Words and Photos by Peter Holcombe
Over ten years ago, the annual onset of winter in Colorado became something I dreaded. Not because of snow or cold, but because of the absence of paddling opportunities after the end of the much-too-short run-off season. When I learned that there was a group of paddlers meeting on New Year’s Day to go kayaking, I was cautiously interested, but couldn't convince any of my normal paddling crew to join me on New Year’s Day 2009.
My desire to paddle was greater than my fear of the unknown and the cold, so I drove out to the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon with the hope that I wouldn't arrive to an empty parking lot. To my relief, I arrived to find a mixed up group of kayakers from all over the state of Colorado. Most were like me and wanted to paddle and celebrate the new year the best way they could think of, by doing the one thing that really made them happy . . . going kayaking.
After eight years of ringing in the New Year with a lap or two down Shoshone with temperatures ranging from the single digits to a balmy 37, I’ve learned a few things about paddling in the cold. I want to share with you a few tips and tricks that can really extend your whitewater season and keep you in top form and ready for high water during an early spring runoff.
1) Dry suit: Paddling in the winter is just as fun as during the summer, and with proper clothing, it can be very comfortable. Get a dry suit! Really, owning a dry suit should be a mandatory piece of gear for any serious paddler in Colorado because the rivers are nearly always cold. This is the best investment you can make for year-round confidence and comfort as a high-country paddler. It’s also really important to have a dry suit that has sewn-in socks. This will keep your feet dry when wading or getting in and out of your boat, which is key to happy feet in colder temps.
2) Hands: Protect your hands. This is a big deal! Pogies alone won't cut it if you swim in the winter, and the last thing you want is to have bare hands while swimming in below-freezing temperatures. Gloves are the bare minimum, and wearing gloves under pogies is even better. Just make sure the pogies aren't too tight with the added thickness of your gloves. The best option I’ve found for when it’s so cold that icicles cling to your helmet visor is to wear thick neoprene mittens by Kokatat or NRS. While I’ve had cold fingers a time or two on the river, it’s never worse than riding a windy chairlift at Loveland with quality mittens.
3) Head: Your mom always said to put on your hat when it’s cold outside because much of your heat escapes from your head. Some helmets are warmer than others. I find the Sweet Rocker to be really warm and comfy in the winter, and it offers amazing protection the rest of the year. When it’s really cold, I’ll add a neoprene hood, like the Kokatat Surfskin Balaclava. It not only keeps my head warmer than my skull cap does, but it also keeps the back of my neck warm. The extra coverage around your face is a plus if you find yourself without a bushy winter beard.
4) Insulation: Dry suits keep you dry, but what you wear under them is what keeps you warm. I paddle enough in a variety of environments to have a system down for what to wear based on temperature ranges.
- 80–100 degrees: Surf trunks and shorty dry top.
- 60–80 degrees: Long-sleeve or shorty dry top with a light fleece and/or wool under-layers, maybe paddling pants or bibs.
- 40–60 degrees: This is when I typically break out my dry suit. Sometimes earlier if the water is particularly cold. A one-piece fleece dry suit liner, like the Kokatat Power Dry Liner, is great in this range. I’ll wear a short sleeve Kokatat Wool Core tee as it gets closer to the 40-degree mark and bring gloves and a skull cap.
- 30–40 degrees: This is dry suit weather for sure. I add a long sleeve Wool Core top under my Kokatat Power Dry Liner. Gloves or mittens are a must, as is my scull cap. I also pack my Kokatat Surfskin Balaclava if I’m play boating or if I’m planning to roll a bunch. It’s a good idea to always wear socks in your dry suit, but at this temperature, I like thicker wool socks on my feet.
- 10–30 degrees: This is where a dry suit becomes critical as it keeps you warm going from your truck to the river. I add my short sleeve Kokatat Wool Core tee, plus long sleeve Kokatat Power Core shirt under my one-piece power core liner. This is three insulation layers. If you are play boating hard, you might still overheat, but this is a safe system for this temp. Mittens are ideal in this range and possibly two pairs of wool socks. At this point, you might need to wear different shoes to allow space for the extra socks. Remember if your feet are tight, they will get cold no matter how many pairs of socks you have on. Proper circulation is the key.
- 0–10 degrees: Congratulations! You are the one of the few, the proud, the hard-core. If your house is on fire, you will save your boat before the wife and kids. This is paddling in the danger zone, and swimming simply isn’t an option. Same insulation as above, but I will add a Patagonia Nano puff vest and wear my Balaclava straight out of the car. You might also want to add some chemical hand warmers inside your suit. I know some paddlers that tape them to their armpits and lower legs or feet for added warmth. I bring a wool hat in a dry bag for the take-out and possibly wool gloves or mittens in case I need to help with a rescue and have warm dry hands on the river bank.
- Below 0 degrees: You either moved here from Alaska or love paddling so much you need to move somewhere other than Colorado with a more vibrant winter paddling season. Seriously, it’s hard to find open water at this level. Ice bridges will be a problem even in the rapids, and all but the fastest moving water will be well frozen over.
5) Skirts: When it gets colder your skirt, will lose its stretch. It’s common to have to help one another put on skirts when the temperature drops below freezing. Bungee skirts are more stretchy in the cold than randed skirts. If you are really hard-core and normally use a randed skirt, get a bungee skirt just for winter paddling missions. This will save you a lot of time and frustration on the river bank.
6) Feet: Ditch your tight neoprene booties for something less restrictive that won’t limit circulation with thick wool socks underneath. You can wear all the socks you want, but if your booties are too tight, you will have cold feet. Astral or Five Ten footwear will give you great traction while still allowing room for socks if sized properly. I’ve seen some die-hards wear old hiking boots or running shoes over dry suit booties with thick socks inside.
7) Ears: If you are play boating or rolling a lot in cold water, earplugs should be worn. You can damage your hearing with repeated exposure to cold water in your ear canals. I’m currently liking the Mack’s brand, Silicone Ear Plugs the best. They squish in your ear and keep out all the water. I get mine at Wal-Mart for under $4.
8) River Hazards: There are a few different river conditions you will find as the temperature drops below freezing. Powder covered icy river banks can be super fun for kayak sledding seal launches and boofing an ice covered rock will send you flying higher than you ever dreamed. Playing on these icy features can be really fun, but you need to be aware of strong currents running underneath ice shelfs. Treat these as you would an undercut on any rock. Give them a wide berth and plenty of respect. The underside of an ice shelf is not a place you want to explore. Have a blast but use your best judgement.
9) De-icing: After all the fun on the river, you might emerge from the water warm and dry on the inside of your dry suit but find yourself imprisoned in a frozen cocoon. PFD buckles and straps can quickly become frozen in place. Your suit might be incrusted in ice too. Sometimes getting out of your gear at the takeout might be the crux of the day. On Shoshone, the Grizzly Rest Area’s bathrooms have hand dryers that work beautifully to deice your paddling gear, albeit you will certainly get strange looks from travelers coming to use the restrooms.
So there it is: my best tips for extending your paddling season. The fun doesn’t have to stop when the temperature drops. You just have to gear up and get out there and boof the ice!
Almost three years ago Peter, Kathy, and Abby Holcombe sold their home in Boulder, Colorado, and moved into a Winnebago to chase whitewater all over North America. It’s been a dream come true paddling the continent’s most famous and obscure rivers. They have started a movement to inspire other families to go on their own adventures; they call their mission: Famagogo. To follow the adventures of Famagogo you can find them online at www.Famagogo.com or on social at Instagram: @PeterHolcombe and @Adventurous.Miss and Facebook: Peter.Holcombe.