Winter kayaking strategies - Staying warm

By Jason WalkerNZ Fishing World
Winter kayaking strategies - Staying warm

With winter rolling around some may be tempted to shelve the kayak till spring rolls around and the temperature rises a few degrees more. Doing so could mean you miss out on some of those good winter fish and stunningly calm winter conditions on the water.

With the drop in temperature many of the juvenile fish species like snapper leave the inner harbours for deeper water but there are many larger specimens that stay behind so there are fish worth targeting. 

In this article we will look at the various approaches and products that can help keep you on the water longer in these cooler periods.


By far the biggest thing that puts people off kayak fishing in the winter is the thought of being cold. Yet it is exactly that - just a thought that they will be cold.

What you need to remember is when kayak fishing you have to paddle to your fishing spot and in turn you have raised your heart rate, got the muscles and blood pumping and you have created body heat so you feel warm.

At some point though you do want to stop paddling and do some fishing so you need to try and retain that generated heat. To facilitate this there is a large range of products on the market targeted at kayakers. They can be split into three categories: thermals, waterproofs and technical wear.

Layering is the way to dress with thermals against the skin and waterproof jacket and pants for the outerwear.


Thermals are great for helping you retain heat and feeling warm. The method that is used to weave the fabric traps the warm air around your body but at the same time it wicks away any moisture from the skin so you don’t end up in a hot sweaty mess.

You can also wear multiple layers if it is really cold which does multiply their effectiveness. Thermals are a relatively cost effective option, it’s also worth keeping an eye out for end of season deals at many of the outdoor stores where you will often find 2 for 1 sales.

Waterproof Outer-wear

With your under layers in place you now need to look at the top layer; this top layer will have a big influence on keeping you warm and retaining that heat. People immediately link waterproofs to keeping the water out and keeping you dry but they also have another use in that they stop the wind.

They will block the wind which if it hits your bare body or your thermal under layer will very quickly strip out any heat you have generated from your paddling. 

You will want to make sure you are covered head to toe. There are options from several different manufacturers out there depending on your budget but even an economical set will keep out the wind if nothing else.

Technical Wear

This is a term that has been given to clothing that has been made for a specific purpose and usually employs relatively new materials on the market. Kayaking apparel is usually not technically a single fabric but made up of several layers that are sandwiched together to form a single piece.

I use Sharkskin apparel for next to skin wear. It is very effective at retaining body heat when it’s cold. 

They consist of a warm inner layer, a wind and/or waterproof layer, and an outer layer that is quite often neoprene.

One of the best brands (that I personally use) is Sharkskin. It is one of the more expensive brands that sports a totally wind proof middle membrane which effectively stops the wind chill. I will still wear a paddle jacket over the top as a secondary water/wind layer.

Compression wear is a no-no

A common misconception is that compression wear as used by athletes etc, will also keep you warm. Compression wear constricts against your skin, which in turn causes the blood flow to come to the surface of your skin and surrounding muscles (which is the reason why athletes wear it).

This movement of blood will make you feel warm but it’s not as advantageous as wearing layers because the warmth is drawn from your core but over all your body is actually losing heat!

Where to keep warm?

Where on your body should you keep warm? Well everywhere is the correct answer and the goal but the act of paddling and fishing does keep your upper body warm.

What you do need to pay particular attention to are the parts of you that aren’t active; such as your legs and your feet.

You can achieve keeping your legs warm with long john type thermal leggings or a pair of technical wear leggings that you wear under a pair of good paddle pants.  

Cold feet were my nemesis for my first couple of seasons kayak fishing in the winter. I just couldn’t keep them warm.

The main issue and start of the problem is when you launch your kayak and get your feet wet. I would usually use standard dive booties but then heard about wearing a good pair of wool socks under my boots that retain warmth when wet. 

Your face is another area that will start to feel the cold and the wind chill once the rest of your body is covered. A neck gator is fine but better still is a Buff. This will stop some of the wind and give you an insulating layer.

The Buff I use is the same Buff I use all year round but there are also thicker winter versions available too. 

Buff headwear provide various designs to help protect your skin against the elements for summer and winter. 

Don’t forget your head! Your head is a huge outlet for heat, even more so for those of us who are a little “thin” up top.

In winter throw on a beanie; you can get them in good fluorescent colours these days so you will still be visible from a safety point of view.

If you don’t want to wear a beanie and want to stick with your cap etc there are also skull cap options in both thermal or technical wear that you can wear under your normal head wear.

How cold is too cold?

So you are out there floating around on the ocean, wrapped up to the eye balls in layer upon layer of what I told you to wear. After sitting there fishing for an hour you are starting to feel cold, so what can you do now? It’s simple - start moving.

Put the fishing rod(s) away and pick up your paddle. Just go for a quick paddle, it doesn’t need to be miles just enough to raise your heart rate and get that warm blood pumping around your body again. 

If the quick paddle doesn’t work and you just can’t get warm then face the facts and paddle back to shore. The last thing you need is hypothermia while out there on a kayak.

Some of the first signs of the onset of hypothermia are; experiencing goose bumps, feeling cold in your extremities (hand, nose, feet etc), numb feet, shivering (not under voluntary control), impairment of complex motor functions – i.e. you can talk but paddling strokes are sloppy and tying knots is next to impossible.

If you are displaying a number of these signs then it’s time to start paddling to the nearest shoreline before things get worse.

It’s also a good time to remind you about the buddy system. Fishing with one or more friends means you always have someone with you watching your back who can assist should you need any help.

You can both keep an eye on each other for any signs of the onset of hypothermia. Look after each other.

Winter is the time to fish

So, with all that said please don’t put the kayak away for the winter but get out there and do it. Winter fishing can bring you some very good catches when the fish tend to head out deep or into the shallows.

The deeper fish may be out of reach but those hanging around in the shallows will be your targets. It’s a time to go paddling along the shorelines discovering the rocky out crops and gutters where the fish will be hunkered down and for you to try and tempt them out. 

Don’t forget those guys in their big noisy motor boats can’t get in close to the shore line like you can in your kayak!

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