Tips on how to dress for cold weather paddling

Tips on how to dress for cold weather paddling

Living in Montana and other northern states can be difficult in the winter months when temps aren’t exactly ideal for kayaking. Here are some tips on how to dress for success while kayaking in winter conditions, from a kayaker who always finds herself shivering!



In my opinion, a drysuit is one of the most important pieces of safety gear a kayaker can own.  Not only does a drysuit extend your paddling season by several months – or in some places make it possible to paddle year-round – but it can also save your life in the case of an unexpected swim in 40 degree water. If a drysuit is out of your price range, dry bibs and a dry top used together can be a good substitute.  I recommend Kokatat drysuits and drytops, as I have always found their gear to be extremely dry, reliable, breathable, and comfortable.   



Though this one-piece layer is not entirely necessary, I do find it to be the most comfortable way to layer for warmth underneath a drysuit. You don’t have to deal with tucking shirts into pants, shirts bunching up to your chest, and most importantly the chance of you getting a wedgie is diminished quite a bit. NRS, Immersion Research, and Kokatat all make great union suits.


*Pro tip for women! Make sure you buy a union suit with a butt flap if your drysuit has a drop seat!



I am a naturally cold person, so I tend to wear more layers than most other people I see on the water. If I am paddling in the winter when it is below 35 degrees, I generally attempt to wear as many layers as can comfortably fit underneath my drysuit. This usually works out to be one silkweight layer for wicking sweat, one warmer long underwear layer (Patagonia’s capilene 4 works great!), one thin fleece (Patagonia’s R1 is my favorite), along with a union suit.  



One lighter long underwear bottom worn underneath a union suit is usually all that is needed, since your legs are protected from the elements by your kayak.



Acorn fleece socks are the only socks I have found that keep my toes warm inside my drysuit during the winter.



Pogies work great when river running in fall weather. But once the thermometer drops below 35, or if I am playboating in cold water, I find that mittens are the only way to keep my hands toasty warm. The NRS Toaster Mitts are my mittens of choice. They even have a handy snot-wiper on the thumb!



The best protection against ice cream headaches!



I only added these to my gear collection this past season, and I am so glad that I did. By keeping dirt, rocks, and sand away from your drysuit socks, they will greatly increase the lifespan of your drysuit and help keep it 100% dry for much longer.  



Falling on your butt is sometimes inevitable when walking to the put-in over icy trails, however, a bruised tailbone can be mitigated by buying booties with good tread! I recently purchased a pair of Astral Brewers and am super happy with how sticky the soles are on slick surfaces.  



These are not always necessary, but can definitely come in handy when hiking over icy portages.



A must-have item for playboating at all times of the year! Swimmer’s ear can be extremely painful and can take you off the water for weeks at a time if it isn’t treated properly.  Mack’s waterproof silicone earplugs can be bought at most drug stores and can be reused several times. They even come in a handy case that can easily fit in the pocket of your PFD.

Summoning The Motivation To Paddle In The Winter

Summoning The Motivation To Paddle In The Winter

Summoning the motivation to paddle in the winter

Paddling and surfing in the winter is quite common here in Missoula, Montana, and, crazy as it seems, it’s one of my favorite times of the year to enjoy the river. There is a feeling of hardiness when you slip on your wetsuit or cold PFD while snow is at your feet, ice is floating in the river, and the air you’re breathing is frosty. Wintertime paddling is not for the faint of heart. But once that cold water splashes you in the face, you get a sudden sense of appreciation and self-awareness that reminds you that it’s all totally worth it.

Here are some creature comforts that will make paddling in the winter much more enjoyable.


No doubt, the right gear makes all of the difference. It also makes winter river sports enjoyable. If I’m cold, I’m miserable.  

Winter kayaking gear (on top of the year-round essentials): skull cap, drysuit, synthetic layers, neoprene mittens, and paddle wax.

Winter surfing gear: 5/4 wetsuit, 5/4 booties, and 5/4 mits.  


