Winter Sea Kayaking

I live in North Shore, MA and kayak and go ocean kayaking. I am thinking of trying winter kayaking, but I am not sure of the best kind of gear to use. My kayak is a sit on top so I know I will have to get a sit-in. Does anyone have any recommendations for the best kayak for winter sea kayaking? Is a drysuit the best to wear? They are so expensive! I go out alone so I want to make sure I am safe. Any suggestions?

you need more than a sit-inside kayak

– Last Updated: Oct-15-10 4:48 PM EST –

Ocean paddling alone in winter without experience and "safe" don't fit in the same sentence. What you really need is to join up with a group of competent, experienced paddlers who can show you some safety features of winter paddling AND take you along on some easy paddles. And that's before you start buying a whole lot of gear. It's knowledge and judgment that help keep you safe. In your shoes I'd want to go out in winter, too. But the risks go up dramatically, so it helps to learn from people who understand the risks and can teach you how to increase your margin of safety - and give you a chance to practice self- and assisted rescues in cold water. In winter I always try to have several ways to rescue myself -- not just one. (Yes, I do have a drysuit -- great for cold water -- but it's not the most important thing.)

Local Coast Guard Auxillary
Get in touch with the branch closest to you. They are a wealth of information and can assist you with safety training, which you will need. By asking the question "Do I need a dry suit, you do not have the skills nor are you prepared to winter kayak, in my opinion. Nothing personal, just an easy way to die that you should avoid.

Also go to AMC’s (Appalachian Mountain Club) web site and look at their sea kayaking site and schedule. You cannot go along on a sea kayaking event with them unless you demonstrate the ability to wet exit and self rescue.

Avoid going out alone if possible, but most all of us do it anyway. Winter just makes it much more deadly if you run into trouble. See your local outfitter for sea kayaks and rentals. They’ll also be able to steer you towards local paddling groups. If you’re a likeable person, you might get a lot of help and instruction from other paddlers, and thru osmosis.

No reason to change kayaks SOT is fine.
A sit on top is just fine for winter kayaking and you’ll be much more comfortable. I’m always hot in a sit inside kayak (SINK) because I’m dressed properly for immersion and swimming. But in a sit on top (SOT) I’m dressed the same way but I’m nice and wet and cool.

Also I’m much better and faster with sit on top self rescue.

I’d say it is a lot more about your skills and your clothing than your boat. If you are going to be in the ocean in the winter you are going to be wet a lot. If so then i’d recommend a wetsuit like 99% of the surfers and kayak surfers wear. Don’t look at the old style junk that kayak shops sell. Look for a real full body wet suit from a surf shop.

A wetsuit is NOT adequate up here
Maybe it’s enough in NC, but when the water temps are in the 30’s and 40’s, a typical paddling wetsuit is next to worthless, not to mention much less comfortable than a dry suit.

Contact the NSPN
It’s the North Shore Paddler’s Network (, the largest club in Eastern MA. There are a lot of very experienced paddlers in the club who will help you learn the skills you need to paddle safely in the winter. You’ll also find paddling partners, so you don’t have to paddle alone, which is a really bad idea in winter. You will need a dry suit, whether you stick with your SOT or buy a SINK. If you can’t afford one, stay off the water until you can.

second not needing INK

– Last Updated: Oct-15-10 8:49 PM EST –

I second what was said about not needing a SINK. The main change you need to allow for winter paddling over what you do now is clothing.

If water gets below a point (likely around 50F), you pretty much need a dry suit with appropriate layers below it (the dry suit actually doesn't keep you warm - it is those layers). You also will likely want some sort of gloves and hood.

Water temps above 50, a wet suit likely would be enough. But if you plan to go for the lower temps, just get the dry suit and wear that at the wet suit temps.

I second North Shore Sea Kayakers

– Last Updated: Oct-15-10 11:00 PM EST –

they may be able to help you find deals on used suitable equipment. But a club often has members shopping for new gear and looking for an outlet for their unwanted stuff.
You WILL need a drysuit. The water temperature in southern Maine is about to go below 50 and MA wont be far behind.
You will learn so much and have such a good time. Winter kayaking is nothing to take lightly but take precautions and be safe while you have fun.

No no no...dont go out alone until you have taken a self rescue class. Even if your SOT is a stable barge the unexpected can happen, and all it takes is one minute in cold water to lose your hand dexterity. Alone you have no second chance.

I got my NSPN mixed up with Southern Maine Sea Kayakers group oops.

It’s not just the cold water during the winter, it’s often rougher due to fall storms.

The jump to winter kayaking is kind of like making the jump from class 2 white water to class 4, it’s all about the consequences. A swim in class 2 no big deal, a swim in class 4, ouch. A swim in the summer, no big deal, a swim in the winter… how long until you can’t use your hands?

I sent you a message about a worth while workshop for you to attend.

Another vote for NSPN…
I attended one of their cold water workshops 4 or 5 years ago, and it was very worthwhile, a very knowledgeable group of folks.

Charles River Canoe and Kayak is also putting on cold water workshops…

clothing, yes, but that’s not all
A drysuit, neoprene gloves, neoprene hood, etc are really important for paddling in our area, IMO, but the MOST important thing about winter paddling is being very conservative in the way you paddle. Even with all my immersion gear on, I realize my wintertime and early spring kayak outings are quite a bit more dangerous than anything I do in warmer water. Very few boats are on the water to help you quickly if you get in trouble. The water is so cold that without a drysuit, heavy fleece, neoprene gloves and hood, you probably won’t be able to use your hands or control your limbs after just minutes in the water.

