Cold Comfort: Cold-Water Paddling Tips

By Tom Richardson

We paddlers love those short bursts of warm weather in an otherwise frigid season. After weeks, or even months, of being cooped up, it’s great to get back on the water, even if only for a brief spell.


However, paddling in the fall, spring, or winter in New England (and in coastal Maine all the time) carries with it certain dangers, namely the risk of hypothermia, either from capsizing or being caught in deteriorating conditions.


With that in mind, here are some tips on playing it safe in cold water, even on a short paddle.

Pack a PLB

Aside from a lifejacket, the most critical piece of gear to carry with you is a Personal Locator Beacon, or PLB. When activated, a PLB will alert search-and-rescue personnel and lead them to your location, no matter where you happen to be. Retail prices for PLB’s start at around $200 and carry a battery life of five years.

A Personal Locator Beacon is a key piece of safety gear.

Dress Right

When dressing for a cold-water paddle, start with breathable, lightweight polypropylene undergarments and layer up to a waterproof, windproof shell and pants. If you’re really serious about safety, you might want to invest in a dry suit, which seals out water in the event of a roll. A dry suit is critical in cold water, where the body can only withstand a few minutes of immersion before simple motor functions become impossible. It won’t guarantee survival, but it may buy you enough time to reach shore or climb back on the kayak. Lastly, waterproof gloves are important for keeping your hands functional. After all, a paddle wont’t do you much good if you can’t hold it.

A dry suit can buy you time in the event of a capsize.

Lifejacket, Duh!

It goes without writing (although we’ll do it anyway) that the most important paddling garment is a PFD, which will keep you afloat even if your limbs become useless. Always wear one, no matter the season.


Stay close to shore when paddling in cold water.

Anchor Man

Did you even stop to consider what would happen if you accidentally lost your paddle? If the wind happened to be blowing offshore, you could be in some serious trouble, especially if you were paddling alone. A small, collapsible anchor stowed aboard your kayak or canoe could save the day.


Another thought is to carry a telescoping paddle onboard, as a backup to your main paddle. These can be purchased online or at many marine and paddling supply stores.

Waterproof gloves will help protect your hands from frostbite.

Shore Bet

Staying close to shore is a great way to stay safe. It might take longer to get where you want to go, but at least you’ll be close to dry land if you become exhausted, disoriented, or capsize.


Buddy System

Paddle with a partner (or more). A friend can help you get out of the water, make it to shore, stay warm, or alert rescuers in an emergency if you become incapacitated.

No Secret

Remember to let others know where you intend to paddle and your estimated time of return. A simple float plan such as a quick sketch or description of your route left on the seat of your vehicle will often do the job.


Weather Watch

We all know that the weather can change quickly in the spring and fall, so make sure you check the forecast before setting out. Then check it again before launching. On the water, watch the skies for any sign of an approaching front and monitor the latest weather updates on your phone, if possible. If the wind starts to pick up, consider cutting your trip short and turning around.

Other safety items:


cell phone in a waterproof bag

waterproof handheld VHF radio


handheld GPS or compass



signal mirror


protein bars


mylar “space” blanket

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