Winter’s here and it’s prime season for many whitewater paddlers. The levels are good and you can’t wait to get on the water but ask yourself this – are you prepared?

How often have you been warm enough on the river but found yourself shivering while waiting for a shuttle in the winter? If one of your group has an accident how long do you think you can last sitting around in the cold waiting for help?

And with short winter days, darkness can sneak up on you surprisingly fast. Getting caught in the dark when you aren’t prepared can snowball an already difficult situation.

If you need help, how long do you think it will take to arrive? 

Here is an example from my local river, the Mellte in Wales. It’s a relatively short section, with a footpath running along its banks for substantial parts, and less than an hour’s drive from Cardiff. 

Let’s say one of your group has an injury that requires help halfway down the river. Your phone doesn’t have signal, so you scramble up the banks, find the footpath and run to the take out to get phone signal and call for help, leaving the rest of your group with the injured person. 

How long would this take? Thirty minutes, maybe more? 

It might take mountain rescue an hour to gather their equipment and find you at the take out, if they’re quick. That’s now an hour and a half if everything is running smoothly. You lead them into the river, but with all their equipment it takes longer than it took you to run down, maybe another hour getting back to your group? 

If (and this is a big if) all of this went smoothly, you’re looking at two and a half hours before help arrives at the scene on a relatively easily accessible section of river near to help. 

How warm do you think your injured buddy is going to be after two and a half hours sat on the river bank? Have you got enough kit in your bag to deal with this situation? How long would this all take in a more isolated area? 

I don’t mean to alarm you, we want you to play safely in the winter, so here are some things to think about as you prepare for your winter paddle …

1. Make a plan

Keep an eye on the weather and the river level. Steering clear of flooded rivers, or flashes in river level could save you from a potential epic. Check out our apps for paddlers blog post for some useful sources of river level data.

With all the rain that winter brings, comes the potential for high water levels and plenty of paddling. But with more power in the rivers comes fewer eddys, longer swims, and tree branches at water level. Winter high water can be exciting but make sure that it’s well within your skill to cope with.

Check the lie of the land, where the get-outs are and where you can escape the river to the road? How long are you committing yourself to be out in the cold?

When you’ve decided where you’re headed, tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back. Agree in your group where to meet if you get separated, for example, ‘walk upstream river left to the big bridge near the car and wait there.’

2. Dress for the cold

The cold is the big one here, and it starts with your own kit. Layer up underneath your drysuit – Palm Tsangpo thermals are a real winner here (the gilet is great to add one more layer on your core). If you’re wearing a wetsuit, it needs to be thick. Pogies and skull caps are great for extra warmth, even if you don’t plan to wear them it is a good idea to have a warm hat with you, just in case. Sometimes skull caps come in handy while waiting for a shuttle. 

Long term health tip – winter is especially hard on your ears. Wearing ear plugs and a skull cap keeps cold water and wind out of your ear canals and helps prevent surfer’s ear, a common condition for cold weather paddlers.

3. What do you want on a cold river bank?

Your day out on the river hasn’t gone to plan and you find yourselves huddled on the bank of the river assessing your options, what do you want on hand?

  • A first aid kit. Know what’s in it, and keep it dry and organised. The new Palm First Aid Organiser is ideal for this. Having the tools to fix a problem can help get you back on the water and moving again.
  • Split paddles. If someone has taken a swim and lost their paddles, a set of breakdown paddles can be the difference between continuing the fun downstream or walking out in the cold. 
  • A group shelter is a fantastic idea. I usually carry a six person shelter which could save a life by keeping an injured person warm while waiting for help. The Palm Survival Shelter is a good option.
  • A stash of energy bars is always good as a backup, hungry people get cold fast. 
  • A mobile phone. Keep this in a waterproof sleeve on you, along with your car keys. Don’t keep phones and keys in your drybag in your kayak, as you might not see them again if you lose your boat.
  • A good quality, waterproof head torch can get you out of a sticky situation. Short winter days mean that an unforeseen hold-up can put you in the dark. It’s a good idea to hike out rather than paddle out if you run out of daylight. 

4. Who you gonna call?

If you need help and need to call the emergency services, call 999 or 112 in the UK, or 112 if you’re in mainland Europe. Ask for the police, and then once you’re through to the police operator, ask for mountain rescue. 

They will ask you some questions, so be ready with your answers. What is the emergency? Where are you exactly? How many are with you? And the names and phone numbers of your group so they can call back. 

Being specific about where you are is extremely helpful. OS Locate works off your GPS, and doesn’t need phone signal.  

Are you ready?

Winter is a brilliant time of year, and we are some of the lucky ones who celebrate it. But take care with the extra challenges it brings our way. So when you leave for your next adventure, ask yourself the question, ‘am I ready to be stuck out here in the cold?’