Boating Safely in Winter
by Clay Wright
Christmas is such a great holiday, especially when Santa brings new gear! While winter rain is probably the ultimate present, it is important to remember that the days are much shorter and those rains are usually followed by a cold snap. Short days and cold nights require extra precautions, even when paddling in familiar terrain. Winter boating requires not only that we make sure we take out before sunset, but also come prepared for that dark day we don’t.
To prepare for the short, cold days you’ve got to get rolling before it gets warm. You’ll be much happier loading boats in the pre-dawn dark, before you’re fully awake, than with cold, wet hands afterwards. That noon put-in thing? Regret sets in hard when you’re watching sunset from the halfway point of your run. Predict the unexpected; new wood, a broken back band, or a simple little pin can burn your daylight and that straightforward paddle out will be agonizing after sunset. And what time is that – what time is it NOW, for that matter? Wear a watch and know the exact time of sunset. The best place to watch those rosy colors is from the warm car on the way home.
Since hiking out usually takes more time than paddling the river, those “rarely needed” items now take on greater importance. Think ahead. Boats, back-bands, and paddles all break, sometimes in the most benign situations. While you might not normally take a breakdown, duct tape, cam strap, or tar-tape on Little River Canyon, Upper Yough, or Chamberlain Falls, once the temps fall below freezing at night you should probably reconsider. Unless you’re boating roadside or within three miles of a riverside trail, pack these things in with your boating gear and get used to carrying them. Think ahead: what else might go wrong that would ruin your day? Lost contact/glasses, bulkhead screws unscrewing, dropping a drain-plug, numb hands causing a swim. The list is long and the remedies need to be considered before you are in a cold, wet, hurry.
When in doubt, walk out! There are so many things that can keep a party from continuing downriver (fatigue, injury, hypothermia) that serious winter boaters go in prepared to walk out. Plan the best routes by using tributary creeks and ridges as markers and know which way to hike at different intervals along the way. Pushing downriver in dwindling daylight is an accident waiting to happen. Even familiar surroundings can prove lethal when you can’t see a tree or when you choose the wrong channel. Prepare your hike-out options with a Gazetteer or TopoZone.com before your trip and share the information with your group so everyone knows the deal. If you split your party, carefully plan the reunion. Where will the hikers come out? Should they stay-put roadside or try to hitchhike to a gas station for warmth? If they get a ride to the car, do they know where your keys are? How are you to know whether they made it to the gas station, or are still struggling through the woods? Make a thorough plan before the group separates and stick to it.
Hmm, how to dress to bushwhack through woods? A flashlight, hat, and gloves are my preferences. The idea is light-weight warmth and a clear view of the terrain. I typically hike up a creek bed so I don’t get turned around but even that can prove difficult after sunset. How about a compass? Cell phone? Food? Space Blankets? Water container and iodine pills? Consider everything you would want for a wintry night-hike and pack the minimum into your “winter prep dry bag.” The extra weight is worth the protection you are providing yourself and your friends.
So now the party is over – you’ve hiked to exhaustion and are too tired to continue, or maybe it just feels safer to “stay put.” Hope you brought a lighter, right? Unfortunately the chances of you lighting anything are slim. Even if cedar bark fires up, there is a shortage of dry wood after every rainfall. Hope you brought that space blanket! How else can you stay warm?
- Stuff pine straw or leaves into your outer layers to ‘fatten up’ your insulation, creating loft like a down jacket.
- Dog-pile yourselves together in a wind protected depression or rocky alcove and cover yourselves up as best you can with leaves, grasses, and pine boughs.
- Wait for sunrise.
Hopefully it won’t get to this. Perhaps just imagining this grim scene will create an incentive to avoid this whole situation in advance: that is certainly the idea.
Boating in winter isn’t crazy, but boating in winter without preparing for the added challenges of short days and cold weather is. Expect to encounter the unexpected and you not only make the trips you do safer, but also open yourself up to trips and conditions you never thought possible. Boat whenever it rains!
One winter boating benefit: the beer left in the car will still be cold at the take-out.
See you there!
Clay’s Kit: local gazettere, duck tape, screws, space blanket, head-lamp, marker stuff, lighter, knife, warm hat, gloves, iodine tablets, first aid kit, water bottle, cam-strap, cell phone, food, hand paddles, breakdown paddle, one dry bag to carry it all!