If you’re from some place warm and would never need to contemplate paddling in freezing, icy conditions you don’t need to read any further. On the other hand, if you have some morbid curiosity about what it’s like for northern climate paddlers for a good chunk of the year, by all means read on.
Before I start, let me state unequivocally that I hate being cold. Despite being Canadian, I’ve never been a big winter person and would rather hibernate than enjoy the great outdoors for most of December, January and February. I’m a summer guy, and I do summer sports. Maybe it’s because I grew up in southern Ontario, where ski runs are short and lift lines are long that I don’t have much time for skiing or snowboarding. I have to drive at least a couple of hours, stand in lines all day, and freeze in biting cold and wind, just to enjoy a few good runs. It seems so pointless (especially the drive). Were there mountains in my backyard I’m sure I’d feel differently. While I played a lot of pond hockey outdoors as a kid, that’s something you need a bunch of other people to enjoy and I just don’t seem to be available when everyone else is. As such, once the river freezes over I have generally just counted down the days till spring and have limited my outdoor activity to a lot of running.
However since I’ve started stand up paddling that’s changed, and I’ve discovered that there’s no reason to stop paddling just because the river is frozen and the temperature is below freezing. It’s actually possible, with the right gear and some common sense, to paddle safely all winter and enjoy it. In this installment of the Tip of the Week I’ll share a few ideas that can help you extend your paddling season and make winter seem to pass a little more quickly.
It’s only as cold as you think it is
This is perhaps the most important thing to understand about winter paddling.
Most people wouldn’t dream of doing anything on the water when the temperature approaches freezing and water temperatures drop to 5C (40 F) or lower. Throw a wind chill on top of that, where the “feels like” temperature is well below freezing and it seems like an insane idea to go out and do anything on the water. Yet ask yourself, would you go for a run in those conditions? Of course you would.
How is going for a SUP paddle on flat water any different than going for a run? If you’re confident that you’ll stay dry, it’s basically the same thing. All you need is something to keep your feet warm when they get wet and a pair of gloves that still allow you to get a good feel for your paddle and you’re set. You can just wear your running clothes and go enjoy yourself.
If you’re paddling in rough water it’s a little different. If there is any chance you’re going to fall in you’ve got to make some prudent precautionary choices when it comes to your clothing. What you’ll find is that with the right gear you don’t even feel the water when you fall in and that not only is it therefore quite safe to paddle in rougher water (assuming you’re taking all the basic precautions), you can actually be very toasty while you do. Get the idea that it’s insane to paddle when it’s wintry out of your head. It can be warm and comfortable, and might actually be safer than the paddling you do in spring and fall.
So let’s consider the gear you’ll need:
Boots are the one thing you’ll need whether you’re paddling in the flats or on rough water so let’s start here. You’ll wear them every single day that you paddle once the air and water temperatures drop below 10 C (50 F).
If your feet get cold you’ll be miserable and cold feet can totally mess up your balance. You’ll have trouble just standing and walking on dry land with cold feet, let alone moving around on your board and feeling it underneath you. As your feet are going to get wet, even in flat water, you want them protected. The worst thing you can do in cold temperatures is get wet when you’re not wearing clothing designed to still keep you warm after being exposed to water.
So what you’re looking for are good quality neoprene booties.
I prefer to use 7mm neoprene boots that are not split toe. Thinner boots probably won’t keep you warm enough in colder conditions and split toed boots separate your big toe from the other four, which means they can’t keep each other company and keep each other warm. I get my boots just big enough to allow me to put a thin pair of wool socks on underneath if needed. Again, that’s not possible in split toed boots. I don’t usually do this unless it gets really cold, but it makes a big difference in maintaining warmth when I do.
Another trick that you can try, though I’ve never done it because I hate putting on wet boots, is to pour hot water in your boots before putting them on. You’ll have to experiment a bit to see what works best for you but no doubt about it, you’ll want to get some 7mm booties.
If you’re paddling every day, you’ll probably want to get two pairs of boots so you can rotate them, always ensuring that the boots you put on are dry. You’ll find it’s a lot nicer to slip dry boots on your feet each day. You’ll also find that they end up stinking a lot less.
Most importantly when it comes to boots is to remember to dry them out as soon as possible each day after paddling. This will really minimize the stink, will also help them last longer and will ensure they’re dry when you go to use them next.
A good wetsuit or dry suit is essential for any conditions where you think you might end up in the water. There are pros and cons to each, so let’s take a look at both.
