KAYAKING YEAR-ROUND IN FLORIDA
(Last update July, 2016)
We kayak year-round here in Florida. About the only thing that forces us off the water is lightning and torrential, all-day rains. Some people have asked how we can kayak in the cold (and a few ask about the heat) but our response is here in Florida if you wait until there is absolutely no chance of rain or high temps or low temps, you are probably not going to go out very often. Being surrounded by water on three sides means loads of kayaking opportunities, but it also means the weather is unpredictable. But you just have to keep an eye on the forecast, understand the basic weather patterns, and know how to dress for the conditions you are likely to encounter.
The key to staying comfortable in any weather is: 1) always have rain gear available and 2) layer your clothing.
Rain gear is an essential all year in Florida. During the summer months you may be able to get away with just getting wet, but even with warm temps if a wind comes up you could place yourself at risk of hypothermia even during the summer. You should always have rain gear with you, even if stashed away inside a hatch “just in case”. If you use a sit-inside and have a spray skirt all you need is a jacket. For an SOT kayak you will want to protect your legs as well. A pair of decent nylon rain pants with a jacket that fits down over the waist will work. A wide brimmed hat will keep rain from dripping down your neck.
Since your arms are constantly being raised the best rain gear for kayaking will have nylon, neoprene, or latex gaskets at the arm, necks, waist and leg openings. For 3-season use an inexpensive rain suit will work or re-purpose your hiking/biking/golfing rain gear. For winter kayaking, when getting soaked can be dangerous, a good paddling jacket and pants are almost a necessity. For the few really cold times you might even consider rain pants with built in socks. These will keep your feet dry as well, although the socks tend to wear out faster than the rest of the pants. Since you want to be able to layer clothing under your rain gear as well as need to be able to stretch to paddle, be sure to buy your rain jacket/pants at least a size larger than you normally wear.
We always carry at least a rain jacket with us and I can attest to putting mine on even in the summer time when I’ve been wet from rain or swimming and the wind picked up.
One warning: in warmer weather “water resistant” is good enough. But in cold weather (air temps of around 60 and below) you need to make sure that your rain gear is truly “water-proof”. In kayaking parlance a “splash” jacket or “semi-dry” jacket is highly water-repellent, a “dry” jacket is water-proof and includes velcro closures at the waist to connect dry pants to a dry top for a waterproof closure good for anything other than long/term submergence in water.
Except during the heat of summer when you may be able to get away with a cotton T-shirt and shorts, start with a base layer of synthetic clothing. Synthetic underwear, pants and shirts will dry quickly if they get wet, either from splashes or taking a dip in a spring. Sun-protective shirts and pants will cut down on the amount of messy sun screen you have to smear over your body. Also, stretchy fabrics allow you to paddle and move around freely within your kayak.
During the warm months this may be as simple as a fast-dry shirt and pants, or even just a long-sleeved sun-protective shirt thrown over your swim suit. Rashguards are popular, altho we find them a little heavy-weight for really high temps. If you have a sit-inside, depending on the size of your cockpit opening, your legs may need no protection from sun or water and shorts may work. With the larger cockpits that most of us favor we like capri pants that extend below the knee, board shorts or light-weight exercise tights.
As the temps decrease full length pants, thicker tights or a pair of 1.5 neoprene pants provide extra warmth as well as protection. On top, a nylon or poly-pro long-sleeved shirt works great. It helps if you can push up and pull down the sleeves to meet weather changes as well as open and close, at least at the neck, for ventilation. And, especially in an SOT, don’t forget your feet. There are not too many things more uncomfortable than sunburned feet. “Sand socks”, “grip socks” or “beach socks” (thin nylon socks with a very thin sole) work great with sandals, water shoes or old “tennis” shoes.
Again, stick with synthetic fabrics that will not absorb water. Fleece is great for this since it comes in various weights. Adding a light
fleece vest, shirt or sweater can extend your paddling well into the shoulder seasons (sometimes all winter in Florida) and can feel really good to pull on when you stop for a lunch break. During our 2 months of winter we may add thicker fleece, especially for
break times, but make sure they are not too restrictive – you need to make sure you can still paddle comfortably in all those layers!
You can probably double-purpose your rain gear as your outer layer. An extra fleece jacket to throw on for lunch breaks might be in order for cold weather but you may not need it when paddling. Loose fleece pants can be pulled on over tights or shorts.
Feet and Hands
Your feet and hands can be hard to keep warm and dry. Your feet because they frequently get wet when launching and stopping for breaks – we find it almost impossible to get in and out without getting our feet wet up to the ankles – and they are pretty stationary while in the kayak. And your hands because they are in constant motion paddling and exposed to water all day.
Most of us wear thin “bicycle” style, fingerless gloves all year. They protect our hands from friction, UV rays, mosquitoes and provide a bit of warmth in cold water. As the temps drop into winter we trade them out for full-fingered gloves which provide more warmth. Make sure the gloves are not too tight, too thick, or too slippery as that can hinder your paddling. Also, when trying on the gloves, make sure the area between your thumb and forefinger – where the paddle rests – is smooth on the inside, with no seam or bunched fabric that can cause a blister. A nice pair of fleece gloves for rest breaks can be helpful.
