp rewarm you.

I was comfortable in my semi drysuit in sc over thanksgiving…but more importantly I was safe. Getting wet isn’t a big deal if you are dressed for it.

I’ve learned to keep a spare drysuit in the camper. Sometimes it gets used and sometimes it doesn’t but now it is always there if I need it. In the summer there’s Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming cold and but then i learned that there is Washington and Coastal Maine cold and now a spare drysuit has a permanent home in the camper even during the summer months.

The time for shorts and a cotton t shirt is when it is hot and humid and the water feels like warm bath water- New River in WV in July or Aug. The cotton helps keep you cool. Dress for the conditions. the boat you are in doesn’t matter all that much unless you are taking a ducky down the New River Dries in December. Then you are likely to turn into a popsicle regardless of what you wear. Sitting in a giant puddle of cold water ain’t a whole lot of fun.

I like cold weather boating but unfortunately it hasn’t always liked me. Sometimes I start hacking a bunch. Have to time paddling through the rapids with fits of uncontrollable coughing and spitting out chunks of phlegm- that’s when I know I’ve underdressed and haven’t even taken a swim- think cherry or gauley river in wv in december cold. Or you flip over and see giant purple spots instead of the rest of the rapid when you roll up- major ice cream headache time. I often wear a balaclava ww boating in the winter. Keeping the head warm is real important. Gasp reflex is also real.