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Winter Kayaking: A Complete Guide [2024]

Last Updated on January 12, 2024 by Jess Grigsby

In This Article

winter kayaking

Are you looking for something fun to do over the next few months? Why not try winter kayaking?

Winter kayaking is a wonderful way to explore the natural landscape, make memories with friends, and beat those winter blues – all at once.

Here at Kayak Connection, we love helping people have kayaking adventures in the winter here on the Central Coast in California.

Our kayaking experts have put together this comprehensive guide to help you learn about kayaking in cold weather and plan your upcoming trip.


Why Kayak in the Winter?


There are dozens of great reasons to go kayaking in the winter, including that winter is the best time to escape the crowds.

Here are a few of our favorite reasons to hit the water in the off-season:

1. Enjoy a more peaceful and secluded kayaking experience

Kayaking can get crowded during peak season in many hotspot locations across the country.

Here in Monterey Bay, California, people come from all around the world to experience the area’s natural beauty and enjoy our outdoor recreation, which means the beaches and waterways get quite busy during summer.

Winter kayaking, however, provides the peaceful experience of being immersed in nature with few others. 

Once you paddle under the Highway 1 bridge and into Elkhorn Slough’s meandering channels, you’ll immediately find yourself in a wild and scenic area that feels far away from the hustle & bustle of surrounding civilization. 

Spending a couple of hours on the water, away from day-to-day obligations, is a sure way to relieve stress and feel mentally refreshed.

2. Enjoy more unique nature opportunities

shorebirds in their winter habitats

In addition to ensuring a private, relaxing kayak adventure, winter also introduces special paddling opportunities. 

Limited daylight hours in the winter mean more unique kayaking tours and experiences

Winter is an excellent time to see migrating shorebirds in their winter habitats and feeding grounds.

Don’t forget to bring your camera!

If you’d prefer to focus solely on photography or contemplating your natural surroundings, check out our “We Paddle You Photo” tours. 

During these two-hour tours, you ride in the front of a double kayak with one of our expert kayak guides “at the helm.” 

Our guides take care of all the paddling, so you can fully absorb and photograph the abundant scenery, migrating birds, otters, seals, and other wildlife.

Winter is also when the Elkhorn Slough rises to some of the year’s highest high tides, commonly known as King Tides. 

During these extremely high-water level events, our experienced guides take tours beyond the normal banks of the slough through a maze of normally inaccessible side channels.

This is a once-in-a-year paddling experience you do not want to miss!

3. Get a great workout in nature

Finally, winter kayaking is a great workout and an excellent option for anyone looking to boost their physical and mental energy.

Getting bored with the gym? Having a case of winter blues?

A two or three-mile paddle is a low-impact, full-body workout sure to awaken your senses and elevate your mood. 

Essential Winter Kayaking Gear 

What do you need to go kayaking in the winter?

Here’s our complete list of essential gear:

  • A kayak. You’ll need a kayak to hit the water. The team at Kayak Connection can help you browse our extensive selection and find a kayak that fits you well and keeps you comfortable all day. 
  • A paddle. Once we’ve fitted you for a kayak, we’ll find a paddle that’s appropriate for your height and makes it easy to navigate the water.
  • A coast guard-approved PFD. Coast Guard-approved PFDs are non-negotiable for winter kayaking. Our kayaking PFDs are lightweight and streamlined, making them easy to wear under your layers.
  • Kayak booties and gloves. Kayak booties and gloves insulate your hands and feet and make it easier to enjoy your winter kayaking excursion. 
  • A whistle. For safety, we recommend carrying a whistle on every kayaking trip. In fact, the Coast Guard requires whistles for vessels of “Fewer than 39.4 feet.” The sound of a whistle carries further than your voice, and it’s easy to clip a kayak whistle right onto your PFD. 
  • A way to call for help. For most kayaking trips, a cell phone or VHF radio is sufficient. If you’re planning a longer excursion, you might want to invest in a GPS transmitter or SPOT transceiver. 
  • Sunscreen and SPF lip balm. Protect your skin from sun- and wind burn with a good-quality sunscreen and lip balm with SPF. 
  • A headlamp. This will provide added visibility if it gets dark during your kayak tour or if you’re out at dawn or dusk. 
  • A portable first-aid kit. Minor accidents can and do happen on the water. Make sure you’re prepared with a well-stocked, portable first-aid kit. 

Not sure what else you need for a safe, fun winter kayaking trip? 

Talk to the kayak pros at Kayak Connection. Our team is happy to help you plan your perfect guided or DIY kayak adventure. 

What to Wear When Kayaking in the Winter

kayaking wear in the winter

When you hit the water in the winter, you want to dress for success. Here’s what we recommend:

Start with layers

Any time you’re paddling in cold weather, we recommend dressing in layers. 

Conditions can change quickly, and layering is the best way to prepare for whatever the weather delivers. 

For winter kayaking, we recommend wearing the following:

  • Lightweight, sweat-wicking base layers on both the top and bottom.
  • Sunglasses with an attached retainer will prevent them from falling into the water.
  • Lightweight, water-resistant shell pants. Avoid cotton materials or any clothing that is restrictive or binding. 
  • A lightweight, UV-blocking neck gaiter to keep your neck warm and protected.
  • Neoprene gloves to keep your hands warm, nimble, and dry.
  • Sunscreen – yes, even in the winter! The sun’s rays can be relentless when they reflect off the water, and sunscreen is critical to protect your skin.
  • Kayaking booties (more on this coming up).
  • A light fleece jacket or vest. If it’s cold or windy, you can add a wind-blocking jacket on top.
  • A properly fitted PFD equipped with a whistle.

