TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Kayaking Safety

Spring-Vermont North Woods-OK Prowler

Strategies for using a sit-on-top kayak in cold climates
by Tom Holtey

There is a myth that sit-on-top kayaks can only be used in the warm months of summer, or tropical locations. Nothing could be more wrong! Sit-on-top kayakers can extend their paddling season by preparing with proper clothing and understanding some basic principles.


All boaters face the chance that they may be immersed in the water for at least a short amount of time, if not a long amount of time. This is the biggest advantage of the sit-on-top: quick re-entry.

Protection from the cold is not just about comfort, but also about saving lives. Most paddling fatalities are from hypothermia and not drowning as one might expect. Hypothermia is the lowering of the body's temperature to a dangerous level. Water draws heat from the body significantly faster than air does. (Right: Cobra Tourer)

Kayaks can and do capsize in both good and bad weather. Preparing yourself by wearing appropriate water sports clothing is similar to putting on your seat belt while in a car. You do not have an accident every day, but you ready yourself for it every time you drive by buckling your seat belt. That said; every time you paddle, always wear your PFD as well as protective clothing, appropriate to the water temperature.

Your body heats itself to a safe and comfortable temperature, not unlike your house. When the weather is warm your body has little difficulty maintaining this temperature (98.6 degrees), but when it is cold it has to work harder.

The fuel burned to keep you warm is your food and drink. The furnace that burns that fuel is not very large, because we are essentially tropical animals, without fur coats and not designed to live in cold climates.

Not until modern materials and garment technology developed have we been able to survive sustained exposure to cold, wet conditions. This of course has opened the door to multi season use of sit-on-top kayaks.

Sit-in-side kayakers dress to swim in case their craft should capsize; they exit their kayak because they fail to perform an eskimo roll. Sit-on-top kayakers should dress with the same attire. They too can end up in the water unexpectedly.

Both types of kayaker can also become separated from their boat or become unable to reenter their kayak. Both kayakers get wet: water drips from paddle blades, waves splash, seats get wet, rain falls, and puddles form in the cockpit.

Some Strategies

Start by filling a duffel bag full of a wide variety of paddle sports, water sports & outdoor clothing. Whenever possible keep adding new & different pieces of apparel to your collection. Essential reading can be found here: "Cold Weather-Cold Water Kayak Clothing" & "Watersports Clothing: A Buyer's Guide For Kayakers"

Fall-New England-WS TarponPack a dry bag and space blanket in the duffle as well. Bring the whole assemblage to your launch site. Pick and choose what you feel is best for the conditions at hand, then bring a couple of extra garments with you on your kayak, as back up, or if the weather changes. Put them into the dry bag with the space blanket.

If you feel the need, test your selection by taking a dip, and see if you will be comfortable when wet and submerged. The space blanket, and maybe even a camp towel, will be very handy for warming up a chilled wet person. You may even consider bringing a dry change of clothing, group shelter, and possibly a fleece blanket.

You will naturally want to add to your clothing arsenal, as you see new and interesting outfits, seasonal sales, or when preparing for a trip in conditions you have not been in before.

Ask local paddlers what they wear for the local conditions and seasons. Try your new outfits in the water with a test swim close to shore and a warm dry change of clothing standing by.

There are too many climates and conditions, personal tolerances and body styles to simply say: "Use this type of garment in this temperature." So you have to weigh several factors, including:

What is the water temperature?

What is the air temperature?

What is the weather? Windy, rainy, waves?

Will we have the opportunity to land and get warm, or change?

How wet is my kayak? Low to the water, wet seat, waves splash into cockpit?

What is my personal tolerance for cold?

  • Make sure that you dress for the water temperature, even though you will be seated on your kayak, out of the water, most of the time. Warm air temperatures can be deceiving, and you never know when you may be in for an extended swim.
  • Wind, rain and splashing waves require a good wind and waterproof or water resistant outer layer, over an insulation layer. Determine if you will be negotiating a surf zone along your route. You will likely need splash gear, or a dry suit for these conditions.
  • You will need to plan for more protection if you will not have easy access to landing on shore, to warm up and add layers. Open water crossings and coastlines and rivers with limited landing possibilities are environments that require you to dress for worst-case scenarios. Dry suits, hoods and pogies may be necessary. Coastlines and rivers with plenty landing access are environments that will allow you to land and warm up or change. Wet suits and splash gear may be adequate. Assess the route you have planned very carefully with this in mind.
  • If you have a kayak that has a wet cockpit from low gunwales or drain holes you should plan to dress with more protection in mind. Foam seat pads and corks can help to keep the cockpit dry but protective clothing will be your first line of defense.
  • Different people will have different tolerances for cold. Typically skinny, tall, or older people and young children will be most susceptible to the cold. While people with more body fat, or those who are short and compact or young adults have the best resistance to cold.

Craig Stenstrom Santa Cruz Surf Festival-Cobra StrikeIt never hurts to over dress. You will be erring on the safe side. If you start to over heat, especially in a dry suit, then just get wet by splashing your self or jumping in for a quick dip, that is if you feel confident about submerging. If you have dressed in layers, take off a fleece jacket or splash top. Keep it in a handy spot and always put a layer back on as soon as you stop exercising. It is also amazing what taking off your hat can do to cool you down, or putting on a hat to warm you up.

Make sure that you snack and drink regularly. I like to carry a power bar in my PFD pocket, even in the warm months, for extra energy. If you nibble on a snack about every hour and take frequent drinks, maybe from a drinking hose on deck or PFD, you will be constantly stoking your body's furnace. Not only will this keep your energy level up but it will create a reserve if you should fall over board and need to warm your self up. Select a variety of high calorie foods in strong single serving packages. Put them in a zip lock bag and keep them in a handy spot, for convenient access. Don't be stingy, they are fun to give to your comrades and make for good emergency rations should you stay out longer than anticipated.

I would also recommend that you bring a thermos with a simple hot beverage. If you do go for a swim and get chilled, this can help to warm you up. At the very least it would be nice to sip at the take out. Many paddlers may like to bring a camp stove and pot, or fire starting materials. These are good to bring, but the thermos will provide instant access to a hot liquid.

There are wide variety of articles here at TopKayaker.net that can assist you in being further prepared, especially in the Kayak Touring & Camping section. I hope you will spend some time taking in the information and applying it in your cold climate adventures.

Watersports Clothing Resources:

*See Watersports clothing choices available at TopKayaker Shop OR our Amazon Link

More Articles:

Watersports Clothing: BUYER'S GUIDE FOR KAYAKERS the most comprehensive paddle clothing article on the web with links to purchase.

Cold Weather-Cold Water Kayak Clothing Protection Very indepth article on the why and how the effects of cold endanger the kayaker and how to prepare with proper watersports clothing.


This article is pretty thorough but I would like to suggest these books for additional information. You can purchase them through our Book section. 

RIVER SAFTEY, by Stan Bradshaw, for information on the prevention and treatment of hypothermia.

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