It’s definitely harder to motivate when you’re rolling solo in the wintertime. Finding a friend to go with is not only a good idea from a safety standpoint, but is also great for holding you accountable when you might want to bail.


Your body is working hard out there to stay warm. Having some hot tea or coffee at the truck sure is nice for after your icy surf session. If beer is your thing, there is nothing more enjoyable than a warm PBR on a cold day.


Having a dry surface to stand on is clutch for getting dressed and changing. Really, any barrier between you and the ground will work. I recommend using an old foam sleeping pad, door mat, or car mat. It’s also a great way to keep your gear clean and in good shape.  Of course the changing robe (aka, the snuggie) is also a great piece of gear to have. It serves as a towel and private changing room, all in one.  


It’s cold! So don’t beat yourself up if your winter sessions aren’t as productive as your summer sessions. Just be stoked that you motivated to get out on the water.

My First Year Guiding

My First Year Guiding

I position the bright blue raft a little too far left in the river, but have run out of time for a correction. Excitement and fear rising in my chest, I grip the oars and hope we will hit the surging wave at the right angle. All I can do sometimes is hope.


My voice is a high-pitched screech. I’m just as nervous as the folks seated in front of me. We crash over the rapid just inches away from a rock, bumping then sliding through. Frigid water careens over us. The right side of the raft dips a little too low pitching everyone to the side. Screams and laughter bounce off the rock face along the shore as my oar is jerked from the oarlock. I’ve got to keep the raft from hitting the next rock, but I have lost control. I grab for the oar, no one in the front of the raft notices my frantic scramble. My arm is wrenched forward as the current catches the blade of the oar, raft starts to spin. Oar snaps into place, head count, deep breath, back on track.

A little rattled, I let the water’s energy calm my racing heart. Breathe in. Breathe out. I watch the river’s ripples float past, never making the exact same shape, a constant dance of newness. In the front of the raft the clients laugh and make dinner plans. I ignore them for a minute. Turning my head left, I see layers of mountains backed up by a blue and white sky. For a second I am lost in them. A bald Eagle floats overhead. I make a quick prayer to the river, giving her my gratitude and asking for her protection, then snap back to reality, it’s time to have some fun.

Afternoon sunlight glints off the river’s surface, a myriad of sparkles spreading outward. We take turns telling jokes, travel stories and talking about our favorite sports. Our raft floats past fishermen, kayakers, other rafters, and beach goers in brightly colored swimsuits. We hoot, shout and holler back and forth. River people are their own breed. A whole community whose dominant intention is joy, excitement and appreciation. On the river, there is a silent agreement, we will always help someone in need. The stakes are too high to be individualistic. This quiet agreement creates a wonderfully eccentric harmony.

I wasn’t exactly sure what whitewater raft guiding entailed when I decided to take the job. I knew I could do it, whatever it was. I’ve never been afraid of the outdoors. The Zoo Town Surfers headquarters is located on the Alberton Gorge about thirty miles west of Missoula, Montana. There were several of us training to become guides, mostly men. Our first trip down the Gorge, an eleven mile stretch of the Clark Fork River with class II and III rapids, was terrifying, exciting and super cold. It was late May. Even dressed in wetsuits and dry-suits we were shivering. The summer spiraled out from that cold start into an exhilarating, exhausting and magic set of memories and lessons learned.

I learned: The river’s force can be lethal. There is no space for anything other than the task at hand. Letting go of control is inevitable as the river’s power propels the raft forward. There can be no fighting against, instead the flow must be ridden with trust, courage and ease. It is a deeply respectful partnership, river and guide, but both know, the river holds the power. Power of water surging onward, falling, cascading. The sound, the energy, the flow, tumbling toward its destiny. We’re all tumbling toward our destinies. Truths, moments, lessons constantly revealing themselves. The ripple, the current, can’t slow it down, must move at its pace or it will drown you. The river arranges her shores into rock faces, exposed pastel colors displayed on towering surfaces. Teaches us vulnerability is beautiful. Teaches us, there’s nothing wrong with turning inside out and showing what we are made of.