A good dry-lock wetsuit will keep you warm in just about any water if it’s thick enough. The upside of that is that it gives you a huge sense of confidence when you’re paddling in big water. You can paddle completely relaxed and uninhibited and totally go for it, whether you’re downwinding, practicing beach starts or SUP surfing. The downside is that, unless you’re in the water a lot, you’re likely going to overheat. Once that’s happened you’ll find it really difficult to paddle hard.
Lately, I’ve been using a 4/3 Excel dry lock wetsuit when I’m on Lake Ontario in rough water. Air temperatures so far this fall/winter season have been anywhere between -1 C (30 F) and 15 C (59 F), while water temperatures have hovered around 5 C (40 F). I only use it when it’s rough, choppy water or big, chest high or more chop and swell. Most days I actually don’t fall in which might make one ask if I really need to wear the suit, however that’s misleading. First of all, I have such an elevated level of confidence wearing the suit I end up paddling more relaxed and on the edge then I do most of the year, and that’s when I’m most likely to improve. Secondly, when I do fall in I’m really happy I’m wearing it. I barely feel the water, and there’s not even a hint of that uncomfortable trickle of cold water down my back. I certainly don’t experience that dangerous shock that takes your breath away and makes your muscles seize when you fall into icy water without any protection. And this past weekend I actually jumped off my board and swam through a densely packed cluster of ice chunks without even feeling them, which was pretty cool. In addition, these suits make you a little more buoyant so I feel extremely safe while wearing it.
Such a thick wetsuit is a little confining and restricts your movement marginally, but you do get used to it. The big problem is I’m generally overheating after about 8km, especially when the air temperature is a little on the warm side. Without a joke, I get so hot in these suits that if I were a car I’d be on the side of the road with my hood propped up and steam billowing out. I frequently end up jumping off my board and sitting with my arms draped over it, relaxing for as much as 10 minutes to try to cool off before getting back on and paddling again. While I’ve experienced some really pleasant Zen-like moments doing that, I’m waiting for the inevitable 911 call from someone on shore who thinks I’m in trouble.
If you go the wetsuit route, and are planning on paddling everyday, you should really consider having two suits so that you can alternate them. Doing that means you’ll never have to crawl into a damp or soggy wet suit on a cold day, which isn’t much fun.
The other option is a dry suit. I used to use a Kokatat Gore Tex dry suit when I first started paddling SUP. I found that I overheated in that just as much as I currently do in my wetsuit. The idea with a dry suit is that you just put some running clothes underneath the suit and then go paddle. Your under layer provides the insulation and the outer layer keeps you dry when you fall in. In theory you stay completely dry inside. In practice that rarely happened, as I’d usually end up drenched in sweat. There were a few things I didn’t like about this suit.
First off, I found the suit bulky and uncomfortable. The rubber gasket around the neck felt like it was going to strangle me, and the waterproof zipper was extremely hard to zip up and undo. One of the things you’re supposed to do with a dry suit is “burp” it before you go paddling. This involves getting as much of the air out of it as possible so that if you fall in the water inverted, the water pressure won’t push all the air inside the suit into your legs making it difficult to right yourself. This was always a pain. Lastly, when I did fall in with this suit I could feel the cold water really easily through the suit. It certainly wasn’t enough to take my breath away like it would if I were just wearing board shorts, but it never gave me much confidence that I’d last very long if I was forced to stay in the water for a protracted period of time.
There is an entirely new generation of dry suits on the market now however that I can’t wait to try. SUPSKIN markets a range of paddling suits, and Starboard has their All Star suit, which is actually made by SUPSKIN. I’m hearing great things about them in terms of their comfort and weight. They’re apparently really easy to paddle in and the material is much better than what was used on the older suits. I expect to be able to test them out this winter so I’ll report back on them when I do.
The bottom line is this. If you’re wearing the right gear you’re not going to get cold. If anything the opposite will be the problem. You’ll also find that you’ll feel extremely safe. On days when I go winter paddling I consider the most dangerous thing I do is driving to and from the water. Paddling on an icy lake is extremely safe in comparison. Finally, you’ll find that wearing the right gear allows you to paddle on the edge with complete confidence, and I can’t overstate the importance of that when you’re trying to develop new skills.
Like toes, fingers get cold really quickly and are easily frost bitten. Therefore gloves are essential. The problem with gloves is that they interfere with your ability to hold your paddle. So ideally you should have a few pairs, both to ensure you always have dry ones to put on and so that you can paddle with the thinnest pair of gloves that will still keep you warm.
