Winter Paddleboarding on the Thames
Updated: Nov 14, 2022
With a bit of planning and some decent equipment you can paddle all year round. Read on for our top tips for winter paddling.
All of the team here at Paddle Richmond, and lots of our club members, love paddling through the colder months. We generally have the river to ourselves, with none of the pleasure boats and crowds - it can be incredibly quiet and peaceful, and on a still winter’s day the river is absolutely beautiful. And of course exercising in cold air or water is super-invigorating.
But paddling in winter means you do need to plan ahead and make sure you’re properly equipped, so that you keep safe and don’t spend the whole trip freezing to death!
Plan your trip, including access and egress points, and check ahead for hazards on your route, such as locks and weirs. If you don’t know the river and see any hazards or blockages ahead, get out and walk the section first. And always make sure the trip is within the capability of all paddlers in your group - winter is not really the time to push people beyond their comfort zone on the river.
Also remember that the days are far shorter and it gets dark very quickly. Wear white lights to display front and back if you think you will be out after dusk, but our advice is to aim to be off the river a good 30 minutes before sundown.
Weather, Tides and flow
Check the weather forecast - the weather in winter is of course harsher, so check for wind speeds, maximum gust speed, wind direction, lightning or thunderstorm warnings. And remember the weather can change very quickly, so be prepared to cut short your trip, or abandon it completely if it doesn’t feel and look safe.
The Thames up to Teddington is tidal, with two tides a day. Most of the year the tidal action is mainly blocked by Richmond Lock, so the only tidal flow we get is from two hours before High Tide, to two hours after. Then the Lock gates are lowered and we have an 8-hour 'half-tide' window, with no tidal flow. However every winter, we have “draw-off” when Richmond Lock is not used and we have the full cycle of the tides, from High to Low. Normally this is for three weeks in December, but in 2022 draw-off lasts the whole of November and December. This severely restricts when it is safe to paddle, and we generally restrict paddling to two hours either side of High Tide.
It rains more in winter, and the river flow from land water (fluvial flow) is far greater than in the summer months. What was a safe playground in summer can easily turn into a dangerous torrent in winter, so do your research or talk to someone who knows the river conditions well. We’re always happy to take a call on 0203 488 1785!
Always check the flow before paddling, through the Environment Agency flow gauges
and the PLA ebb tide flag system. If it’s higher than 80 cu.m per second or a yellow flag warning is in place, only the most experienced paddlers should consider going out. When there’s a red flag warning, no one should be on the water on a paddleboard or kayak. If you’re not sure, don’t go…
Tell a friend or family member where you are going and when you are expecting to be back, or use the RYA SafeTrax app which will notify your contacts if you are overdue. On coastal trips call the local coastguard (they really don’t mind) to let them know your plans, and remember to call them when you end your trip.
Make sure you have a means of calling for help. We always carry a whistle (6 blasts in a row is the international distress call) and a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch. Consider a power pack to recharge your phone on a longer trip, or a VHF radio for coastal trips.
It’s always best to paddle with someone else, but especially important in colder weather. Paddling in a pair or a small group means there’s someone to help if you fall in or get into any kind of trouble - and it’s far more sociable. If you don’t know anyone else who paddles, join your local paddleboard club!
Food and water
Carry snacks and water, to make sure your energy levels stay up, and you’re properly hydrated (you can get dehydrated in winter too). Consider carrying a thermos full of hot water so you can enjoy a nice cuppa half way through the trip!
Start warm, stay warm
Warm up before getting out on the water - pumping your board up will help, but if it’s already inflated do a quick run, some squats, star jumps or anything that gets your heart rate up and your blood flowing. If you start warm, the paddling will keep you warm throughout your trip… And do some dynamic stretches to warm up your shoulders, arms, back etc - the muscles you’ll be using on the water.
What to wear
Dress for the occasion - make sure you have enough layers to keep you warm, and remember you’ll warm up quickly once you get moving, so be prepared to shed a layer as you paddle. Always carry a dry bag with extra layers (and other essential equipment). Include a change of clothes just in case you fall in and get cold. No one wants to travel home in wet cold clothes!
A good thermal base layer, a fleece for your mid-layer and a good waterproof and windproof shell to keep the worst of the weather off are the essentials. Definitely avoid cotton - even in summer it gets very cold when wet. And remember a nice warm beanie hat - you lose a lot of heat through your head!
Consider a wetsuit or dry suit, but remember a wetsuit is designed to keep you warm in the water, not on it. They are not very warm when you get back on your board if you’ve fallen in… A windproof jacket to wear over the top will help. A drysuit is better, but they are expensive and you can get pretty warm paddling in one! On the river most of us prefer the layer system with a big dry bag full of spare warm clothing - just in case!
Neoprene or waterproof gloves or mitts - I use Sealskinz waterproof cycling gloves, but British Canoeing have a great guide here . If your hands get really cold wear some disposable latex gloves under your other gloves or mitts.
Footwear - plenty of choice here - they need to offer good grip and keep you warm. Lots of people like neoprene boots which work by warming up the water when it gets into your boots. I prefer to keep my feet dry and use Palm Gradient boots, or old trainers, with Sealskinz waterproof socks for most winter paddling. As long as you don’t jump in your toes remain nice and toasty!
Buoyancy aids and leashes
Wear a buoyancy aid - we advise this all year round, but in winter it will keep you warm, and keep you afloat, really essential if you experience cold water shock due to an unexpected fall into the water.
Make sure you wear a leash suitable to the conditions - in moving water this should be a quick-release waist leash, never an ankle or knee leash which will be impossible to release if you get entangled in anything. And make sure you know how to release it quickly. Practice this until it is second nature.
In summary, there are quite a few things to consider when planning a cold weather paddleboard trip, but most of it is common sense. If you take a few simple precautions a whole world of wonderful winter paddling opens up for you. See you out there!