Snow, Ice, and Cold Water: Winter Water Safety Guide

Snow, Ice, and Cold Water: Winter Water Safety Guide

Summer is ending, fall is fast approaching, and temperatures are already starting to drop ... but don't think that means you have to pack your SUP away for good.  Winter brings unique opportunities to the sport.

As well as some serious dangers.  Never underestimate the cold.  If you plan ahead, prepare, and respect Mother Nature, there is no reason why you can't go and see a world very few have had the pleasure of witnessing ... a winter wonderland seen from the water.

Woman by lake, winter

1.  Know the Water Temperature

We all know that SUPing is swimming, and though few of us plan to end up in the water, it happens.  What most don't realize is that water doesn't have to be that cold to be dangerous.  50 degree (F) water is a lot colder and more deadly than 50 degree air.  Water temperatures between 70 and 60 degrees are considered dangerous.  Water temperatures below 60 degrees are considered very dangerous/immediately life-threatening.  At 60 and below, you may experience total loss of breathing control, inability to control gasping, and hyperventilation.  For more information on the dangers of cold water, check out the National Center for Cold Water Safety at

If the water temperature is cold, it doesn't mean you can't SUP.  It does mean that you should take extra precautions to ensure that you can get out of the water quickly and safely if you do fall in.

2.  Watch the Weather

This is important any time you go out on an adventure as no one likes to be caught in torrential rains or unusually blistering heat.  In the winter, however, the danger ramps up.  That slight breeze that cooled you during the summer months now adds a wind-chill factor that could put already cold temperatures below freezing.  And, honestly, who wants to set out on their adventure during a blizzard?  Check the weather days in advance.  Keep checking it as your target date approaches.  And if there are any risks, don't go.  Try again at a later, safer, time.

blizzard by mountains

3.  Make a Float Plan

We mentioned this in our post about general water safety/SUP safety.  Make a detailed plan of your trip - where you will put in, where you will paddle, any potential "safe" areas where you may shore up in case of trouble, when you will leave, when you will return, who is going with you, what you will be wearing, and so on.  Seems like a lot, but getting stranded in the winter is far more dangerous than getting stranded in the summer.  Daylight temperatures in the winter months are cold enough, but when that sun goes down and the temperatures plummet, you don't want to be stranded outside.  Make a plan, give it to someone you trust, and stick to it.

And when choosing your route, consider this:  Can you swim to shore?  If not, you should probably choose a different route.  Hug shorelines and stick to shallows whenever possible to reduce the risk of drowning and/or hypothermia if you end up in the water.

4.  Never Paddle Alone

In the summer, it can be tempting to venture out on your own because there is less risk.  Conditions are ideal and dangers are minimal.  In the winter, however, having someone with may save your life.  The cold makes everything difficult and fine motor skills quickly disappear with gross motor skills following soon after.  Having someone there to help in case of an emergency is vital, so never go out alone.

campfire in snow

5.  Make an Emergency Kit

Whether you plan to be out for an hour or all day, it's a good idea to have a winter-specific emergency kit with you while paddling.  In it, include things you might need if you do end up stranded overnight in the cold.  Matches/a lighter, water, a blanket (to save space consider placing it in a bag that can be compressed and sealed to remove air), chemical heating packets for hands and feet, flashlight, etc.  If you do have to go to shore and can't make it back to your car before nightfall, you're going to need a way to stay warm.  Pack with that in mind.  Consider a safety beacon or flare as well, just in case.

6.  Leash and PDF

In the summer months, it is tempting to SUP without actually wearing your PDF.  On calm, warm water, there is less of a risk of drowning, especially for those who are strong swimmers.  In cold water, however, swimming skill isn't enough to save you.  Wear your PDF at all times.  If you fall into cold water, the shock of it may make it difficult or impossible to swim.  Always keep a leash attached as well.  When the water is cold and swimming is difficult, you don't want your SUP to get out of your reach.

7.  Dry Suit or Wet Suit?

Both can be used, though they work in very different ways and are more useful in different situations.  A wet suit works as you might think - it absorbs water and holds it against your body, allowing your body heat to warm it.  This warm water then becomes an insulating layer between you and the rest of the water.  A dry suit keeps you dry by repelling the water completely and uses the air trapped near your body to keep you warm.  In winter weather, particularly, a dry suit may prove more comfortable.  No matter which you use, keep in mind that layers both under and over can provide extra comfort and safety.  Also make sure that your clothing doesn't restrict your movements, both on the board and if you happen to fall in the water.

