Ground Rules: From Nose to Toes

Canoe-trip packing tips for the persistent paddler.

Clothing items pictured: Warmers Waterfall Gloves, $22; REI Taku Jacket, $209; The North Face Pumori Fleece, $99; REI Midweight MTS Long-Sleeve Crew, $30; Marmot PreCip Full-Zip Rain Pants, $90; Everest Designs Nordic Earflap Hat, $27; Baffin Enduro Rain Boots, $42; and Thorlo Wool Hiker Socks, $15.

Yes, you can canoe in winter, even when snow covers the ground. All you need is a gentle, ice-free waterway, above-freezing temperatures, a conservative attitude, and proper equipment. First Class Scouts who have Swimming merit badge and previous canoeing experience can participate. So can adult leaders who are competent paddlers.

What to Wear

Remember the rule: “a change of clothes from nose to toes.” Select quick-drying fabrics that retain some warmth when wet. Wool heads the list, followed by polyester, polypropylene, fleece, nylon, and acrylic. Don’t wear cotton—in any form, it’s unacceptable. Layer garments under a water-repellent shell for protection against spray and wind.

This combination (worn from the skin out) keeps me toasty: wool long johns, wool shirt, and wool trousers, light fleece sweater, wool neck-warmer, hooded nylon wind shell, and knitted wool hat. For rain or snow, I add a two-piece nylon rain suit and waterproof brimmed hat (worn over my knitted cap). I wear Neoprene, wool, or “rubber-dot” acrylic gloves, and I treat my eyeglasses with Rain-X.

You must wear a life jacket at all times while canoeing and walking along shore. A PFD can save the day if you slip on mud and fall into the water.


  • Consider warm, waterproof footwear essential. Some good choices include
  • Knee-high rubber boots with felt insoles and wool socks.
  • Five-buckle overshoes (galoshes) with wool-felt snowmobile liners.
  • Neoprene wetsuit socks or Gore-Tex socks inside oversize sneakers.
  • Tennis shoes with wool socks. Insert your stocking feet in plastic bags, and tape the bags snugly around your ankles.
  • Chota Neoprene “QuickLace Mukluks” (very warm).


  • Canoe seats and floors get cold: Bring two squares of closed-cell foam (or carpeting)—one to sit on, one to rest your feet on. Tie the sitting pad to the canoe seat so it won’t slide around (dangerous!).
  • Fire-making kit (chemical fire-starters, candle, tinder, precut kindling) in the event you need to make a warming fire.
  • Strong knife, folding saw, hand-axe for rescue and emergency fire-making.
  • First-aid kit, duct tape, pliers.
  • Fifty-foot rescue rope.
  • Compass, river map, cell phone. GPS, if you have one.
  • Extra paddle and sponge (to mop up water) for each canoe.
  • Sleeping bag, foam pad, plastic ground cloth, aluminized “space blanket,” and emergency items for treating hypothermia.
  • One headlamp for each canoe.
  • Vacuum bottles filled with soup and hot drinks.

Everything must be protected against rain and/or snow and capsizing. Either buy expensive dry bags or use this reliable method:

Place items in a nylon stuff sack, and place the stuff sack inside a plastic trash bag.

Cliff Jacobson is a Distinguished Eagle Scout and the author of many outdoor books, including Basic Illustrated Canoeing (Globe-Pequot Press, $9.95).


  1. Great article. However, I have one minor correction. You reference “above freezing temperatures” as a requirement for winter canoeing… Not necessarily true…many spring-fed streams can be paddled year-round regardless of the temps.

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