2 blue and one orange kayak sitting on the edge of land and water with ice floating in the background. Is it too cold for kayaking

How to Tell if the Temperature is Too Cold for Kayaking

If you’re an avid kayaker, you know how hard it can be to choose your last kayaking trip and to winterize your kayak for the season. While it’s ultimately up to you when (or if) you want to mark the end of your kayaking season, you’ll want to consider how certain temperatures can impact your kayaking experience.

Kayaking in temperatures below 70° Fahrenheit is generally considered a cold weather condition and requires extra precautions. This is also the temperature that many kayakers believe is too cold to kayak. Water below 70°F (or 21°C) can cause a submerged body to go into cold shock or even hypothermia, which can impact your breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, and motor functions. So while your kayak will be just fine in the cold water, you may not unless you go prepared. 

Let’s first take a look at how kayakers decide when it’s too cold to kayak. We’ll also check out the impact of cold temperatures on your kayak and some quick tips and cautions for if you do ultimately decide to extend your kayaking season into colder temperatures.

2 blue and one orange kayak sitting on the edge of land and water with ice floating in the background. Is it too cold for kayaking

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When is it Too Cold to Kayak?

At the end of the day, figuring out when it’s too cold to kayak is a personal choice. It’s about your temperature tolerance, your comfort level, your preparedness, and how long you want to extend your kayaking season. 

But, if you want to follow what the experts have to say, then anything below 70°F is generally too cold to kayak. The National Center for Cold Water Safety is just one of many organizations that recommend taking extra precautions in temperatures below 70°.

Why is 70 Degrees the Mark for Cold Weather Kayaking?

Well, the biggest concern is something called cold shock.

Whenever you kayak, you always run the risk of capsizing (it happens to the best of us, even professional kayakers). When you capsize in temperate water, it’s not too big a deal. You flip your kayak back over, collect any floating belongings, and hope the sun dries you off as you continue on with your trip. It’s a mild inconvenience, but not the end of the world.

But when you capsize in cold water, your body experiences a sudden and unexpected change in breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate. These changes happen almost immediately and, if you’re unable to get yourself out of the water within a few minutes, they can lead to hypothermia. 

We sometimes forget to take into account that there’s a pretty big difference between the way cold air feels on our skin and the way cold water feels on our skin.  A 60° water temperature is going to feel noticeably colder than a 60° air temperature.

So, next time you find yourself basing your next late season kayaking trip off the air temperature, you may want to keep in mind that the air isn’t an accurate way to gauge what the water will feel like that day.

Is 60 or 65 Degrees, Too Cold to Kayak? Use the 120 Degree Rule

Deciding what weather is too cold for kayaking can be subjective. After all, what you think is a slightly uncomfortable water temperature may feel like freezing water to someone else. Fortunately, there’s a “rule” that many kayakers use that makes figuring out the not-so-ideal temperature for kayaking just a bit easier. 

The rule is called the 120 degree rule and involves adding the water temperature and the air temperature. So, let’s say it’s 60° outside and you’re wondering whether it’s too cold to take your kayak out for one more adventure before you need to winterize it for the cold season. The 120 degree rule tells us that if the water temperature is also 60° (for a total of 120°), then it’s generally safe and relatively comfortable to kayak.

And it doesn’t have to be evenly split, either. Let’s say it’s an unusually warm 70° fall day. As long as the water temperature is clocking in at 50°, the 120 degree rule means kayaking will still be generally safe that day.

How Do I Find the Water Temperature When Kayaking?

Finding this information online is super easy. Most of us already have a weather app on the homepage of our phone that gives us live hourly updates on the weather, which makes figuring out the air temperature for the day simple. And while we may not have an app for measuring water temperatures, a quick search on the internet will get you that information easy enough. 

For example, let’s say I want to know what the water temperature in Bar Harbor, Maine is today. I can type in “water temperature Bar Harbor Maine” and find today’s water temperature (61°) in under 10 seconds. I personally like the National Centers for Environmental Information website because of its easy interface and frequent, daily updates.

man in yellow kayak paddling next to large ice structure in the water. Is it too cold to kayak

How Does Cold Weather Affect My Kayak?

So far, we’ve been thinking a lot about how our bodies react to cold water and our personal preference for kayaking conditions, but what about our kayaks? 

Most kayaks are made out of polyethylene, which is a common material used in automobile body panels and traffic cones. It’s an incredibly durable material as long as you care for it properly. While you’ll want to take special care of your kayak when using it near shallow river beds, rocky surfaces, and even transporting and storing it, you can count on the durability of polyethylene kayaks even in cold water temperatures.

How to Care for My Kayak in Cold Weather

If you do plan to kayak in cold temperatures, you’ll want to make sure you care for your kayak each time you store it – whether for the short term and long term.

Even for those of you out there who are interested in cold weather kayaking, it’s important that you dry your kayak fully after each cold weather use to prevent moisture from freezing and warping the material. This will also give you peace of mind that your next kayaking trip goes as smooth as possible and that you stay safe while also having fun.

two people in a tandem red kayak paddling in front of an ice covered mountain. Cold weather kayaking

Can I Kayak in Weather Below 70 Degrees? Yes, But Be Prepared

If you’ve done some reading on the topic, you might have stumbled upon some really cool information about cold weather kayaking, which is considered an extreme sport to many. While your kayak will handle the cold temperatures just fine with the right before and after care, it’s important that you also take the right precautions if you’re interested in cold weather kayaking. 

There are many preparations for staying warm in cold weather kayaking, but the biggest precaution is making sure you’re dressed properly. Recommended clothing includes:

  • Drysuit
  • Wool or fleece layers, including a windbreaker jacket for your outermost layer
  • Neoprene, wool, or fleece hat
  • Insulated, waterproof boots
  • Gloves or pogies (pogies are insulated pockets within waterproof gloves that allow you to grip the paddle handle without exposing your hands to the cold)
  • A dry bag to store your personal belongings and emergency supplies

And, of course, don’t forget about your personal flotation device (PFD). Your PFD is always an invaluable tool when you’re enjoying your kayak, and especially if you decide to use your kayak in colder seasons. In fact, the National Weather Service has a bulletin that says wearing a life jacket significantly increases your chance of survival if you’ve been submerged in cold water.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what temperature is too cold to kayak, although you can use the 120 degree rule to get a better idea of when might not be appropriate. I hope that now you’ve got a better sense for what constitutes cold weather kayaking and how temperature can and should play an active part in your decision-making process for when you call it quits on your current kayaking season. 

For other tips like these check out our kayaking tips page so you can be even more confident getting on (and off) the water. 

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