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How to Dress for Cold Water Paddling (Even If You Don’t Have a Full Wet-suit)

November 20, 2020


A man with his Atoll inflatable paddle board near a cold water during winter

I remember when I purchased my first SUP. The board floated me alright even under shaky beginner legs and it was a pleasure to paddle. Especially because I bought it in the summer. 

The weather was warm, the sun high in the sky, and I could take a dip whenever I felt like it. 

It was a fantastic time. 

Even better though, I had found a brand-new hobby to introduce to my daily routine that would help me connect with nature and provide me with plenty of exercise to keep me in shape.

I thought it would be that way forever. 

But one of life’s inevitable rules, change, crept into my self-induced SUP bliss. That change was the weather.

Winter slowly came into focus as the mornings became dark, my breath a white cloud as it left my mouth, and my fingertips a little frozen on my afternoon walks. 

SUP seemed to only be an activity I could enjoy during the warmer months of the year. 

And so…

I vowed to leave this frigid wasteland, move to Costa Rica, sell cut coconuts with tiny umbrellas to tourists from my house/coconut stand, and live the dream. 

I can be fairly dramatic. 

That drama quickly dissipated when a friend nudged me to just keep paddling, even through the winter. 

He told me the only thing you needed to do differently was dress appropriately.

I considered it. Though, that Costa Rican dream still lived in a part of my brain just waiting to be acted on.

But I also knew he was right. We shouldn’t stop what makes us happy just because of the change in weather. Instead, we should adapt. 

Questions filled my mind. What did he mean appropriately? What am I supposed to wear?

Good thing I have a patient friend to answer all of my questions, because he laid it all out for me.

And I took his advice, kept paddling, and have been living the SUP dream ever since.

And you should too. 

Consider me your friend that destroys your Costa Rican dream and instead inspires you to keep paddling into the winter. And in the same way I followed his advice, follow these tips to continue your SUP journeys until the inevitable cycle of summer blesses us once again.

Overall Safety Tip: To paddle in the winter means to take extra precaution in every part of your day on the water.

Before you decide to suit up, always check…

  • The wind speed/direction

  • The weather/possible storms

  • And most importantly the water temperatures.

If it’s anywhere below 40 degrees, you may not want to risk falling into the water. Cold water is a dangerous element that can put you in a scary situation the moment you are submerged. Especially if you are out there by yourself.

If the wind is blowing over 10-15 mph, consider a different day depending on your skill set. If you are professional paddler with many hours under your belt and are supremely confident in your ability to battle the elements, use your own judgment.

However, if you are still new to the sport, it might be best to wait for another day when the wind is lighter and the sun is out.

And for any first time paddlers in the winter season, always wear the gear that will keep you protected if you do happen to fall in – a full wetsuit rated at the appropriate temperatures you’re paddling in with a hood, gloves, and booties.

But, for those experienced paddlers who would like different options, keep reading below…

Tip #1:

Do not wear cotton.

This seems like an odd first tip. It did to me when I first heard it. I was pretty sure most of my clothes were cotton. And I’ve never had a problem in the winter with my cotton shirts. So, what’s the reason?

Cotton absorbs. We’re talking the water you’re paddling on, rain, sweat, all of it. Which is dangerous in a cold climate. Cotton soaks up any moisture you have on your body and keeps it close as a layer against your skin. It’s truly worthless as an insulator and is ultra-heavy as an extra layer. Plus it will keep you cold, especially if you do happen to fall in, and dramatically drop your body temperature. Avoid wearing it at all costs.

What then, should you be wearing?

Tip #2:


The most common answer is of course a full wetsuit. A thick layer of neoprene will keep you warm enough when paddling and if you happen to fall in, will only increase the warmth of your body as they are designed to keep a thin layer of water in-between the fabric and your skin. This allows your own body to heat it up and keep you warm. 

If you’ve never worn a wetsuit before, you’ll be amazed at how warm they actually keep you.

Remember though, the temperature, and especially the water temperature, will dictate the thickness of the suit you will need to wear. On a fall day, a 2mm or 3mm suit will work. But on those days where snow is all you see, opt for a heavier suit, somewhere around 4mm-5mm.

But what if you don’t want to purchase a wetsuit? Or you already have one and hate paddling in it? These are fair questions. Sometimes that tight suit can constrict your movement and make the joyful pursuit of SUP a major pain.

Well, there are a few options to pursue.

Tip #3:

This section comes with a disclaimer. Only pursue these next few options if you are 100% comfortable on your inflatable paddle board or hardboard and will not fall into the cold water.

Still feel confident? Okay, let’s get to it.

Without a full wetsuit, you’re going to need to layer up to protect yourself from the cold. And it’s worth repeating again – no cotton.