The perfect gift for your special river rat

The perfect gift for your special river rat

The perfect gift for your special river rat

If you dislike holiday shopping as much as we do, we are here to help! Our guides got together and discussed our favorite pieces of gear from 2016.  We’ve put this gear to the test, and we’re excited share with you what we love the most.

At ZTS we are grateful we get to work on the river. Using functional, smart, durable gear makes our job even more enjoyable.

Astral Loyak shoes

Love these shoes! They are not only look good enough for town, but are super comfortable too. What we like: comfy, quick-drying, packable, breathable, grippy soles, and the heels fold down for a unique “slipper effect.”

Patagonia Tropical Hoody

Many of our guides had to buy two of these hoodies because wearing one every day got too stinky! On a hot day, we dip this hoody in the river to help keep us cool. What we like: lightweight sun protection, huge hood, baggy fit, quick-drying.

Hydro Flask water bottle

There is nothing better than reaching for your water bottle during a hot day on the river and sipping on some icy cold water.  Hydro Flask makes us feel like we’re giving ourselves a tip each time we take a swig! What we like: keeps liquids icy cold all day, durable, multiple size options, stainless steel.

Sol Gear drag bag

Beverages are tasty on the river, and we’ve found that keeping your favorite beverages within reach is a real crowd pleaser. What we like: multiple sizes to choose from, simple attachment, easy open/close, exceptional beverage organization and security.

Hey, what’s in the bag?

Hey, what’s in the bag?

Have you ever been on a river trip and noticed that all the guides are carrying  waterproof bags around with them? It often goes unnoticed…until you’re the one that needs something out of that magical bag. Most folks don’t put much thought to it, but once you do, you’ll be amazed at some of the things that guides carry with them. The laundry list of contents isn’t really a shocker for industry folks: it’s our job to be overly prepared and to always expect the unexpected.  

Here is an look inside a seasoned river guide’s bag.

The bag of preference? The ubiquitous Watershed Ocoee.  

All the goodies inside the bag:

Parachute cord

Granola bars

Zip ties



Small first aid kit

Fleece beanie

Fleece shirt


Hand sanitizer

Hydration tablets


Extra batteries


Lens cleaning wipes

6’ NRS strap

Paper and pen

Sewing kit

Toilet paper

What you put in your bag is completely up to you. Many times it depends on the weather, elemental challenges unique to the river, and the amount of time you’ll be on the water. A happy, well-prepared group on the river equals fun for everyone involved. You would be surprised how far the littlest things go, and when someone needs something, there is great joy in saying, “I got you covered.”


5 ways to enjoy the legendary rivers of Missoula, Montana

5 ways to enjoy the legendary rivers of Missoula, Montana

When you first arrive in Missoula, you will soon discover that many locals are rooted in the river. It’s hard to not be when you have three rivers that converge in the Missoula Valley: the Blackfoot, Bitterroot, and Clark Fork Rivers all come together here.  All three offer different levels of recreation and fishing opportunities. No matter which one you choose, you won’t be let down on a hot day here in Western Montana.


You know summer has begun here in Missoula when the “tuber hatch” begins. This essentially means that spring runoff is over, the water has warmed up, and it’s blazing hot outside. The lower Blackfoot River and the in-town section of the Clark Fork River see most of the tube action.

Here is what you need to know before you go:

You can rent or buy a tube from dozens of local downtown business.
Grab a six pack of beer, with a mesh bag for your empty cans.
Be prepared to get wet if or when you float through Brennan’s Wave.
East Missoula (Sha Ron access) to downtown Missoula – four miles of river – is the most popular section for tubers.


The Clark Fork River runs right through the heart of Missoula and opportunities for a scenic tour or whitewater adventure are right at your fingertips. Since the removal of Milltown Dam in 2008, folks can now float through the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers, just east of Missoula and continue right through downtown. There are plenty of options for rafting when you visit Missoula depending on your sense of adventure, ability, and timeframe.