Generally, when it’s over 10 C (50 F) I don’t wear gloves, regardless of what the water temperature is. Between 5 C (40 F) and 10 C, I wear a pair of 2mm neoprene gloves. These still allow me to feel the paddle extremely well. Between 0 C (32 F) and 5 C, I either use the 2mm or a 5mm pair. My choice largely depends on the wind chill. For anything below freezing I’m using the 5mm pair. They make it a little more difficult to feel the paddle, and when I first start using them each season my forearms cramp a bit, but I quickly get used to them and am certainly able to paddle effectively.
Depending on the temperature, you’ll want to wear a hat or a hood. Most of the time when the chop is small, if I do fall in, my head doesn’t get wet so if it’s not too cold a wool toque is fine. When it gets colder and the water is bigger you’ll want to consider some other options.
I have a neoprene toque that I wear most days. It fits me pretty snugly and won’t fall off even if I do a face plant. It’s warm and repels water well so it still keeps my head warm and dry even if it gets soaked.
If it’s really cold (well below freezing) the way to go is a neoprene hood that tucks beneath the neck of your wetsuit or dry suit and leaves only your face exposed. This is my choice of last resort for distance paddling. If I’m surfing in cold weather it’s often my first choice for headwear because I’m in the water a lot more.
You lose a lot of heat through the top of your head, so if it’s cold and staying warm is the priority you’ll definitely need something on your head. I’ve developed an array of choices that I feel are optimal for me in a variety of conditions. You should experiment a little for yourself to see what works best for you at various temperatures.
Safety is priority one. There are no exceptions when it comes to these items
A leash. No further explanation should be required. If you lose your board you’re screwed. Always wear your leash and check it frequently to make sure it’s in good working order. Don’t leave it outside when you’re not using it. I’ve heard of leashes snapping when they’ve been left out over night in deep sub-zero weather and then are used the next morning.
A PFD. I know people who move to a standard PFD in the winter rather than the inflatable variety. I haven’t done that yet, but I always have my inflatable with me. I tuck a whistle into it as well so that I always have one if I need it.
While we’re talking about safety consider the following
It’s lonely out there in the winter and there’s nobody around to help you if you get into trouble. You should paddle with other people if you can. If you can’t, double check to make sure you’ve got all the safety gear you’re supposed to have and it’s in good working order. Double check that your suit, whether it is a wetsuit or dry suit, is in good shape and you’re wearing it properly. Double check your paddle, board and fin before you go out so you can be certain you won’t have any equipment failures.
I want to reiterate that you’re all alone on the water in the winter. It’s peaceful and beautiful and you feel like you’re really in tune with nature, but there’s nobody that can help you if you get in trouble like there usually is in the summer. If you’re paddling alone, I strongly suggest carrying a cell phone or radio in a watertight case that you can use in an emergency.
Stay closer to shore than you would in the summer. Without getting caught in the break zone, staying a little closer to shore than you might in the summer means you’ve got less distance to swim if you have to. We all know you should never leave your board, but if something happens and your board gets away, the less time you’re in the water the better. Similarly, it means you’ll have less distance to paddle prone if you happen to lose your paddle.
The bigger the body of water you’re paddling on, the more careful you need to be. While it’s true we can drown in a puddle or the bathtub, the likelihood of experiencing a catastrophic situation increases as the size of the body of water increases. At this time of year, if I fall in on the river, even without appropriate gear I can stand up in most places almost immediately. It’s comparatively safe. Lake Ontario is an entire order of magnitude more dangerous. It’s a 300km long by 60km wide body of water. Crazy shit happens on the Great Lakes. Huge lake freighters have sunk in storms on them. They demand more respect.
Maybe it’s just that I’m not as familiar with it, but I’ve got even more respect for the ocean. It is to Lake Ontario like the lake is to the tiny river I paddle on. The waves are bigger and more powerful, there are tides and currents and all sorts of things that you don’t have to contend with on the lake. With the level of ocean knowledge I have, I wouldn’t consider paddling alone on the ocean in the winter. If I had to go alone I’d stay in the harbor or something. But that’s just me.
Leave a “flight plan”. Tell someone who is staying on shore all the pertinent details about the paddle you’re planning including where you’re going, who you’re going with, when you’re leaving and when you expect to return. I’d even suggest arranging to call them as soon as you’re off the water. If they don’t hear from you when they should, they can start the process of starting the search. That could save your life.