Wool Socks

8.  Consider Clothing Carefully

Cotton is a no-no.  Why?  It absorbs and holds water.  Instead, use layers that hold heat, not water, like fleece and/or wool.  Dress in layers as well.  Lightweight layers first, then warming layers (like fleece and wool) and waterproof/repellent layers last.  Hats are important, so make sure to have one.  While in the cold, it's important to keep your hands and feet warm as well, so invest in good gear.  Waterproof boots are nice, though they can be awkward in the water.  Wet suit booties are a great alternative, though they mean your feet will be wet the entire time.  Wear gloves that are waterproof and warm or consider neoprene (wet suit) options.

Two things to keep in mind when dressing for winter paddling:

Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature

Layer properly for adjusting temperatures throughout the day (so you can remove layers when sweating and add them again when it cools)

8.  Extra Gear to Consider

A dry bag is a great investment for any water enthusiast.  Consider one, or two, for your winter paddling adventure.  One can carry your emergency gear as well as your float plan while the second can be used to store any layers you shed or extra clothing you bring along.  This will ensure they remain dry and ready to be reused later.  A thermos of something hot to drink is always a great idea.  Bring two, one to drink on your way out to the paddle spot and one for after you are finished for the day.  That added heat after a day of cold-weather paddling will definitely be appreciated.  Also consider a change of clothing.  After you return to your car, changing out of anything wet will help raise your body temperature faster and will make the trip home far more comfortable.

mountain lake in winter

Winter offers just as much beauty and fun as summer, as long as you don't underestimate the dangers.  Here at Stillwater Outdoors, we want to encourage you to try something new, something adventurous, while remaining as safe as possible.  Preparation and prevention are key, so the next time you venture out, please take an extra moment to review this guide and, as always, stay safe.

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SUP Camping: A New Way to Explore

SUP Camping: A New Way to Explore

There is something thrilling about loading your gear into a backpack, driving out into the wilderness, and then leaving everything behind as you explore a world very few are lucky enough to see.  The challenge isn't just in the terrain, but in the very act itself.  When you are limited to a backpack and are faced with surviving in the wilderness ... what do you bring?

But backpacking has even more limitations, especially when it comes to water.  That's why we are huge fans of SUP camping.  A relatively new activity, SUP camping brings a few notable advantages your to next camping adventure while still providing the challenges you crave.

Hiking boots and backpack

There's more space than a backpack ... but not much.  While SUP camping, you have two main loading areas: one at the front of the SUP and one at the rear.  What you load and where you load it depends on what you plan to plan to do, where you plan to go, and how long you plan to be gone.

Consider your board.  There are many different types of SUPs, and not all are created equal when SUP camping.  Typically, touring or all-purpose boards are best.  They are wider, longer, and generally more stable than other boards.  You also want a board with adequate places to anchor your gear.  Bungees in the front and back are ideal.

SUPing is about balance, so be sure to balance the weight along the center line of the board.  Weight distribution back-to-front is important as well.  In most cases, you will want equal weight in the front and back.  If you are planning to go through any whitewater, considering packing more of the weight up front.

First Aid Kit

Create a day/ditch bag.  This is the bag you plan to grab if you need to ditch your SUP for some reason (whether you're going to do a little exploring on land or you tip, your gear gets free, and you have to make a quick decision before it floats away).  In it, store what you need to survive - water purification system, matches, first aid, some food, your cell phone and money, and so on.

Do a dry run.  This may seem like overkill, but it's better to figure out that you have too much gear and not enough board in your backyard than at your drop-in site.  If possible, test it out on the water.  This allows you to adjust weight distribution to be sure you can balance properly on the board.  It also gives you a chance to feel how the board handles on the water with your gear attached.

Weight Scale, Light and Heavy

Think light.  Don't be fooled.  SUP camping isn't just about minimal gear, it's also about lightweight gear.  All boards have a maximum weight with the larger boards topping out around 300 pounds.  After you consider your weight, the weight of the dry bags, the weight of any food and water you need to bring, sleeping gear, cooking gear, clothing, first aid gear ... you see where I'm going with this.  After packing, weigh your dry bags to get a better idea of what the combined weight will be to make sure that you don't overload your board.

And, of course, follow all of your water safety rules.  That includes bringing safety gear (compass, maps, GPS, etc.) as well as creating a float plan to leave with an emergency contact.  Make sure to follow any laws/rules associated with the body of water you are traversing as well as any camping regulations that apply to your planned rest stops.