When considering shoes for cold weather kayaking be sure to keep in mind that they have to fit inside your kayak and rest comfortably on the foot pegs without twisting your legs into funny positions. For cold weather kayaking we have tried a number of options for our feet. All have their advantages and disadvantages and we haven’t found the perfect solution yet. Here are some of the options we have tried.
Wool socks under sandals or inside water shoes or old “tennis” shoes. Wool retains some warm when wet, but still gets rather clammy and cold after a while sitting in the kayak. Similar are neoprene diving socks. There is one type of neoprene sock, trade name LavaCore, that has a peached interior that feel quite warm.
Waterproof socks under sandals. These work great for a while if you don’t step into water over the top of the socks. Over time the friction of the sandal or water shoe on the sock will cause it to lose its water-proofing, so they need to be replaced couple of years, depending on how frequently you paddle.
Neoprene boots can be found in both over-the-ankle and calf-high versions. Like waterproof socks in cold weather they only stay fairly dry in water that does not go over the tops of the boots. And like wool socks, they do allow some water to enter, but they still keep your feet warm, if not dry. On the low boots (booties), the style that have a side zipper and a strap across the instep are a lot easier to get on and off wet feet. Another advantage is that most of them, unlike the thin “water shoes” available in big-box stores, have a decent non-skid sole so you can wear them as shoes out of the boat. This is especially nice if you have some portaging, a long walk to the put in, enjoy exploring springs along the way and for kayak camping. Again, remember when buying boots, to make sure there is enough room for your feet in your kayak.
Overshoes are something we will be trying out this winter (2015-2016). They come in various heights – we’ll be trying out the calf-high version. They are basically water-proof nylon bags you pull on over socks or your regular footwear with a cinch strap at the ankle and at the top. They also have a non-skid sole. As long as we don’t get into water over the top of the overshoe they should keep our feet dry. And by wearing heavy socks inside the overshoes our feet should stay warm as well.
**Update – March 2016 ** Our overshoes worked great on a couple of 34-degree mornings this winter. We were able to launch in water up to our calves and keep our feet warm and dry and they are quite comfortable, if a bit clunky (think of heavy hiking boots). The only down side is that they are large and make your feet much bigger, so you need to make sure they fit inside the cockpit. They definitely do their job. Some of us are sold on them and some will go back to neoprene boots. But for really cold water the overshoes worked very well. One of us solved the “clunky” problem by removing them while in the boat and just paddling in her socks.
WINTERIZE YOUR BOAT
In addition to outfitting your body for cold air and water, you can do a few things with your boat. First off, with a sit-inside you should add a spray skirt. Even a thin nylon spray skirt will seal in body heat to help keep your legs warm and will keep out splashes so you stay drier.
Another thing that can help is to add some insulation to your boat and we are going to experiment with different methods and materials this winter (2015-2016). Last winter we tried adding some mini-cell foam padding under our foot pedals where our heels usually sit, fairly motionless all day. This helped quite a bit, although they do wear out pretty quickly since your heels are constantly moving back and forth a little bit with each stroke.
For this winter we’ve cut up some closed-cell foam (CCF) pads (cheap sleeping pads from big-box stores) to fit in the bottom of the kayak. This should provide a lot of insulation from the cold water and also help fill up the cockpit so the trapped body heat has less volume to warm. We’ll let you know how it works out next spring if we get any cold weather this winter. Again, when making these “liners” make sure you don’t get too cramped inside the cockpit and that the foam will not interfere with an emergency exit.
SOTs can be warmer with respect to water temperatures since they are double-hulled and have air (and hopefully no water) trapped between the two layers. However on an SOT you are more exposed to the air, splashes, waves, and rain, so adding some CCF under the legs and feet could be of benefit in them as well.
**UPDATE – FEBRUARY 2016 **
We had a couple of weeks of cold (for us in Florida) weather with 3 paddles starting with the temps just above freezing. We can report that the CCF hull inserts did a great job of keeping our legs and feet warm in the cold temps. In the case of the Eddyline Skylark model kayak we simply shoved the CCF pad into the bottom of the hull up to the forward bulkhead and marked where it hit the seat. After cutting it off at that length no more modifications were made, the width fit perfectly just under the rails for the foot pegs. YMMV, of course, and you may have to make a few more cuts to fit your hull. On the water, in the cold and wind, we could definitely feel a difference between the bottom area which was covered by the CCF and the sides which were not. And with the spray skirt on it was noticeably warmer inside the boat. One unintended benefit, is that the bit of water that gets into the cockpit while getting in and out of the boat flows under the foam which also keeps your legs drier. And it was easy to pull out the CCF pad at home, hose it down and let it dry off for the next trip. One down side, if you are wearing shoes with rough soles you will wear a spot in the CCF under your heels pretty quickly. But you can probably get 2 pieces out of each CCF full-length pad and since the CCF pads cost under $20 you can probably afford to replace it every winter or two.