7 tips to experience why cold weather is also an exhilarating time for SUPing
Updated: May 15, 2021
Adequate safety measures, clothing and gear are the keys
For those who love being active and gliding all year-long, there are very few options more accessible than paddle boarding. But even if you live in the Tropics some seasonal adaptation is required in order to enjoy 365 days of paddling per year.
Winter's strong sudden storms and cold water can be a grave threat so having fun on your SUP is all about being safety-first-focused, well prepared and ready for an eventual immersion.
Like any winter sport, the difference between fun paddle boarding in the winter and just feeling cold in the middle of a frigid body of water is all about the right clothing.
And adequate clothing is all about your own physiology and intended energy output. Some people paddle as if they are leisurely walking on the seawall, others as if they were trail running up a mountain.
Same temperature and one will be in a puffy jacket and the other will be on a sweaty t-shirt. Some folks need insulated jackets in order to cross-country ski. Some can't use anything but spandex.
Others should just be prepared for a swim on 6°C water.
So from dry suits to wetsuits, cross country skiing gear to puffy jackets, 12mm neoprene surfing booties to 3mm water shoes, it's all about understanding your own relationship with exercising in the cold and always have a plan in case many things go wrong.
1- Always put safety first
Water and the ocean, especially in cold water, demand us to ALWAYS prepare and think about all the possible threats. That is even more true during colder months.
NEVER paddle without a leash: your board is the largest flotation device around. ALWAYS paddle with a PFD, not only because it's the law and the fine for not using one can be more expensive than purchasing a brand new one.
If your inflatable board hits a piece of wood with a nail on it you will need to stay afloat in order to swim to the shore. Make sure you have a whistle and lights that are very visible for boats ahead and behind you.
Also, ALWAYS have a plan for if you fall on the water, even if you are sure you won’t.
2- Check your gear
Check your board's pressure and try to get it to 20 PSI as it tends to make the board sturdier and higher in the water as you paddle. I personally inflate my Red Paddle Sport to 25 PSI, but you need to check the maximum pressure your board can take and many can only take less than that.
This can make an obvious difference if your feet get easily cold or if you are concerned about stability in order to stay dry.
In addition to that, I myself love bringing a thermos of tea for longer trips.
3- Check the weather in minimum detail
Look at different forecasts just to know what variations are possible and check for wind intensity and direction, precipitation and temperature change after the sun goes down.
Have an app like WindFinder so you can understand not only temperature and precipitation but also wind intensity and direction.
Is it blowing in the direction that you're heading to? How about a storm, is it heading towards you? Ideal winter paddle weather is minimum precipitation and the lowest wind as possible.
I prefer to do intense exercise by power paddling on windless days rather than fighting the wind before a storm. Even experienced surfers and paddlers are awry of facing a winter storm in the water.
4- Paddle in calm waters and close to the shore
Fjords and protected bodies of water are some of the most fun features of British Columbia’s Natural World. Although its reputation for not having the cleanest water Vancouver’s False Creek is a great place to winter paddle as one can warm up fast if they end up in the drink.
Together with the fact that you can paddle along river otters, seals, herons, herring and even salmon, the world’s most urban fjord is also a great place for night paddling, as the city lights work to your advantage.
But the main feature of a fjord as False Creek is the fact that you can be close to the shore 100% of the time and also visible in case of an emergency.
If you feel bored about doing the same route every paddle, try circumnavigating it in different directions or competing with yourself by using apps like Strava. I love approaching paddling on a cold overcast day like I would lane swimming compared to swimming on the open ocean: it can feel repetitive but if you make it about high-intensity energy output you can sure be entertained.
If you decide to go on a lake or river avoid ice or paddling near ice edges. Ice is very unpredictable, especially to your inflatable SUP board. Needless to say, don’t launch from the ice on a lake as it can break and put your life at risk.
5- Use the right clothing
Choosing the right clothing starts by understanding your profile for exercise and paddling in the cold so you can choose adequately. And the secret is on layers.
If you are not going for a dry suit and/or wetsuit, make sure you have a shell, a moisture-wicking fleece and merino wool as a base layer.
And never, ever wear cotton as it just works as a water retainer.
Hats and gloves are also recommended as you can remove them if you run too hot.