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Boat Launch Etiquette: A Helpful Guide

Boat Launch Etiquette: A Helpful Guide

Like thousands of others this Memorial weekend, my husband and I ventured out to a local lake to enjoy a bit of boating.  If you've ever gone to a boat launch during a holiday, you probably understand how stressful and chaotic it can be.  Long lines, impatient children, and something always seems to go wrong.  We were lucky.  We got to the lake early enough to avoid the big crowds at the ramp and were docked and settled before things got busy.

Those who came later in the day, however, weren't so lucky.  We watched, completely baffled, as a man spent nearly 30 minutes at the launch, blocking one of the ramps, as he tried to secure his kayak on top of his vehicle.  For those of you who may not know, kayaks can be carried and don't require trailers.  Why then was he blocking a ramp and preventing others from launching their boats?  We have no idea.  Or the man who backed his boat into the water only to realize that he had yet to remove any of the straps securing it to the trailer... straps that were now several feet under the water.  While his wife and children waited, he had to pull the boat out of the water, remove the straps, and back it down the ramp once more.

Boat launches don't have to be stressful.  They certainly don't have to turn us into monsters rampaging down the dock or completely ruin our vacations.  If you keep a few friendly reminders handy the next time you visit the boat launch, you will soon understand how a little planning and a quick checklist are all you need to make your day on the water start out right.

Note: Although I worked at a company where I was required to launch various watercraft, I am by no means an expert.  Please use this only as a basic guide and consult any and all manuals associated with your specific boat and trailer before launching.  This is not an exhaustive list of all the steps required to launch a boat properly and safely.

Boat Launch Parking Area for Boat Prep

Prep Area

Upon entering the boat launch, do not go directly to the launch.  Don't do it.  I don't care if the kids are screaming in the back seat or if there's no one there when you arrive.  Your first stop must be the prep area.  Some launches have designated lanes for this.  Others don't.  If your boat launch doesn't, go to a parking spot instead.  Once there, use this checklist to help make sure the basic preparations are done before you approach the water.

  1. Insert/tighten your drain plug(s)
  2. Remove any straps from the rear of the boat (keep the front secured until the boat is in the water)
  3. Unplug your trailer lights if not using waterproof, LED lights (this helps prevent bulbs from cracking during the temperature change)
  4. Check for safety gear including PFDs, whistles, oars, fire extinguishers, lights, buoys, flags, and so on
  5. Load any optional gear including water bottles, food, towels, and so on
  6. Remove anything you don't want to keep in the boat (things stored there for travel, for instance)
  7. Secure a rope to the boat to keep hold of during the launch
  8. Pay any parking or use fees

The basic idea here is to get as much as you can done before you get to the water.  Then, when you approach the launch, you can be on and off the ramp in a matter of minutes.

Boat Launch, ramp

Boat Launch

Always inspect the boat launch before you approach.  Look for debris in the water - logs and branches can drift into the shallows, broken glass, metal, and uneven concrete slabs can cause problems.  Also look for the slope of the launch.  A gradual slope means you'll have to drive the boat farther in before it floats.  A steeper slope means you'll need to back up less, but will prove harder to remove the boat later.  If you have someone with you, have them wait on the dock, within sight, as you approach.  They can tell you when to stop and can hold the rope when the boat is launched.  If you are alone, be prepared to tie your boat to the dock.  Make sure that whatever you tie the boat to is well-secured.

Personal Watercraft (PWC) secured to a dock

Return to your vehicle and make your final approach to the launch.  For those who launch boats often, backing up becomes second nature.  For those of you who may not do this very often or have never done it, practice.  Practice at home.  Practice a lot.  It seems ridiculous, but backing up a trailer is difficult, especially when the boat is very large or very small.  Visibility is limited and movements are counter-intuitive.  It's better to practice in your driveway or on a dirt road somewhere and take fifty times to get it right than to show up at the boat launch and spend the same fifty times trying while ten others wait in line behind you.

So please, for everyone's sake, practice.

Docking Bays at Boat Launch

Unless the dock is very long or has several docking bays to which you can secure your boat for any length of time, the name of the game here is speed.  Please don't sit at the dock for a long period of time while you arrange things or do more equipment prep while at the launch.  Those things were supposed to be done in the prep area.  Once the boat is in the water and you have parked your vehicle, it's common courtesy to try to return to the boat and cast off as soon as possible.  There are others waiting to use the dock (both outgoing and incoming).  Try to make any final arrangements, like loading people into the boat, as quickly and safely as possible and be on your way.

