Warm Hands for Winter Paddling

The biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome as a year-round paddler here on Vancouver Island is keeping my hands warm. I have Raynaud’s Syndrome in my hands, which means the blood vessels spasm and constrict in colder temperatures, leaving my fingers white, numb and largely useless. Cold, damp conditions, like we have here on the “Wet” West Coast, are the worst.

But I’m a paddler, so…

Over the years, I’ve developed a system for keeping my cold-sensitive hands comfortable and functional on the water in the winter. Here’s what works for me.

On the Water

Base Layer: 3mm Neoprene Gloves

Three-millimetre neoprene gloves are my go-to base layer for winter paddling. For me, 3mm is the ideal thickness: it holds enough warmth, yet it’s not so thick that it significantly takes away from my connection with the paddle. In winter, I pair these gloves with one of the outer layers described below (which can be used on their own if that suits you better). In shoulder seasons, I often use these gloves alone and bring an outer layer along as a backup.

My neoprene gloves from Mountain Equipment Company have been discontinued, but many companies make a similar product. Look for gloves with pre-curved fingers to increase comfort and reduce hand fatigue, and a grippy palm to give you traction on a wet paddle shaft.

Outer Layer Option 1: Pogies

Pogies are a wonderful cold-water paddling invention. These neoprene sleeves attach around the shaft of your paddle with Velcro, then slide easily up and down the shaft as needed for hand placement. You can quickly slip your hands out of pogies when you need functional fingers, then slide them back in for warmth and weather protection.

Many people prefer pogies to gloves because pogies keep your hands in direct contact with your paddle. For me, I layer pogies over my 3mm neoprene gloves in winter. I find it a winning combination: with this duo in place, my hands are usually very warm when I’m paddling at regular exertion levels, which means they are happy and functional when I need them to be.

Pogies come in different materials, thicknesses, shapes, and cuff lengths. I use 3mm neoprene pogies, with a medium height cuff. Note that sliding glove-clad hands into pogies can be tricky, so consider purchasing a set with a wider cuff to make things easier.

Outer Layer Option 2: Neoprene Mitts

Mitts are generally warmer than gloves, because they allow your fingers to share warmth and they have less surface area through which heat can escape — a blessing for winter paddling. That said, mitts have their drawbacks: they can significantly restrict your fingers’ mobility and thus impact your stroke and paddling “finesse.”

My 3mm neoprene mitts have a hydrophobic outer skin, which means water stays out unless my hands dip in the ocean over the cuff. In the past, I layered these mitts over my 3mm neoprene gloves, but I found the combination too restrictive: I couldn’t move my fingers freely, my hands turned into “claws,” I had to adapt my stroke, and I lost the feel of my paddle. That said, these mitts are very toasty: slip them on over wet gloves and painfully cold fingers are warm again within 10 minutes. Today, I carry these mitts as an emergency layer, or to loan to friends. I prefer my pogies-plus-gloves combo for warmth, comfort and functionality.

Tip: If you buy mitts for layering, get a size up so you can comfortably fit your neoprene gloves inside.

Breaks and Beach Time

Happy hands on the water is only half the equation. I also have a system for keeping my hands warm and functional during lunch or extended break stops on cold days.

Extra Over Layers for the Body

Keeping my body warm at lunch helps keep my hands warm. I carry an extra-large fleece jacket and an extra-large Goretex/rain jacket in a dry bag in my hatch, ready to put on as soon as we land on a cool day. I layer one or both of these jackets right over all my wet paddling gear (drysuit, PFD, sprayskirt, hydropack, etc.) to keep my body heat in and protect against wind and cold temperatures.

USB-Rechargeable Hand Warmers

These USB-rechargeable handwarmer are my saving grace. Small and portable, they have two settings (low and high), come with a knit sleeve, and provide almost instant heat at the press of a button. I carry two sets with me in my boat for beach breaks. Turn them on, and within seconds I have a consistent source of adjustable heat that I can hold in my hand or tuck into a pocket or glove.

I keep one set of handwarmers (fully charged) ready in the pockets of the fleece jacket I put on at breaks. As soon as I land, I put on the jacket and turn on the handwarmers, creating pockets of warmth that I can slide my hands in and out of as needed.

I get about 1.5-2 hours of heat per charge, and I’ve had the oldest of my sets for over 6 years. Well worth the investment! These days, you can find a similar model at Lee Valley Tools.

Extra Set of Neoprene Gloves

Putting my hands back into cold, wet neoprene after lunch quickly saps them of any warmth they had. I now carry an extra dry set of 3mm neoeprene gloves in my hatch, and I put these on after lunch to resume paddling. (I don’t find I need an extra set of dry pogies, but you could do that, too, if you wanted.) Dry gloves make a big difference in keeping my hands warm and comfortable for the remainder of the day.

Other Options

Gel-filled Reusable Hand Warmers

Gel-filled reusable handwarmers are a great non-electric option. Simply bend the metal disc suspended in the gel to set off a chemical reaction that heats and solidifies the gel, giving you about an hour of warmth. To reuse them, go home and plop the plastic pouches in a pot of boiling water until the gel re-liquifies, and they’re ready to go for next time.

These warmers are about the same size as the USB units, and some come with a soft knit sleeve. Note that I have had these warmers activate accidentally in my kit, so if you go this route, carry an extra set as a backup.

Disposable Heat Packs

I’m not a fan of these. I find they do not warm quickly or reliably enough and don’t reach a warm enough temperature for my needs. They also don’t perform well in wet conditions, and can split open, spewing black iron powder inside your glove, pocket, etc. I prefer the reusable options above.

Wishing you warm and happy hands for your own winter paddling adventures. If you have other tips and tricks to share, please reply with them in the comments below!

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