What you need to know:

In early spring, the Lochsa River, just over Lolo Pass, is the crown jewel for whitewater. The Lochsa season is short (end of April through May), so time your trip well. You don’t want to miss out on this world class whitewater experience!
The Alberton Gorge on the Clark Fork River is just 35 minutes west of Missoula and offers fantastic whitewater all year long.
The iconic Blackfoot River is just east of Missoula has numerous sections for all ability levels.


Whitewater kayaking is one of the best ways to see the river. Missoula offers a perfect location for all skill levels. Most beginners start in flat water and progress to slow moving water. Underwater comfort and learning the Eskimo roll are essential skills for whitewater kayaking. If whitewater kayaking isn’t your thing, then you can always go with a recreational or inflatable kayak, both of which require less skill and experience.

What you need to know:

Call a local outfitter or shop for a beginner whitewater kayak lesson.
Prepare to get wet! Kayaking is sometimes affectionately referred to as an “underwater” sport!
Many outfitters offer inflatable kayak trips alongside raft trips.


Feel the pulse of the river by learning how to surf Brennan’s Wave on the Clark Fork! River surfing has taken Missoula by storm and is a very popular activity with folks of all ages and abilities. River surfing is all about finding that perfect standing wave and lapping it all day long.

Here is what you need to know:

Know and understand water levels, hazards, river etiquette, and the basics of the sport before you go. Go to a local shop for rentals, lessons, and general information.
We sure hope you like swimming!


If you can walk down a sidewalk without falling the you can learn how to SUP!  There are many great lakes just north of Missoula, as your heading towards Seeley Lake or try something really easy like Frenchtown Pond.  Rent a board from a local shop and try paddling up and downstream in between the Higgins and Arthur Street bridges in downtown Missoula.

Here is what you need to know:

Know and understand the river conditions.  Make sure you have all of the proper gear (PFD, Paddle, Water, River Shoes, Sun Protection). Did you set a shuttle?
The local shops will give you a quick lesson on proper stance, how to hold your paddle, and all the other details you might need to know before you go
Paddling when it’s windy out is not much fun!

The best day ever in Missoula!

Ok. So you’re heading out to visit the magical river town of Missoula, Montana. You’re sitting at home before your trip, wondering what you should do while you visit. Sure, you can hit the good ol’ interweb for some information, but do you really trust those internet reviews? Or that list of suggestions that are sponsored by the companies themselves? I sure don’t. I would rather find out for myself or pick a local’s brain on where to eat, drink, and recreate.

We present to you now (drumroll, please…!): our suggestions for THE BEST DAY EVER IN MISSOULA, straight from the perspective of a local.



The Catalyst by far is our favorite breakfast place! Great service, tasty potato casseroles (green chile + pepperjack cheese!), and really good coffee combine to make a great way to start your day.

If you prefer a bakery over a sit-down place, we recommend Le Petit Outre, located on Missoula’s Hip Strip. Delicious coffee and baked treats (try an almond croissant!) will get you going in the right direction.


Our buddies over at El Diablo know how to roll burritos and stuff them with ingredients that are prepared fresh daily. The cilantro lime sauce is our favorite!

The Top Hat serves a great lunch or dinner. The bar was renovated in 2013 and is a staple for live music, homemade food, and really good burgers. They also have a super fun tapas (small plate) menu!


If you’re looking for great cocktails, truffle fries, and sweet potato tater tots, look no further than James Bar.  (For a rowdy nightcap:  James Bar is connected to one of the most legendary bars in Missoula, Al’s and Vic’s.)

Located at the corner of space and time, Charlie B’s is perhaps Missoula’s most iconic drinking establishment. The Dino Café is hidden at the back of the bar and has some of the best cajun/southern-style food in all of Montana. (A word to the wise: you don’t need to ask for a double when you order a cocktail at Charlie B’s!)



Rattlesnake Recreation Area: Head north on from Missoula on Van Buren and park at the main trailhead. From there, you’ll find tons of trails that will lead you in all different directions.
Waterworks Hill: There are a few different access points, but try parking at the Orange Street exit and just start heading uphill for a great view of Missoula. You can make this hike as short as 30 minutes or explore its huge network of meandering trails for hours.

