Thanks to the HBO series Game of Thrones, it's become an overused cliche, but if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, there's absolutely no doubt that Winter is coming.
And for most of us, that means hanging up the double-bladed paddle in favour of snowshoes, skates or skis.
Before you put the paddling gear away for the season, there are 3 things you need to do first : Clean, Inspect, and Prepare your paddlesports gear for hybernation.
Now is the time to get all the dirt and grime off of, and out of, your kayak(s) and gear. If you routinely paddle in salt water, or environments with plenty of grit, sand, mud, or dirt, you are probably accustomed to rinsing your boat off regularly. Fine sand and grit can wreak havoc with sliding foot braces and skeg/rudder mechanism.
Making sure your kayak is clean will help when you get to the next stage, inspecting your gear, but we'll get there in a moment. Outside of the obvious, other things to consider when you're cleaning your gear are to make sure that ANY traces of food have been removed. I once had a mouse chew through the front pocket of my PFD because I had made the mistake of leaving an EMPTY granola bar wrapper in there. There was clearly enough residue in the wrapper that the smell was an overpowering attractant to the little critter. EVERY Spring, we have customers in the store asking about replacing foam bulkheads that got chewed through, or completely destroyed, by animals while the boats were in Winter storage.
Hose down the interior and exterior of the boat. Much like washing your car, wetting the surface first will avoid grinding any dirt or grit into the finish and creating scratches. Most grime will come off easily with some soap and water and a soft cloth. For more stubborn stains, we've found that Magic Erasers work wonders. Just use gentle pressure and work the marks until they come clean. Cleaning under the bungees and deck lines, and removing the hatch covers to clean the interior of the hatch spaces is important, too.
As much as it's important to get your gear clean, it's even more important to make sure it's dry before putting it away for the winter. We'll take more about that when we prepare our boat for storage.
Once you have done a thorough job of cleaning your kayak, now you can do a better job of inspecting everything. You're looking for signs of damage, or wear and tear that mean lead to damage or equipment failure down the road. Carefully look over the deck and the hull of any cracks, deformations, or deep scratches that might require attention. If you find damage that is beyond your scope to repair, take it to a professional. Don't ignore it.
The obvious stuff is deck lines and bungee cables - any signs of fraying, breakage, or too much stretch, should be considered for replacement. These lines are inexpensive and easy to replace. You don't need these lines failing while your on a paddling trip. Next, inspect the hatch covers and the seals. Are they drying out, become brittle, fraying around the edging, or not making a good seal? If no, time to think about getting new ones. If everything is clean and dry, you can try putting the hatch covers in place securely and use the garden hose to spray around the hatch covers. If no water is getting into the hatches, you've got a good seal; but if you are getting water in the hatches, you'll need to figure out if it's the hatch cover that's the issue, of if the hatch rim might be at fault. Some kayaks have a plastic rim that is screwed to the deck of the boat to hold the hatch cover on. These rims generally have a bead of silicone that seals the rim to the deck of the boat. The silicone may have dried out over time, or there may a gap in the sealant that allows water to get through. It may be necessary to remove the rim and apply a new bead of silicone to restore water-proofness.
In addition to the hatches, you should also carefully inspect the foam bulkheads found in most plastic kayaks. In most cases, these bulkheads are made of mini-cell foam and shaped t fit the interior of the kayak. They are then simply pressed into place and a bead of silicone is applied to both sides to provide a watertight seal. Often, these bulkheads are a less-than-perfect fit, and with the inherent flexibility of a plastic hull, temperature changes, possible trauma from being dropped, or the pressure of roof rack straps, the bulkheads can, and will over time, become loose. If there is a gap that lets water through the bulkhead from the cockpit into the hatches, it's useless. Normally, all that is required is to clean up the old silicone, press the bulkhead back into place firmly (but not too tight, it'll just pop back out again) and apply new sealant to both sides.
Run your fingers around the cockpit coaming where it meets the deck. Any cracking, gaps or separation should be repaired immediately. With plastic boats this is not really an issue, as the cockpit coaming is part of the mold and is a single integrated part of the deck. In general terms, a plastic kayak is one solid piece, whereas a composite kayak is made up of components that have been joined together. These seams can be the source of vulnerabilities to damage.