Instead, aim for a base layer made with polypropylene (or anything similar such as Under Armour cold gear). Any type of material that releases your sweat to keep you dry in cold temperatures. A good example, and an affordable one too, would be something like THIS.

But remember, that is just the base layer. Start here with a fabric that will keep you warm and dry.

Tip #4:


After you have your base layer, opt for a fleece jacket or wool sweater. Maybe a combination of both if it’s that cold. These materials are non-absorbing and will keep you dry and warm even with moderate to heavy exercise. Plus, they’re easy to remove if you do overheat.

Side tip
: It’s always better to over-layer than under-layer.

In case you have the danger of meeting the water in the back of your mind, you can also opt for a dry-top jacket. These are very useful for winter paddling. They’re great as a top-layer and come with a seal around your neck, waist, and wrists. We cannot guarantee they’re 100% waterproof if you submerge yourself, but they will most certainly keep you drier than a regular fleece or wool sweater.

A great example of one to check out is HERE

Tip #5:

We have the top covered. Now, what about the bottoms?

For pants, you can opt to dress how you would for a winter gym trip. Maybe thermals and sweats. Or leggings. Of course, this only works if you are supremely confident you won’t fall in.

Those with a little doubt rolling in their brains will want to opt for a pair of neoprene leggings.

Think of these as a wetsuit that only extends to your waist. Instead of a full wetsuit let’s call them pantsuits! Wait… 

Those exist already.

How about wetpants! That sounds worse.

Wetsuit pants. There we go.

They come in a variety of thicknesses just like a full suit but will allow your upper half to remain mobile for paddling. And will keep you warm if you do happen to slip into the water.

A great example for women can be found HERE and men HERE.

Side tip: If the temperature is below 40 degrees, we suggest putting an extra layer over the neoprene pants and grabbing a pair that is thicker and more appropriate for the temperatures.

Tip #6:


So far, options include a full wetsuit, which will keep you warm if you fall in but is probably not the best thing to paddle in over long distances. Or you can opt for the layered version which will give you mobility but may not offer full protection if you fall in.

Is there something that combines the two?

Yup. A drysuit.

Oh, these are the Cadillacs of the paddling world when it comes to cold temperatures. They’re fully sealed around the neck and arms with built-in booties at the bottom to keep you completely dry even when submerged (We do not recommend prolonged submersion even with a drysuit. You may get some leakage even with the best one out there and it will still be cold).

You can easily layer underneath the suit to keep yourself warm and you can even shed layers if needed once your heart rate increases.

The catch? Is there always a catch? Maybe not always, but in this case, it’s a big one…

The price.

A great drysuit will easily run you $1,000+. Normally we would suggest looking for used gear to cut costs, but in this case, we do not recommend it. Why? Well, with prolonged sunlight exposure and use, the seals around the neck and wrists can crack and leak. If you do decide to go this route, triple-check these areas before purchase. There is no use in buying a drysuit that won’t keep you dry!

To check out a great suit from Ocean Rodeo click HERE

Tip #7:


What about the rest of you?

We can cover these remaining areas real quick.

Head: Any winter hat will do. Again, wool is a great choice especially if you start to sweat. Just make sure it covers those ears!

Feet: Neoprene boots. The thicker the better. The only problem I’ve ever run into is that they can be cold outside of the water. But that’s an easy fix. If you are paddling distance and feel your feet freezing up, just pause for a moment and dunk your feet into the water! The neoprene will do the rest.

Hands: Some people suggest neoprene gloves as well. These can work. But you often run into the same problems as the booties. Your fingers can freeze up real quick. Again, dunking them into the water will remedy that situation. But what I suggest is a nice insulated pair of winter gloves. These will keep your fingertips warm without having to deploy the submersion technique.

PFD: Flotation devices don’t offer much in the way of insulation but they can certainly save your life. Always wear a PFD (vest or belt) when paddling especially in cold water!

Conclusion

These days I use a variety of these techniques. Though, admittedly, I still haven’t taken the plunge (no pun intended, I guess?) on purchasing a drysuit. But the combination of neoprene pants, layered midsection, insulated gloves or neoprene gloves, booties, and a warm wool hat has yet to fail.

If, of course, the conditions are rough and the weather is cold – opt for a different day when it is calmer. Or strap on your full wetsuit or drysuit with a PFD to keep you warm and safe!

Start there I would say. As long as you are more than comfortable on your board and confident you won’t spend most of the time underwater! Because in the cold, a dip in the deep can be very dangerous.

If you have any additional questions, our inbox is always open. Be sure to contact us HERE and we will get back to you as soon as we can! Paddle on my friends…

Into the winter and beyond!

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