Kim Williams Trail: This trail parallels our beloved Clark Fork River. It’s relatively flat, so it’s perfect for cruising on a bike and checking out town.


The Blackfoot, Clark Fork, and Bitterroot Rivers all confluence in the Missoula Valley. Getting out on the water is one of the most popular activities for visitors and local Missoulians.
Most of the local raft companies offer trips with departures throughout the day. We recommend going for the early trip (9:00) or afternoon trip (4:00) in order to beat the crowds. The classic whitewater experience is the legendary Alberton Gorge, just 30 minutes west of Missoula. For a more mellow and super scenic adventure, consider floating through the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers, making your way through Hellgate Canyon, with the trip finishing up in downtown Missoula.
Stand-up paddle boarding: If you can walk down a sidewalk without falling, YOU can stand-up paddleboard! And you can do it right in downtown Missoula! Rent your boards and get more info from Strongwater Mountain Surf Company, LB Snow, or The Trail Head.

Go fish!  Our rivers are treasured and renowned trout fisheries. If you’re an angler, you’d forever regret passing up the opportunity to experience the fishing around Missoula. We recommend checking out Blackfoot River Outfitters.


Chill out at Big Dipper Ice Cream.
Walk through the University of Montana campus.
Hike to the “M,” halfway up Mount Sentinel, right above campus.
Watch the kayakers and river surfers do their best tricks at Brennan’s Wave in downtown Missoula’s Caras Park.

Which River Trip is Best for YOU?

Which River Trip is Best for YOU?

Which river trip is best for YOU?

Most river outfitters offer a variety of options and finding out which one is best for you or your group can be tricky. Lots of factors play into the decision: a scenic float vs. a whitewater adventure, a short day on the water or a long one, overall group ability, kids or no kids, etc. We are here to help you determine which trip is best suited to your group’s sense of adventure and unique needs. Remember, whatever you decide, spending time on the river is supposed to be fun…so let’s make it fun!


Kayaking is one of the best sports in the world. It encompasses so many wonderful elements: nature, balance, speed, uncertainty, patience, skill, and adaptability. There is a certain measure of individuality but at the same time you can enjoy in the sport with all of your paddler friends. There are quite a few sub-disciplines within the sport of kayaking, and a different boat is used for each one. Below I’m going to talk about two of the more popular disciplines: inflatable kayaks and hard shell whitewater kayaks.

Hard shell kayaks

Whitewater kayaking in hard shell boats requires some experience before you just jump in the river and go.  A lesson is highly recommended from a local kayak school. Understanding how to get in and out of your boat, underwater comfort, basic strokes, and learning the Eskimo roll are all essential skills for whitewater kayaking.



If you’ve already tried rafting, inflatables don’t require any prior kayaking experience and are a great way to see the river. Make sure you go with a company that also sends a guide in another kayak to paddle alongside you. It is important you understand what you’re getting into and have a general understanding of river awareness and safety before you go. These kayaks are easy to get in and out of and do not require a roll. When you fall out, you simply climb back in! Inflatable are great for a fun day in your own boat without much skill or experience.



Everyone has their own definition of what fun is. No matter which trip you choose, as an outfitter, we want you to have the best experience possible. It’s our job to match you or your group with the perfect trip based on ages, ability levels, and time frame, ensuring you have a great day on the river.



This is the trip for you if you want to paddle, get wet, and enjoy rapids. We have three personal goals for all our whitewater rafting clients: be a good self-rescuer, stay in the boat, and have fun. If you think you can accomplish these goals, then you should try whitewater rafting!


Scenic tours

Scenic raft trips are great for folks that want to enjoy the river without the risk of falling in or getting too wet. These trips are great for all ages and ability levels. If you have young kids, we recommend a shorter trip rather than longer.


Call us up and let us help you choose the best way to get on the river!