Know when to stay on land. Even though I’m convinced that paddling SAFELY on Lake Ontario in the winter might actually be safer than paddling at any other time of year, I tend to respect conditions even more than usual in the winter.
Whether it’s temperature, wind, or the size of the waves, I’m more likely to take a look at the conditions and decide that “today’s not the day” in the winter than I am in the summer. Part of it has to do with the fact that it’s so lonely out there in the winter and part of it has to do with the harsher winter conditions and fewer hours of daylight.
Basically, if conditions are too harsh to paddle effectively then what’s the point of going out? Paddling is supposed to be enjoyable and training sessions useful for developing fitness and skills. It’s not supposed to be about some misguided effort to conquer nature. I strongly believe that as soon as it becomes that, disaster looms nearby. Anyone arrogant enough to think they can conquer nature is asking for trouble. So make your decision about whether it’s worth going out carefully. I strongly suggest erring on the side of caution. You can always paddle tomorrow if you decide not to paddle today. But if you make an unwise decision, there’s always a chance that there will be no tomorrow.
Make sure you’ve got a place to get out of the water. It seems basic, but if you don’t think you’ll be able to get off the water safely, don’t go out.
On the Great Lakes we often get massive ice shelves and cliffs forming along the shore in the winter. The beaches literally disappear under up to 10 feet of ice. It makes it hard to get on the water, but even harder to get out, especially if it is a rough day and the waves are crashing into the ice. From my perspective, once these ice shelves form it’s pretty much the end of paddling on all but the flattest days until they break up and disappear.
Watch out for icebergs. Seriously. No joke. Once there are ice buildups along the shore and the river is frozen there are always small, random ice chunks floating around on the lake. They break off from the ice pack in the harbor or the ice shelves along the beaches, and then just float around out in the lake. They’re extremely hard to see as they’re basically the color of the water, and most of each chunk is beneath the surface. They’re heavy and they can be quite sharp. If you’re downwinding and you’re catching nice rides, you’ll come to a pretty sudden stop if you hit one and it could cause real damage to your board. Sailors call these mini bergs “Growlers”. Keep an eye open for them.
If you’re paddling on flat water and aren’t dressed to fall in, be careful moving around on your board when the temperature nears freezing. A couple of years ago I was paddling on the river in early January while training for the Orange Bowl in Miami. It was just below freezing and there was ice building up on my paddle and the front of my board. I’d just finished a length of the river and it was time to turn around. Imagine my surprise when I stepped back to do a pivot turn and slid right off the back of my board into the water because there was ice all over the deck pad. That was a cold end to that workout as I wasn’t dressed to fall in.
The lesson here is that if there is ice forming on your board in front of you, it’s forming behind you as well. Anywhere that water splashes on your board is going to ice up. Generally it doesn’t freeze under your feet because they move enough to keep ice from forming around them. But you’ll be in for a slippery surprise if you step onto a spot on your board where you haven’t been standing for a while.
Consider where you’re going to change into your paddling gear
I have no problem changing outside down to about 3 C (37 F) as long as I’m out of the wind. If it’s colder than that I make sure I change at home and drive to paddling in my paddling gear. While there’s nothing unsafe about changing outside in the cold, it’s just not pleasant, and if you do it takes that much longer to warm up once you’re on the water.
When you get off the water, unless it is outrageously cold, you should be warm enough to be able to change quickly outside. You won’t want to drive home in your paddling gear or your car will end up a total mess.
I use a large plastic tub to keep all my winter paddling gear in. Everything I could possibly need is there including all clothing, extra fins and leashes, a small repair and tool kit, tape, a towel, etc. I’m ready for anything. When I come off the water, I use the lid to pile all my wet stuff on, and that keeps the trunk of my car clean and dry.
Each of us needs to establish our own level of comfort with cold weather paddling. I firmly believe it you’re wearing the proper gear and taking common sense precautions there is less to worry about in terms of safety than there is during the rest of the year. Today’s suits keep you so warm you’ve got a large margin of error before you’ll start to go hypothermic if you fall in. It’s beautiful being on the water at this time of year, and it’s an opportunity to accumulate a lot of extra distance on the water that helps build a sound base for the coming season. It’s not for everybody, but if you love paddling and really miss it during the winter, you’ll be surprised how fun and productive winter paddling can be.