Winter on Lake Tahoe’s glassy waters is almost as great as summer
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the 2014-15 winter edition of Tahoe Magazine, a product of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Sierra Sun, North Lake Tahoe Bonanza and Lake Tahoe Action. The magazine is available now throughout the Lake Tahoe and Truckee region.
The air stung my face like frozen invisible steel. The sky was pink with a rising sun. Lake Tahoe’s East Shore spread out in front of me like a great stone-ringed mirror. Perfect glass.
I slipped my paddleboard into the water and stepped on. It was cold on my booty-clad feet. Steam rose from the lake’s surface, indicating the air was colder than the water.
As I paddled the sun hit a white Mount Tallac, lighting up the mountain’s face. Not a single sound emanated from the small cove. No boat motors. No beach-goers. No highway noise. I enjoyed the moment alone.
Winter is a fantastic time to get out on the water — but not in it. Calm and empty conditions are frequent. The air is cool. The mountains are covered in white. Plus, the lake never freezes over.
“The water clarity is better than in the summer,” said Marcus Tingle, owner of Adrift Tahoe in Kings Beach, who paddles year-round. “There is no boat traffic. You have the lake to yourself. It can be magical.”
But for anyone thinking about heading out for a paddle during the cold season, there are some things to know. Boating in the winter can be perilous. The cold water — often below 40 degrees — can cause hypothermia in minutes.
Paddlers need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario and plan their trips with caution:
Dress to get wet:
Wetsuits or drysuits are an extremely good idea when paddling in the winter. If you fall in, a wetsuit or drysuit will lessen your body’s response to the cold water. They will prevent hypothermia and allow you to continue on your journey even after getting wet. Neoprene gloves and booties are great, too.
Wear a life jacket:
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, stand-up paddlers and kayakers are required to wear or possess life jackets while traveling on Lake Tahoe. In the winter, it’s best to wear them. When submerged in cold water, a body can have an involuntary response, which often includes gasping that results in inhaling water and drowning. A life jacket will keep your head above water and can save your life.
Watch the weather and the time:
Storms can whip up in the mountains in minutes. Keeping a keen eye on the forecast will help you know whether or not it’s a good day to paddle. Also, the sun sets a lot earlier in the winter and you don’t want to be out on the water after dark, so make sure to check the time before you take off.
Don’t go alone:
Having a friend along for most outdoor activities is a good idea. While paddling, a partner can call for help or assist in the event of an accident. It doesn’t hurt to tell someone where you plan on going as well.
Use a leash:
Leashes are not always necessary when stand-up paddling, but in the winter, especially in rough or windy conditions, it can mean the difference between life or death. If you fall off in cold water, you want to get back on your board as soon as possible. A leash will help you do this. “If you do fall in you want to get the board back to you right away,” Tingle said. “Being leashed to your board is the safest thing you can do.”
Carry a dry bag:
Having a change of clothes, a towel, a cell phone, snacks and even a warm drink in a Thermos can make winter paddling a very cozy experience. Plus, in an emergency, these items will come in handy.
Keep it close to shore:
While it may be tempting to head for deeper water, the safest routes in the winter are closer to shore. Conditions can change so quickly on the lake that paddlers can be trapped in the middle if they’re not careful.
Dylan Silver, a former reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, is a freelance writer and photographer who lives at Lake Tahoe’s South Shore.