One of the greatest reasons for kayaking is to be out in nature taking in the beauty around you. Unfortunately for most, kayaking is a summer sport while nature displays some of it's greatest splendor throughout all four seasons. Depending on where you live, you may be able to take in the changing of the fall leaves or see the first blossoms of spring, but what about the very cool winter months? They can be enjoyed just as easily with the correct preparation and gear.
As with any season, a PFD is absolutely essential during winter and it should be worn at all times. This is of course because of flotation should you find yourself in the water but there is one very critical aspect in cold water. That is your body's involuntary reflex to gasp for air when first submerged. In frigid water that reflex can cause you to immediately inhale large quantities of water before you even have a chance to react to going overboard. Please have and wear a quality life jacket when winter paddling.
Pay attention to both the water temperature and air temperature when setting out to paddle. A good rule of thumb has always been to add the two together and look for a sum of over 120 degrees. If the two add up to less than 120 degrees, you should either not go out or be sure to add a dry-suit to that day's wardrobe. Below 120 degrees and sudden immersion can be instantly fatal due to several factors. Recently it has been suggested that the sum may actually need to be higher to safely paddle without specialty gear. We recommend doing your research prior to setting out in such extreme conditions.
Another point to consider when winter paddling is to add to your safety and survival pack things that may not be as critical during warmer months. The days are much shorter during the winter and you may find yourself in need of a flashlight for both navigation and distress signalling. Be sure to realize the sun will set sooner and you will therefore need to plan to be back to shore sooner as well. A compass may be needed when your familiar landmarks are not able to be seen as the sun's light fades. It may also become important to have a way to start a fire should things turn into an overnight stay. You may also just need to quickly warm-up or dry off prior to heading back to your launch location. Most of us have our phones with us all the time these days but that single piece of technology is absolutely essential for winter paddling. Phones today provide multiple ways of communication but they also assist in navigation, informational research and so many other things which can be helpful while out paddling.
Our final recommendations would be to bring a friend along and also let others know your plans. If no one knows your schedule and destination it can delay a potential rescue so let others know when you leave and safely return. Plan on shorter times on the water while you learn what challenges come from winter paddling. It is better to "test the waters" and then return home to be better prepared for the next time out. Your first time winter kayaking does not need to be an epic adventure, whether planned or unplanned.