Not everyone is able to enjoy balmy weather and year round paddling. With proper preparation, however, a drop in temperature does not have to keep you off the water. Few paddlers have more knowledge and experience in the cold water than the Canadians and I was able to catch up with Ryan Knysh recently to speak about cold weather paddling and what he does to prepare.
Are you able to paddle year round?
We actually cannot paddle year round, our local lake is frozen from roughly November – April at the earliest. It is always cold water and the majority of our paddling is on ice-covered water.
What is the coldest air temperature you have paddled in?
We get down to -40C (-40F), but the coldest paddling I’ve done is around -10C (14F).
What are some tips you’d like to share when it comes to cold weather paddling?
The biggest thing is preparation. You have to be ready for any type of scenario that you may be involved in. The key to my own personal paddling is always to have trust in my ability, hopefully I’m not going to go for a swim, but if I do, you have to plan for the worst. So no matter what, I’m wearing boots and a wetsuit or a wetsuit top at the very least. Definitely a PFD and a leash are a necessity. The biggest thing is I always carry a phone in a [waterproof] case, because chances are, I’m attached to my board. But if something were to happen where I couldn’t paddle anymore, at least I have the ability to call and get someone else out there to help me. In my opinion, it is more dangerous to be out there without any communication than anything else.
A PFD won’t save you in cold water because you are dead either way [drowning or hypothermia induced drowning]. Wearing a leash is key, because you can be attached to your board and crawl back on it, that is the biggest life-saving tip there is.
Rivers are a different story. We do paddle rivers, especially when it’s cold. On fast flowing rivers a leash can sometimes be a hinderance, so you have to weigh your options. If there is a huge possibility of falling, you have to think hard and possibly make the decision not to go.
Beltpack PFD’s are the most common PFD worn by stand up paddlers. Do you wear something different in cold water?
I still wear the waist pack, again it isn’t going to do anything for you. Hypothermia will set in in almost under two minutes. Getting back on your board is key and having a wetsuit top will keep you somewhat warm. I have worn a full suit before, but it isn’t pleasant. I normally wear a 1m pant and then a wetsuit top.
How thick is your wetsuit top?
3mm, because I don’t plan on falling. But if we are river surfing or doing something when it is really cold I will wear a 5mm.
Ryan on his way to the lake for a cold weather paddling session.
Is there any other gear you recommend?
I always wear a beanie and a Patagonia windbreaker. The windbreaker is nice because if you fall it is not going to weigh you down and it keeps the wind from cutting through you. Again, the air temperature is cold. Even wetsuit mitts, .5mm or 1mm thick, are a good option for keeping the wind off you.
What about board maintenance and performance in the cold?
Infinity has a hatchet nose construction, just kidding! Joking aside, Infinity does incorporate Teflon into the nose of their boards and I do have to plow through a bit of ice here and there, so having a board that is durable is important. Inflatables are the best for really cold weather. They will change, for example, if you pump one up to 15 PSI it will lose 3-5 PSI when you place it in sub-zero water. But nothing changes performance wise on my hard board and I’m still able to train just as hard – summer or winter.