Launching/Retrieving Boat

On the Return

When your day is done and you're returning to the launch, do everything in reverse order.  People were the last in, now they are the first out.  Tie off or have someone hold the boat while you retrieve the vehicle.  Approach the launch and park.  Pull the boat into place with ropes.  Never power load any watercraft!  I've seen boaters try to drive their boats onto the trailer only to have it end horribly wrong.  It's probably illegal (and if it isn't, it should be) and it can seriously damage your boat.  I've seen PWCs overshoot and hit the vehicle.  I've seen boats run into trailers that weren't deep enough and gouge out the bow.  Be safe, be careful, and use ropes to pull the boat into place.

Once it is secured at the front of the trailer, get back into the vehicle and drive up the launch just far enough for you to do a vegetation check.  This means getting out again, or having someone else do it for you, to check the trailer and boat for any plant or animal matter that may have decided to go along for the ride.  Remove the debris and then proceed to the prep area or parking lot.  Once there, you can go through the checklist again.  Make sure that all the necessary straps are in place and tight, test your lights to be sure they are working properly, remove the drain plug, and then remove or secure any gear in the boat.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means.  Every trailer and boat combination likely has different quirks or steps that may be required.  The more familiar you are with your boat, trailer, and the launch will determine how smoothly and swiftly things go.  Please use this as a guide only and add any steps that your situation requires to launch safely.


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A Friendly Reminder: Water Safety Do's and Don'ts

A Friendly Reminder: Water Safety Do's and Don'ts

Though I lived within a mile of a lake while growing up and visited it several times a week during the summer, I still remember the anticipation, the excitement, and the overwhelming desire to run out of the car and down to the water as soon as it got within sight.  It didn't seem to matter how many times I went - my reaction was always the same.  As a kid, my top concern was fun.  Water was fun.  Splashing was fun.  Swimming was fun.

Waiting was not.  Sunscreen was not.  Rules were definitely not.

Now that I'm older, hopefully a little wiser, and with a child of my own, I've come to appreciate some of those rules my parents drilled into my head at such a young age.  With that thought in mind, I'd like to share some of those rules with you and your family with the hope that they will provide some ease of mind and make your summers a bit safer and a lot more fun.

Please save and share the infographic on basic water safety with friends and family.  Although it was originally designed for SUPs, it applies to most watercraft.

Water Safety Do's and Don'ts

Travel With a Buddy

This one seems obvious, but I'm always surprised by how often it's ignored.  Water travel isn't like a car travel.  If something breaks and you get stuck, you can always call a tow-truck while on the road.  And if you end up having to spend the night?  At least you're warm, dry, and in the relative safety of a car.

On the water, things are far more dangerous.  Some lakes can span many miles, rivers go even farther, and depending on the time of year, time and day, and particular water you happen to be on, there is a chance that you won't be able to flag anyone down for help.  If you are injured out on the water, you may not have time to wait for someone to find and help you.

Family on an SUP at sunset

Having a buddy with you can save your life, literally, so don't risk it if at all possible.

And if you do have to go it alone?  Always leave your information with a friend.  Give them a detailed map of the water you're going to be traveling including marked areas for every stop you plan to make, and then don't improvise once you're out there.  List the time you plan to leave, the time you plan to return, and visual cues (the color of your clothes, vest, watercraft, and so on) for rescue crews should they be called.

Bring a Map, GPS, and Compass

These are useful whether alone or with a group as it is easy to get turned around while out on the water.  There are no road signs and in some cases there aren't even many landmarks by which to orient yourself.  Having a map and compass can mean the difference between getting off the water and into town before nightfall ... or eventually wandering into town sometime after 2 AM only to realize it's the wrong town.

Aerial View of River System

Although most phones have GPS capabilities, don't rely on it to always work or be accurate.  Many lakes are in remote areas and reception can be spotty at best.  Plus, if you've been using it to take pictures during your trip, the battery might not have much power left.  Bring a separate GPS unit if at all possible and make sure it's charged before heading out.

Watch for Changes in the Water/Weather Conditions

This is especially important for those of you using non-motorized boats.  Though this may be hard to do depending on your water access, it is better to row against the wind at the start of the trip when you have plenty of energy to spend.  Then, on the return, when your muscles are already starting to ache and you're feeling the burn, the wind will be at your back and will help you get to your drop-in site rather than fight against you.

As for the weather?  The dark clouds in the distance may seem a long ways off, but a quick change in the wind and they'll be dumping rain on your head before you know it.  Always watch the skies for any sign of impending storm.  If it looks questionable, don't risk it.  Shorten your trip and remain within easy rowing distance of your drop-in site.  It you see any lightning or hear thunder, get off the water immediately.  Go straight for shore - regardless of if it's your drop-in site or not.  A bit of trespassing is nothing compared to electrocution and most land owners will understand given the circumstances.