Last, but certainly not least, inspect all of the mechanical parts of your kayak. This includes the rudder or skeg, if applicable, and the seat. Ensure that rudder lines, skeg mechanisms, etc are operating smoothly, and look for wear and tear that might lead to more costly failures later.
Your gear needs a good once-over as well. Inspect PFD's for tears and holes. Did you know, that if the fabric covering the main body of your PFD is torn or has holes in it, by law it needs to be replaced? Experts also recommend, as a guideline, that PFD's be replaced every three years, depending on frequency of use and condition. PFD's that have been worn in chlorinated swimming pools also seem to break down faster than those that aren't.
Your paddles should be taken apart into two pieces (if the design allows it) and the blades, ferrule joint, and shaft should all be inspected for signs of damage.
Same goes for throw bags, bilge pumps, and other other gear that you're putting away for the season. Ignoring the condition of your safety gear won't do anyone any favours if the gear fails in an emergency. Will regular care and maintenance, your kayak, PFD, paddle and gear should last you for YEARS of paddling enjoyment!
Okay, so now that you've cleaned everything up, inspected it for damages, and performed any routine maintenace, it's time to get it all ready to put away. The number one piece of advice I will give you at this point is to make sure everything is absolutely 100% DRY before you store it. Unless you have a heated space to store your kayak, or live in a climate where the temperatures don't drop below freezing (in which case, you shouldn't be putting your boat away in the first place - shame on you!) then any remaining water left on or in the gear WILL FREEZE. Ice can and will do catastrophic damage, and should be avoided at all costs.
This is also the PERFECT time to protect your boat and rigging from future sun damage by applying a UV Protectant. Our normal routine is to apply a product like 303 Aerospace Protectant or McNett UV Tech to our boats twice a season - once just before Winter storage, and once about mid-way through the Season. Spray either product on, and wipe with a dry, soft, lint-free cloth for best results. I like to work down the deck in sections - from the bow to the front hatch cover, from the front hatch cover to the cockpit, from the cockpit to the stern. Then I remove the hatch covers, treat the inside and outside of the hatch cover, and the rim, before replacing the covers. Then I treat the seat, seat back, any plastic, rubber, or bungee hardware in the cockpit. While treating the deck, make sure that deck lines and bungee cables get treated. You'll be amazing at how well UV treating these lines will extend their lifespan. Lastly, flip the boat over and give the hull a quick spray and wipe. With plastic boats in particular, the UV spray will do a great job of bringing the colour of your boat back to life.
Cockpit covers are a great way to keep the elements and critters out provided you took care to pay attention to the note about regarding removing any food or food smells from the interior of the boat. This includes chewing gum, lip balm, anything with a yummy smell. Neoprene cockpit covers are heavier and more resilient than nylon ones. A boat that is stored on it's side with shed rain and snow fairly easily. If you have no choice but to store your boat outside, try to store it on it's side on a building wall or fence, or deck side down, raised off the ground where critters can't easily make a home under, or inside, it. Make sure you pick a spot where the weight of snow and ice won't be able to build up on the hull, and if your kayak has a skeg, consider putting a piece of duct tape over the skeg box to keep water out that might later freeze into ice.
Whenever possible, support the weight of the kayak as close the position of the bulkhead walls as possible. The bulkheads provide more structure to the hull of the boat than in other areas, and will prevent the kayak from potentially deforming from sitting on the rack over the long Winter months.
There are some great products on the market to make storing your kayak up out of the way in a shed or garage much easier, if you have that option. Boats can be hung on the wall, or slung from ceiling rafters. As mentioned previously, try to make sure that the kayak is supported as close to the bulkheads as possible.
If you are really confident that your boat is being stored in such a way that mice and other critters absolutely can't get access to it, you might consider storing your other gear inside the cockpit. BUT, if you can't guarantee that the boat is animal-proof, you should be aware that the foam in PFD's, and the threads that make up your throw rope, and anything fabric or padded, will make great building materials for their winter dens! Find space in a closet, or suspend these items from a ceiling rafter.
There are no bad options, provided your kayak has been cleaned, inspected, and prepared properly for it's Winter hybernation. By providing some much-needed care and attention now, your kayak will be ready to go as soon as paddling season returns!