Winter Paddling Survival Tips

By Paul Moyle, Safety Officer



It’s hard to believe, but Summer 2018 is over.  The leaves are falling, the temperatures are dropping, but most importantly, the Tennessee Valley Authority has decided to end our regularly scheduled recreational releases…  And soon, we will find ourselves in the grips of cold weather.




When Louis Pasteur wrote, “Chance favors only the prepared mind,” over 100 years ago, I doubt he was envisioning bombing down a steep creek in 30 degree weather.  But, being mentally prepared for a winter paddling trip is key.  Thinking what can go wrong and how to deal with that situation if it happens will go a long way toward preventing it altogether. And, as anyone who has worked outside can attest, its harder to do just about everything in cold weather.  Do you think you are good a tying knots?  Try doing it in a bucket of ice water. Being prepared for the mental and physical challenges associated with winter paddling can mean the difference between a fun paddle and a tragedy.



Dress for a cold swim.

Like it or not, we all swim.  Swims in cold weather with cold water increases the risk of hypothermia.  This cooling of your core body temperature can be deadly.  You can delay hypothermia by wearing the right clothing.  Usually this will consist of a layer (or two) of insulation and a layer of waterproof material.  But not all materials are created equal… As the saying goes: Cotton kills.  So please, don’t wear cotton on the water.  Also, remember that you will need to paddle, if you cold weather gear hinders your ability to paddle safely, you need to find something different to wear.



Treating hypothermia.

To treat a hypothermic victim, first you will want to slowly heat him or her up using whatever means are available – fire, car heater, sleeping bag, etc.  Then you want to get them to consume some warm food and drink.  Finally, you want to get the victim moving.  Walking in circles is good, but if he or she can safely do some callisthenic exercises, they will help raise body core temperatures.  When it is safe to do so, take the victim to a hospital for evaluation.



Winter specific survival items.

Try to have three different sources of warmth.  I carry waterproof matches, a lighter and a space blanket.  Keep in mind that the sun sets much earlier, so a light is a good idea.  I prefer head lamps because you can easily use both hands.  I also try to pack a set of dry clothes in my boat… just in case.



Scouting the run is vitally important.

My favorite river is the Tellico River.  But the Tellico River only runs when nature permits.  Usually this means heavy rain or a snow melt.  Unfortunately, heavy rains frequently down trees which always seem to find their way into the best lines down a rapid.  Just because you have run a rapid dozens of times before doesn’t mean that there isn’t a nasty surprise waiting just around the bend.  Get out of your boat, walk around.  And please, if you see a hazard send us a trip report!