To help mitigate those dangers I make different decisions. I rarely paddle alone in the winter, even though I can roll, self rescue about half a dozen ways, and always dress to survive a moderately long immersion. I don’t play around in the rocks and tide races in cold water, where capsizing is more likely. I’m more conservative with the weather I paddle in; While I won’t worry about 15 knots of wind and 5’ seas in the summer or fall, I’d stay home if that were the forecast for a winter paddle.

I’d strongly encourage you to join NSPN, and take part in their cold-weather training. THEN paddle with people you meet in that group! Finding competant, safe paddling partners is one of the most important parts of winter safety, IMO.

Learn, be safe, and enjoy.


Excellent advice, Nate
Winter weather really reduces one’s margin for error. What would be minor incidents in summer can be life-threatening when it’s cold. There’s no substitute for experiencing it first-hand to give you a real perspective on the risks involved. That’s best done with a group of experienced winter paddlers.

with your sit on top kayak
you will actually dress for immersion once you get out there in the winter wind and snow. The second time for sure. It’s all fun and games until you come to the parking lot at ocean side and step out of your warm car with your coffee cup to examine the situation :wink:

Agree with both of the above posters.

I’d suggest looking at news reports from the past several winters locally and notice that there a usually several deaths with paddlers in the winter.

It’s not worth getting dead to go out alone. Cold water can be a quick killer.

Bill H.

RI Canoe & Kayak Assn
I think it’s great that you love kayaking enough to want to do it year-round. However, in this part of the world, it is absolutely crucial that you have the proper skills, gear and experience in order to safely sea kayak in the wintertime. Please consider joining a paddling club and also getting some good instruction.

RICKA is a large paddling club with members in RI, CT and MA. We welcome new members and hold trips, classes and training in sea kayaking, flatwater and whitewater. Check us out at and

We also classify our sea kayak trips by level of difficulty, so you can choose trips that are appropriate for you:

As a year-round sea kayaker, I can tell you that I wouldn’t paddle with you in the winter until I’d paddled with you in the summer. Safe winter sea kayaking in New England requires going with paddlers you know and trust. The fact that you’re even considering sea kayaking alone here in the winter tells me you have no idea what’s involved.

Hamilton Wood’s body was never found:

What the articles don’t mention is that he was wearing a wetsuit, not a drysuit, and the kayak was found with the paddle set up for a paddle float re-entry, which is a piece of cake in warm water. The conclusion was that he was so incapacitated by the cold water that he wasn’t able to get back into his kayak.

So he thought he was safe because he was wearing a wetsuit and could do a paddle-float re-entry, but didn’t take into account the cold water. The ironic thing is that the Coast Guard did check on him earlier, but he said he was OK and refused rescue. As I recall, his brother said he’d been paddling for years, but liked to go by himself. There is something to be said for collective wisdom…

try a different forum

People who actually paddle SOTs in your neck of the woods.

and yes you can buy a wetsuit that will keep you safe in winter ocean temps. There is a large contingent of east coast surfers and waveskiers that can give you advice.

Just asking - really don’t know

– Last Updated: Oct-18-10 11:24 AM EST –

I don't know about the surfer type garments myself because I go straight to the dry suit, but am aware that if you are willing to spend more bucks that for a basic Farmer John type wet suit you can get into something that is more effective than the usual paddling stuff. What I don't know about with these suits compared to a dry suit is.... and maybe you could help with this part because winter is coming and this will keep coming up...

Once the full body suits you are talking about are wet, do they block wind chill as well as a top layer like a drytop? Or is a dry top still advised if someone is not going to be in the water a lot? Also, how do the full arms work out for a decently long paddle in terms of chafing or whatever, say a four hour day including stop for a snack? And how do they handle sweat or overheating if you don't get pretty wet?

I looked around and it looks like the more hefty garments go for $250 and up. Are these the ones that would cover air in the 20's - 40's before wind chill and water in the 40's? I agree that it important to get feedback from local paddlers. But this debate shows up every year about this time, and it'd be nice if those of us who don't know these garments well had a better idea of how they work out.

budget options for cold water clothing
If you do decide to go the drysuit route, it is possible to get a used suit in good condition for about half what a new one would cost you. I just got a used goretex suit in my size for $400 (would have been $950 new) from someone who advertised on the classified ads. Kayak Academy sells used drysuits from their rental stock in a variety of mens and womens sizes on their website for decent prices.

For wetsuits, Sierra Trading Post sells a wide variety of paddling and diving neoprene clothing for pretty good discounts, though sizes are spotty since these are discontinued lots.

I agree that what you use will be personal choice, especially for day tours (multi-day touring would be strictly drysuit, I think.)

The right kind of wetsuit will protect you from the cold water and be flexible enough for paddling. Look at the selection here:

Be sure you get a wetsuit designed for surfing in winter in cold water. Ordinary paddling wetsuits will not do it. The downside of wetsuits is that if you are submerged and have to float around a long time before rescue you will have less survival time than you would have in a dry suit with proper clothing underneath.

Sing is the man to ask around here …
A paddling jacket like the Powerhouse by NRS will block the wind, it’s what I do. A really nice wetsuit for very cold water will cost about $300 -350. Arms are super stretchy, I wear a rashgaurd and have no chaffing issues.