Lightning Strike on Open Water

Remember, water doesn't attract lightning, but it is a great conductor.  A lightning strike doesn't have to be a direct hit to kill you while on the water.  More importantly, while out on the very flat, very open water, you will most likely be the tallest thing around and will serve as a lightning rod.

Don't Lose Track of Time

This is important for many reasons.  One, watercraft are required to have lights after a certain time each evening to be sure they can be seen by other watercraft.  If you're busy taking pictures and exploring and forget the time, you may find yourself in a dangerous situation, especially if you're using a non-motorized boat with no built-in lights.

Two, things look different in the dark.  It is far harder to find your way home when the landmarks on the shore are no longer visible. 

Three, if you're out alone, losing track of time could cue your friend to call for help.  They may believe you to be hurt or lost when, in reality, you fell asleep in a sheltered bay after a nice afternoon swim.

Bring Your Dog and Give Them a PFD

Dog with PFD, dog life-vest

Many dogs can swim and love being out on the water.  Some dogs can even swim for great distances.  But it may be dangerous to assume that just because your dog can swim out thirty feet to collect the stick you threw that he can swim the two hundred yards back to shore after your boat capsizes.  Even if he can, many dogs won't swim for safety if their family remains behind and having them tread water waiting for you could prove deadly.  If you're taking any pet on the water and they aren't a goldfish or the family parrot, get them a personal flotation device built to support their weight and size in the water.

Remember Your Car Keys (and Any Other Important Items)

This may seem obvious, but many people leave them behind - usually locking them inside their car.  Sound familiar?  Before you go, check for your keys, wallet, and phone.  It's always a good idea to have identification and a bit of money on hand, just in case.  Worried about them getting wet?  Invest in a good dry-bag.  I suggest getting one that's brightly colored to make it easier to see on the water or from a distance.

Stillwater Outdoors Dry Bag, light blue/black

Dry-Bag by Stillwater Outdoors

Watch for Other Boats

It's always a good idea to have at least one person in every group take a boater's safety course before going out on the water.  In some states, it's required, so be sure to check with the local laws before you head out.  Even if it isn't, the course will provide you with vital information that could save your life while out on the water.

For those of you using non-motorized craft like a SUP, canoe, or kayak, the general rule of thumb is to avoid motorized boats as best you can.  They are moving faster, are heavier, and will do a lot of damage if they hit you.  Yes, they are supposed to be watching for other boaters.  Yes, like pedestrians, you do have the right of way in many cases.  But none of that matters if something happens to distract them and they drive straight into you.

While boating, do everything you can to make yourself easier to see.  Brightly colored clothes, flags that wave overhead, even lights can help to make collision less likely.  And if you decide to jump into the water for a swim?  Always remain close to your boat, never do so in high traffic areas, and remain vigilant.

Don't Get Too Close to Wildlife

Although seeing that massive turtle sunning itself on a log would make for a great photo, that yawn isn't really a yawn.  And that hissing sound?  The turtle you're trying to get a selfie with isn't pleased.  More importantly, even something as seemingly benevolent as a turtle can be dangerous.  Snapping turtles' jaws are meant to cut and combined with their jaw strength can severe fingers and toes.

Snapping turtle on land

So if you happen to see a little critter frolicking playfully in the water as you row past, take a picture ... but do so at a safe, responsible distance.  Remember that wildlife, as the name implies, is wild and when you're out on the water, you're in their domain.  Be respectful.  Even turtles deserve a little personal space.

Tie Off Your Boat

After several hours of boating, a planned lunch break may seem like a good idea.  You pull your boat onto the beach, empty out your snacks on a beach towel, and settle in for a quick meal.  And after that?  What's better than a quick nap or bit of sun-bathing (with adequate sunblock to protect against cancer of course)?  So, twenty minutes later, you lift your head, scan the beach, smile at the duck paddling through the reeds, and then feel your stomach drop as you realize that's your boat floating across the lake.

Although lakes and rivers don't experience tides in the same way the oceans do, there are plenty of other factors to consider - the biggest one being the wind.  A quick change in its force or direction could be disastrous for your trip.  So the next time you stop for lunch, tie your boat to something permanent - a tree, a massive boulder, a heavy anchor.  Anything that will hold it in place should the wind change direction.

From all of us at Stillwater Outdoors,

Have fun and be safe.

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