Many of us can feel the quiet whisperings of fall creeping in: cooler mornings, evening breezes, and a little more rain. For seasoned paddlers, the shoulder seasons (fall and spring) and even winter mean some of the best whitewater boat riding around because our rivers and creeks tend to hold water a bit better. For newer boaters, though, it might mean falling into the misconception that it’s time to hang up your kayak and pack away your summer layers until next year.
We’ve got you covered.
Here’s a few quick reasons why paddling from fall through spring is worth it, even if it requires a little more preparation:
- It’s beautiful. Those tourists that drive around looking at the leaves changing, you know, ‘leafers?’ You, my friend, get the best view of all from the flow. Checking out fall colors, winter harshness, and the verge of growth in Spring allows you a view in to our changing seasons that even the most intrepid leafer won’t get.
- Rivers run. More experienced paddlers have that absolute favorite rain-fed river that usually only comes in after the leaves are gone and the watershed is primed for flow. The Class V gnar boaters chasing fall flows are on to something, sure, but there’s plenty of opportunity for newer paddlers exploring Class II-III to take advantage of more seldom run rivers due to favorable water tables.
- It’s quiet. Yes, yes, we love you, commercial traffic, for building up a community around a river and often ensuring us access and flow… but it’s really nice to paddle a less trafficked section of river sometimes, too, even if that’s our normal run without the extra populations of tubers or rafters.
- You’ll stay sharp. Ever taken a long time off from, say, running or biking only to get back into it and feel the groan and resistance of proverbial rust? Taking weeks or months off at a time can dull even the most expert paddler’s skills, but it can be especially challenging for new boaters that are amidst a crux of the paddling progression. Seat time matters, and taking a bunch of time off while fundamentals like rolling, strokes, or boat control are still developing can cause a frustrating set back when you go do dust off your gear come spring time; long gaps in paddling frequency can also be detrimental to your comfort on the water. Remember: mental is a muscle.
Have we convinced you that, perhaps, the juice is worth the squeeze? Maybe the extra layers and gear and a little bit of cold weather might still be worth it to get you out on the river? There’s a few considerations to make things a little less painful, we promise.
- Invest in the proper equipment. I know, I know, this is the part that no one wants to hear… spend more money on paddling gear! But, one of two things will happen if you don’t get the proper equipment: one, you’ll skimp and try to make something inadequate or inappropriate work for you, and you’ll wind up either putting yourself at risk as a result, or having an absolutely terrible time, at the very least; or two, all the rest of the gear you just invested in will sit, unused and unloved, in the corner of your garage until it’s warm enough for you to use it again. Either way, you’ll wind up feeling like you’ve wasted your time or money, or both.
- Base layers: Capilene or merino wool, fleece… just, no cotton, please. These layers are meant to insulate, so they work best when dry; read: under dry wear. Neoprene isn’t a bad compromise- I’ve used it as a mid-layer in moments of desperation, but remember that neoprene’s insulating qualities are magnified when it’s wet, not dry.
- Dry wear: You need a dry top. Even investing in just a dry top can keep you paddling for an extra month or two on either end of the summer season if you’ve got your bottom-half layering system worked out. My favorite combination is a dry top with synthetic layers underneath, and neoprene bottoms; I’m warm and dry on the upper half and adequately preparing for getting a little wet on the lower half.
That said, my personal opinion is that a drysuit is worth the extra coin as opposed to the dry top / dry pants combo, especially if you’re looking to really get your money’s worth in winter months. A combo of dry top and dry pants is nice, but it has a fail point… and, trust me, you don’t want to find it after an out of boat experience in freezing weather.
- If you can, save up and get a good drysuit as opposed to trying to economize.That said, if you’re really in a pinch, the dry top / dry pants combination is better than nothing at all. I find myself in my drysuit later and later into the summer, accommodating for warmer air temps with lighter layers underneath. You can sometimes find good deals on older models or even lightly used drysuits, but I promise, it’s worth the investment if you’re wanting to stay in your boat year round. Nothing is warmer or safer than a good dry suit, and it’s definitely a game changer in managing inclement weather while still getting to go boating.
- Additional accessories: For when it’s really, really cold, many paddlers opt for gloves, mitts, or pogies to protect their hands on really frigid days. I personally prefer pogies, which wrap over the paddle itself, as I like to still feel contact with my paddle, unimpeded by gloves or mitts. Try a few different options by borrowing from friends, if you can. My absolute favorite cold weather accessory is the NRS Storm Hood, which goes over my head entirely and tucks inside my drysuit. Skull caps are a great alternative; head protection made from a synthetic material like fleece or neoprene- heck, a beanie at the very least- can go a long way in keeping you comfy when you tump over on a cold day.
For some additional information on the science of cold-water exposure, check out this article on the dangers of cold-shock. Cold water immersion in the winter time is dangerous without the preparations above.