Safety and Preparation for Winter/Spring Boating

Last Updated 7/19/2023


A lot of paddling safely is based on common sense — yours and other people’s! Here are a few tips to “remind” you of some elements to take care of before and when you head out to the water this Winter/Spring.

New rivers, new runs, and a new year of paddling are at hand. Some folks have paddled all Winter, but others are just stepping out to the rivers and ocean and even lakes around them to shake off the cabin fever. It’s easy to feel the excitement as paddling partner’s new and old start posting their intentions and you just want to grab your gear and head out the next morning as if nothing has changed since last season.

BUT, did you think about the important stuff before going?? Remember, days are still short, water is cold and weather is unpredictable!! There are also WAAAY fewer paddlers and rafters out in the Winter to be of help if needed and many new potential hazards to be found.

A breakdown paddle should always be in everyone’s boat, for your use or more likely to save someone else (and their group) a much longer day or a walkout. Every year we see plenty of posts on the board for “lost paddles”.

Which is also a reminder to mark your paddle and all of your gear with your name and number. That way there is a better chance it will make its way back to you!

2 weeks or more before your first outing

  • Check all gaskets and put your dry tops/suits on to make sure they aren’t cracked and ready to rip out. Gaskets tend to last two or three seasons at best and fail when you can least afford it. A failed gasket at put-in or on the run has ruined many a paddling trip! If they are questionable, get them replaced. We do gasket repairs with a quick turnaround time and can save you on shipping costs.
  • Check your boat for cracks, frogs, or spiders before they surprise you. Tighten all of the bolts, replace missing or worn pieces of your outfitting, and make sure your float bags hold air!
  • Stretch your skirt onto the boat and repair any rips or badly frayed areas. Check it thoroughly on the inside of the skirt as well!
  • Get your cold water gear together, with, booties, neoprene socks, pogies or insulating gloves, skull cap, capilene, and fleece under layers and spare fleece in your boat
  • Have a good 1st Aid kit along with a fire starter, hand warmers, energy bars, duct tape, space blanket, flashlight, and a few thin plastic grocery bags as emergency “socks”, “mittens” or skull caps.
  • Use a “new” drysuit in a pool or easy water and try swimming in it BEFORE you take an unwanted test on a river. Air and the restrictiveness of a drysuit can really affect your swimming ability if you are not familiar with how to “bleed” the air and what it feels like to swim in a drysuit.

First Tracks

  • Paddle familiar runs first and a step below what you were paddling at the end of last season.
  • DON’T fall into the common trap of getting a late start- especially on unknown or higher-than-normal runs. ALWAYS plan with a margin for error. It only takes one unexpected portage or a swim or two by members of the group, or other groups you run into, to throw your timing way off and create a series of new issues and potential risks or epics.
  • Paddle a familiar and comfortable boat the first time or two out. Not the time to jump into a new boat or a new demo boat! A river-running boat with more volume and hull speed will help offset any sluggish timing or lack of practice and conditioning on your part, especially on new, high, or faster water runs.
  • Paddle run-off (vs. Dam release) rivers on their way DOWN! Rivers on their way up can be VERY unpredictable in terms of how high the water is or will get, and for the debris and in some cases chemicals or bacteria and sewage they pick up on their way UP! Running rivers on their way up has likely been a prominent factor in more unwanted ramifications or dangerous scenarios for kayakers than any other single element.
  • Check LOCAL weather for the area you‘ll be paddling before you go since Spring weather can be much different due to micro-climates or be spotty and cause things like flooding or snow in one area and nothing an hour away. Bad access roads can sometimes get you on the way OUT even if you were able to get in, so a shovel, chains, and plenty of gas are all worth having. Low snow melting into the rivers on a sunny day or dams reaching their spilling point and adding a large surge to the existing flow can be very misleading and really catch you off guard in terms of the unexpected rise of rivers. Slab Creek Reservoir on The South Fork American is a classic for this and can add thousands of CFS to the flow almost instantly once it spills. Do your homework and know the dams and diurnal flow timing for the run you’ll be on!
  • Realize that the gauges you are reading on flow sites are not always the put-in where you plan to go, and can misrepresent the flow you’ll find when you get there. For example, Chamberlains on the North Fork American has a gauge that is miles downstream of the put-in. Look at trends on gauges, the rising or falling, etc.
  • Paddle with people you know and whose skills you are comfortable with on a given run or under expected conditions. Qualify new paddlers to you or your group THOROUGHLY before getting on the river with them. Don’t be afraid to decide not to run if you are not comfortable with the group or tell someone else you do not think they should be there. Any one person can put all others in a group at risk if they are not prepared. Ask the same questions of others you would ask of yourself: Are they dressed well enough, paddling a familiar boat, have been paddling at that level already this year, SOLID roll, etc.?? Have their own throw rope and Swift Water Rescue training so they can rescue YOU if necessary.
  • Consider some Winter or early Spring cross-training by going surf kayaking or even out on the lake just to work the muscles and conditioning a little. Better yet, get an early lesson with a qualified instructor to help start your year off right and take away a bit of the anxiety associated with first runs out on the year or after a lay-off.
  • Got questions?? Anxiety?? Call up the local shop or instructor who knows you or the local runs and get some more input/advice before you make your decisions.


You never know when you may need the gear and training to perform a rescue, so always having it with you is the ONLY way to be prepared. Common items in a safety kit include a couple of prusiks, a flip line, a minimum of 3 carabiners (at least 2 lockings), 1-2 pulleys, a whistle, and a throw bag.

Think of Spring paddling as a new theater performance you are in with a cast of characters and you all need to get your costumes and props ready and do a dress rehearsal before you get to the main show. One person can destroy the whole show if they did not get things ready on their end.

Be safe, and enjoy what looks like a great Spring season on the water!! (<:

Thank you to Dan Crandall at The River Store for this article.

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