Don’t forget to pack a change of clothes to change into once you’re done. 

Wear a wetsuit

A wetsuit keeps moisture close to your body, where your body temperature warms it up to create an insulative layer. 

“Farmer John” wetsuits, which cover the body and legs, but don’t have full-length arms, are a great option to wear under your layers on warmer winter days. 

Wear kayaking booties

Usually, we recommend wearing shoes that you don’t mind getting wet on your kayaking adventure. 

During winter kayaking, though, insulated kayaking booties will help keep your feet warm. 

While they won’t keep your feet 100% dry, any small amount of water that does enter them will quickly warm up to body temperature, creating an insulative layer that keeps you comfortable. 

9 Important Winter Kayaking Safety Tips 

winter kayaking safety

Enjoy your winter kayaking trip with these essential tips:

1. Check the forecast before you go

This is an essential rule of thumb for kayaking any time of year, but it’s crucial if you’re going to be kayaking in cold weather. 

Check the local weather forecast before you go, and remember to avoid kayaking in a thunderstorm or hitting the water whenever high winds or lightning are forecasted. 

If you’re in California, here’s a reliable marine forecast we like to rely on. 

2. Layer OVER your PFD

For safety, you must always keep your PFD on while you’re on the water.

For this reason, we recommend wearing your PFD over your base layer (we’ll discuss exactly how you should dress more in the next section). 

From there, you can add additional layers on top of it. This way, you can take off layers and regulate your temperature without removing your PFD.

3. Carry a dry bag

Keep your personal items safe and dry with a high-quality dry bag. 

We recommend stashing your keys, phone, snacks, and a bottle of water in your dry bag and then clipping the bag to your kayak to ensure it’s nice and secure. 

Bonus points for tossing in a thermos of hot chocolate and a few extra layers!

4. Opt for a sit-inside kayak

Usually, we recommend sit-on-top kayaks for our beginning paddlers. 

In winter, a sit-inside kayak will keep you a bit more comfortable. 

In addition to limiting splashes from the water, sit-inside kayaks use spray skirts, which protect you from paddle drips and add a layer of insulation. 

Not sure which kayak is right for you? An expert kayak rental team will help you find the perfect fit. 

5. Know what to do if your kayak capsizes

It’s very unlikely that your kayak will flip, but it’s still wise to know what to do if it does. 

With this in mind, we recommend practicing rolling and re-entering your kayak during the summer months until you feel comfortable with the skills. 

6. Use the buddy system

Never kayak alone in the winter. 

Always use the buddy system and tell someone else where you’re going and when you plan to be back. 

If you change those plans, let someone know. 

7. Take a kayak rescue course

If you’re interested in spending more time on the water, taking a kayak rescue course is a great idea. 

We offer water rescue courses at Kayak Connection, and we can’t recommend them enough! 

During this course, you’ll learn the correct techniques for self-recusing, wet exits, and how to help other paddlers in your group

8. Know your limits

No matter what time of year you’re kayaking, don’t exceed your skills and limitations. 

This pertains to the location and the duration of your adventure. 

9. Stay close to shore

Weather conditions can change rapidly, so staying close to shore while you kayak is essential. 

This ensures you can get back to land quickly and prevents you from getting lost in fog, rain, clouds, or other inclement weather conditions. 

Where Can I Go Winter Kayaking in California?

Want to go winter kayaking but DON’T want to lose feeling in your feet? California is the perfect spot. 

While there are a ton of great places to go kayaking in the Golden State, these are a few of our favorite location recommendations:

1. Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing, California 

kayaking in elkhorn slough

Elkhorn Slough is one of our favorite kayak destinations all year round. Thanks to its sheltered, protected location, the area is perfect for beginning kayakers. 

It’s also an excellent location for anyone who wants to see wildlife. The area is famous for its guaranteed sea otter sightings, abundant shorebirds, and other marine wildlife. 

In the winter, Elkhorn Slough is a great place to escape the waves and wind and enjoy a peaceful kayaking trip. 

Book your Elkhorn Slough winter kayaking trip today

2. Santa Cruz, California

kayaking in santa cruz

Here in the Santa Cruz area, it doesn’t snow during the winter, which is excellent news for anyone who wants a comfortable, temperate kayaking experience. 

Winter kayaking in Santa Cruz means fewer crowds but no less natural beauty. 

Come for the temperate weather and stay for the wildlife, shorebirds, otters, seals, scenery, and one-of-a-kind kayaking routes. 

Book your Santa Cruz winter kayaking trip today

Ready to Plan Your Winter Kayaking Adventure? Kayak Connection is Here for You

Winter kayaking is an excellent way to get outside and enjoy a unique experience with a few friends or loved ones. 

Here at Kayak Connection, we offer gear rentals and tours to make sure you have a comfortable, memorable winter kayaking adventure.

Are you a Santa Cruz or Monterey Bay County local? This winter, we’re running a locals-only rental promotion at our Santa Cruz location. Click here to book your rental online. 

Enter the promo code LOCALSONLY (for a single kayak or SUP board) or LOCALSONLY2 (for a double kayak), and rent two kayaks for the price of one! This promotion is valid at our Santa Cruz location for 2.5-hour rentals only.

Ready to learn more or start planning your trip? Contact us today!

Author: Jess Grigsby

Since 2012, Jess has co-owned and operated Kayak Connection together with her husband Dave. She is a lawyer, coach, avid kayak enthusiast and mother of two teenage girls. At Kayak Connection, Jess oversees a team of experienced kayak guides who are all CPR certified, with many holding advanced Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certifications. Our team is composed of environmental educators, naturalists and classroom teachers with experience working with all kinds of visitors, from school groups to large corporate teams.