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Kayaking Around Glaciers: Safety Tips And Essential Gear

Paddling in icy waters is an adventure a paddler will always remember. There is a quiet thrill when navigating frigid waters that are filled with floating crystal towers of ice. It’s no surprise that kayaking in places like Antarctica, Greenland, and Patagonia is a sort of right of passage for many thrill-seeking paddlers.

Kayaking around glaciers is an adventure unlike any other, and while it is perfectly safe in many cases, there are some safety concerns you need to be aware of before venturing out into ice-filled waters.

Six Safety Tips To Remember When Kayaking Near A Glacier

1. Dress For The Water Temperature

Remember to dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. This is particularly true when paddling in summer months, when warm sunny days can trick you into thinking the water is warmer than it is.

If there are giant icebergs floating in the ocean or lake you plan to paddle in, then it’s safe to assume the water temperature is just as frigid. Always wear an insulating layer and a protective shell - usually a drysuit. This ensures your warmth and safety when paddling close to a glacier.

2. Keep A Safe Distance From The Glacier And Icebergs

It's important to keep an eye on glaciers in case there is movement. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

It’s easy to forget how much of an iceberg is hidden from plain view when you are paddling so close to the surface. Remember that the vast majority of floating ice (70% or more) is hiding behind the surface.

It is common for icebergs to break apart, or shift positions as they slowly melt. This makes it critical you keep a safe distance from all icebergs and glaciers. Ask a local guide about safe paddling distances you should keep from ice for the particular glacier you plan to explore.

3. Listen For Cracking And Falling Ice

When kayaking near a glacier, you need to keep all your senses heightened, most notably your hearing. You can usually hear a glacier crack from hundreds of meters away. Cracks often occur minutes, or mere moments before a large piece of ice falls.

If you hear a crack, increase your distance from the glacier and stay alert. When a glacier sheds ice it’s called calving. Calving is an incredible sight to behold, but it can also be very dangerous for paddlers. It can cause large waves, and unexpected shifts in icebergs.

5. Always Wear Your PFD And Dry Suit

Paddlers Wearing PFD and dry suit near glacier. Photo by Tom Gaffey.

A PFD and proper gear are always important when paddling. When paddling around giant towers of floating ice in freezing waters the right gear can mean the difference between life and death if something goes wrong.

A drysuit is usually your best bet, as water temperatures are close to freezing. Make sure you have a reliable PFD that comfortably fits over your insulating layer and dry suit.

6. Check Wind and Weather Report Before Venturing Out

Any seasoned water sports enthusiast can tell you that a sunny morning does not necessarily mean a sunny afternoon on the water. Weather can change rapidly, especially in arctic and Antarctic regions where fierce wind is common. Check the weather report religiously before paddling, even if you are staying close to shore. Remember strong winds can make icebergs move more than usual and can also cause calving in a glacier.

7. Paddle With A Guide Who Knows The Icy Waters Well

Paddling with an expert guide from Mil Outdoor near Perito Moreno Glacier.

Regardless if you are a seasoned paddler or a beginner, it is always a good idea to paddle with an expert the first time you paddle near a glacier, or among large icebergs. Every ice field has its own story and personality. It takes months or years to understand how a glacier functions.

Go with a guide who knows what is normal and what should cause alarm. Not only will this guide keep you safe, but you will learn some fascinating information about the area where you are paddling.

Essential Kayaking Gear When Paddling Around Icebergs

Paddling with an expert guide from Mil Outdoor near Perito Moreno Glacier

In addition to the standard equipment you bring on nearly every kayak excursion, like a dry bag with extra dry clothing, navigation equipment, a camera, and so on, glacial kayaking has a few extra essentials. Below are a few items you need to remember if you plan to kayak in icy conditions.

  • Wetsuit Or Drysuit: A drysuit is often the best option when paddling in frozen waters, but in some cases a thick wetsuit works as well. Either way, you need to have an external layer that will keep your body warm if you capsize.

  • Reliable PFD: Cold water can shock and disorient even the strongest swimmer. A reliable PFD is essential when paddling near a glacier.

  • Poggies Or Paddling Gloves: Even on a warm day your hands will quickly freeze if they aren’t protected. Water will drip from your paddle, and the proximity of the cold water alone is enough to chill them to the bone. Poggies or insulated paddling gloves are a must.

  • Quick Dry and Insulating Hat: You lose most of your heat from your head, which is why a hat is essential. A quick dry hat is a great item to bring along on an icey paddle. If it warms up you can remove it, but it’s great to have handy in case the weather takes a turn.

  • Polarized and UV Protectant Sunglasses: Water reflects sunlight, as does the white ice. All this reflection can be nearly blinding, and quite harmful to your eyes. When paddling near the Antarctic your eyes are particularly vulnerable due to the lack of an Ozone layer to block harmful UV rays. Bring your best UV-blocking sunglasses when paddling near a glacier.

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