5 Reasons to Float the Lochsa River

The Lochsa is one of the best rivers in the Lower 48. I have paddled hundreds of different rivers and there is no river I’m more drawn to than the Lochsa. For Missoulians, it’s a short drive over Lolo Pass. Folks coming from Spokane and Coeur D’Alene can take one of two routes, both about 3.5 hours long: west through Missoula or south through Lewiston, Idaho. During Memorial Day weekend people come from all over the west to enjoy the pristine, cold, clear water of the Lochsa River. Typically, the Lochsa enjoys good flows from April to late June.

Here are a few reasons why you should check out the Lochsa this year:

1.  Wild and Scenic River!  Located in north central Idaho, the Lochsa River was protected in 1968 under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Lochsa flows freely, running parallel to Highway 12 through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

2.  30+ miles of Class IV rapids!  The Lochsa is usually divided into three sections: the upper, middle, and lower. Each section is about ten miles long and features rapids with names like Three Hole, Fake Onnos, Grim Reaper, Horsetail Falls, and Lochsa Falls. The lower ten miles, from Fish Creek to Split Rock, is the most popular section. Heads up, river users: Class IV is serious whitewater, so know before you go or hire a local river outfitter.

3.  Epic car camping!  You’ll find stellar car camping all along the Lochsa corridor. The most popular campground, Wilderness Gateway, offers 90 designated spots in several loops. “C loop” has the most sought-after spots, so reserve them early! If you want free camping, head over to the affectionately-dubbed Ghetto Gateway, directly across from Wilderness Gateway.

4.  Hot springs!  There are three popular hot springs along the Lochsa River. Jerry Johnson, located between mile markers 152 and 153, is a short one-mile hike in. Weir hot springs is a little gem 1.5 miles up from a trailhead near mile marker 141. Stanley hot springs is a series of primitive pools located six miles walking from the Wilderness Gateway campground.

5.  Lowell, Idaho!  This sleepy little town has a population of 24. It rests at the confluence of the Lochsa and Selway Rivers, where they come together to from the Middle Fork of the Clearwater. The Wilderness Inn is a great spot to get a burger and a beer, and there is an abundance of campgrounds up the Selway River, Johnson Bar being the river folks’ favorite. Selway Falls is 20 miles up the Selway River and is definitely worth the drive if you haven’t seen this maelstrom of water. There are also two outfitters in Lowell who can help get you out on the river!

2 Rivers + 2 Hours = FUN!

2 Rivers + 2 Hours = FUN!

There are some great river towns out there. Many towns, such as Boise, Asheville, and Bend boast great river opportunities in or close to town and seem to attract folks who put recreation on a pedestal over work. Missoula falls right into place with these towns but certain opportunities separate Missoula from the rest. Brennan’s Wave, located in the heart of downtown Missoula adds a “cool factor” to Missoula and just upstream the icy cold Rattlesnake creek pours into the Clark Fork River. If you continue to navigate upstream on the Clark Fork River you will discover one of the best gems in the State of Montana: The Blackfoot River.
For years, the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers wanted to be friends but were separated by Milltown Damn. In 2012, the confluence of the Clark Fork and Blackfoot Rivers flowed freely for the first time in more than a century. This was a game changer for local river recreationist. Now, folks can put in on the Blackfoot River and float right through the confluence and directly to downtown Missoula.
Putting in at Weigh Scales (last fishing access site on the Blackfoot River) and floating to Silver Park (last take out in downtown Missoula) is a true gem. Here are some reasons why you should consider this when you come visit Missoula:

1. Float takes less than 2 hours and is short and sweet
2. Great for all ability levels and ages (consult a local outfitter before you go)
3. can float 2 rivers in 1 trip
4. Plenty of places to stop and have a riverside picnic
5. Float through Hellgate Canyon
6. See downtown Missoula from a different perspective
7. Get to float through the legendary Brennan’s Wave
8. Great view of the University of Montana

Although this is a Class I-II rated section, there are still hazards and it is important that you are personally prepared and responsible before you float. Any local raft company or outdoor shop will be happy to give you information on river condition, flows, and steer you in the right direction.