Cold Weather Boating Safety


Many boaters enjoy fishing and other recreational activities during the winter months. It’s important to be aware of relevant threats to your safety during these times. 

In this article, we list the biggest risks associated with boating in winter and suggest precautions to address them. 

Winter Boating Increases Your Risk Of:  


Generally speaking, boating in the winter increases your risk of an accident due to the harsh temperatures of both the water and air. Extremely cold temperatures can have a negative impact on watercraft. Icing on essential boat systems can lead to faster degradation and create holes, causing the boat to take on water. Additionally, cold weather can cause batteries to lose their charge faster. 

TIP: Be sure to practice proper maintenance after every outing to avoid risks like these. 

Extreme Weather 

When adverse weather conditions strike, like a winter storm, you may experience little to no visibility on the water. Storms can shut everything down on land, and those conditions are far worse when you’re out on the water (i.e., below-freezing temperatures, high winds, snow, sleet, and intense waves).

TIP: Always examine the forecast in advance. If there is any sign of a winter storm, stay at home and reschedule for a day with clear weather. 

» MORE: Extreme Weather and Your SkiSafe Policy


Boating in the winter puts you at risk of contracting hypothermia. When your body experiences prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures and begins to lose heat faster than it’s produced, you are at risk of hypothermia. Eventually, the body will use up all its stored energy, causing its temperature to lower substantially. 

TIP: In a man overboard scenario, you could experience “Cold Shock”, which is your body’s response to sudden immersion in cold water. This is one of the biggest jolts that the body can experience and can lead to an involuntary gasp reflex and loss of breathing control. This is another reason why a life jacket is a clear necessity when winter boating. 

Precautions For Winter Boating  

Wear a Life Jacket

The most pertinent cold weather rule is to wear a life jacket - even if you’re an expert swimmer.  There is always the possibility that you could fall overboard and feel the effects of cold water immersion. In a case where you lose consciousness, a life jacket is designed to turn you over into the upright position, which could wind up saving your life. 

Not only will a life jacket help to keep you afloat and prevent drowning, but it can help to keep you warm as well. Most are made from a thick insulating material. We recommend wearing a float coat that’s US Coast Guard-Approved Type III. These have the warming qualities of a wetsuit and keep your head above water. If you have a boating mishap and are stuck in the water awaiting rescue, the float coat will help to maintain your body’s temperature and keep you warm. 

» MORE: Life Jacket Guide

Have a Float Plan 

Whether headed out for the day or a longer trip, always tell family members and friends where you are going and when you expect to be back. Since it’s more dangerous in the winter months, filing a float plan is critical. 

Remember: There are fewer boaters on the water to provide rescue aid and the waves are rougher. If you have any problems, your family and friends can alert local rescue services. 

Bring Extra Layers 

Always pack a change of warm clothes, as well as extra towels and blankets. If you get wet, you will be happy that you brought those back-ups. You could also bring along a hot beverage in a canteen, hand warmers, thermal undergarments, and extra-warm winter boots. These items will help you stay warm in the extreme cold. 

Additional Safety Tips:

  • Carry a VHF radio, signal flares, and other items that will draw attention to your location in case of an emergency. 
  • Wear insulated clothes.
  • Put your change of clothes in a waterproof container. 
  • Always boat safely and never alone. 

Should You Fall Into The Water, Remember These Steps: 

Try to stay calm and focus on your breath 

Oftentimes, the first minute of cold water immersion is the most dangerous. This is when panic is most likely to occur, leading to “cold water shock”. The body’s reaction to cold water shock may be muscle spasms and hyperventilation. Other symptoms include increased heart rate and blood pressure. 

Try your best to stay as calm as possible. Concentrate on breathing and treading water until this first stage of sudden and unexpected immersion stops. 

Get out of the water and into dry clothes  

Even in freezing water temperatures, an individual has around 10 minutes before extremities become numb. Take this time to change into dry clothes and bundle yourself in dry towels or blankets.  

Go into the fetal position on your back to reduce heat loss. If you’re in a group, huddle together for warmth. The goal is to keep your core as warm as possible, which will slow the process of hypothermia. 


If you can get back in your boat or are rescued by another person, you are still at risk for post-rescue collapse. This is when blood pressure drops and cold blood moves quickly to the heart. 

To help avoid post-rescue collapse:

  1. Remove wet clothes and immediately put on dry ones.
  2. Warm-up slowly and focus on getting your core warm before anything else (i.e., your extremities). For example, don’t run your hands and feet under hot water right away. By stimulating circulation in your extremities first, you risk moving the chilled blood toward the core. Instead, wrap yourself in warm towels or blankets and stay out of windy areas. 
  3. Consumption of caffeine or alcohol could be very dangerous after what the body has just endured. It’s best to avoid all food and drinks until a trained medical professional has evaluated you. You may be at risk of choking. 
  4. Get medical help immediately. Even if you feel fine, seek assistance from an EMT or go to the hospital. You could be in a state of shock and unaware of a serious issue.  

Remember to take the proper precautions when boating in the winter. Do not leave yourself in the dark. Know what to expect and have a plan of action in case of an emergency. 

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