The way wetsuits work is by trapping a small layer of water against the skin, which is then warmed by the body. They come in a variety of styles and thicknesses, so learn about your warmth needs and check in with your local surf shop to decide which thickness and length are best suited for you.
Sleeveless wetsuits are a popular paddling suit because it provides insulation but the lack of sleeves allow for maximum mobility. Because they can be expensive, make sure you treat your wetsuit with love, rinsing it with fresh water and storing it away from the sun.
But remember that wetsuits are not meant to be breathable, and are designed for surfing and paddling when immersion is expected.
In the Pacific Northwest water can reach temperatures that can be life-threatening if you are not prepared. Dry suits do what their name says: they keep you dry.
Made materials like nylon and Gore-Tex with latex gaskets at the neck, ankles and wrists to ensure no water goes in.
But remember: keeping you dry does not mean keeping you warm. That's not what drysuits are made for. They provide little to no insulation, so wearing a base layer underneath can be crucial. Prices on quality dry suits can be steep, but if you feel you really need one and will use it, it's really worth the investment.
For most people who sweat during a paddling session, the best gear for cold weather paddling is cross-country skiing clothing. They are meant to be breathable and windproof at the same time to protect you from below-freezing temperatures, as long as you are moving.
So the combination of merino wool base layers, cross country skiing jacket and fleece leggings is a winning one for most people who paddle as if they were out for a run, not a stroll.
In case you don’t have a cross-country skiing jacket the combination between a moisture-wicking fleece and a shell/windproof jacket works well too.
Another lesson from high energy output winter sports such as cross country and backcountry skiing is to carry a dry bag with extra clothing, so if you fall on the water, for example.
Even though I live a 4-minute walk from the water being a cross country skiing instructor and the passion for backcountry skiing taught me to always bring a layer for if mine get wet and/or temperature drops a handful of degrees.
Cold feet have the potential to ruin any kind of experience so you don’t want to make a mistake in this department. Numb feet make it harder to balance on your board (and you can guess what can happen).
Neoprene surf booties are a must for cold water and like wetsuits, they will keep your feet warm (not necessarily dry) and come in different thicknesses.
Generally speaking, the thicker and taller the bootie the more effective in keeping cold water out and keeping water that made itself warm in order to warm your feet.
For many people, a simple combination of 3mm water shoes and wool socks does the trick even for the coldest mornings. But if your feet get easily cold investing in thicker surf booties (that have the grip diving booties don't) is a safer and cozier bet.
Treat your booties like you do with your wetsuits, always rinsing them after use and store them in a dry, cool place.
Most of our body heat escapes through the head, so it’s a no-brainer to wear a toque, hoodie or hat when paddling in cold weather.
It’s easy to find wetsuits that come with a hoodie or to get a detached hoodie and if you opt for a wool or merino wool toque or an insulated fleece or wool hat.
Keeping your grip on a paddle when you can’t feel your hands is probably one of the most challenging things you can do in the water.
You don’t want your gloves to be too bulky, so it is a fine balance to find gloves that will keep you warm at the same time they won’t hinder your grip on the shaft.
Cross country skiing or thinner wetsuit gloves are your best choices.
6- Paddle with a buddy
If you can't, alert one of your friends when you head over to the cold waters and tell them what time you expect to be back.
This might sound silly but if you don't focus on each and every tip above and are trusting your cellphone in an area you haven't tested the region coverage, this tip might be the difference between a night with hypothermia in the middle of the ocean and being home safe, warm and sound.
7- Ask yourself critical safety-based questions whenever you feel like pushing your limits
Always have a plan and always base it on safety so you can have all the fun possible to be able to plan the next adventure.
If you are relatively new to paddling use the summer months to learn more about your limits and the cold season to have fun just by being in the water.
Well, these are the 7 rules those who have been paddling for a while in challenging weather follow every time we go on the water. I have been paddle boarding since before SUP was a sport — with a kayak paddle and my longboard on flat days — and I still learn every day I go for a paddle, especially in the winter!
If you focus on safety and follow these tips it's very likely you will start seeing paddle boarding as a year-long sport, perfect for keeping active during short overcast days. Next thing you know summer will be here in no time and the water will be all busy again with seasonal paddlers.