The Complete Guide to Cold Water Surfing

The ultimate gear guide and warming tips to make your cold water surfing experience the best one yet.

When most people think of surfing, they think of sunny skies and warm water. But when the seasons change and the temperature drops, waves start to roll in.

And whether you’re surfing in the Arctic Circle, the Great Lakes, or somewhere in between, you need to be prepared for ice-cold water and freezing air temperatures.

We’ve got you covered with all of the gear recommendations & warming tips you’ll need to have a great session.

The right gear to keep you comfortably numb

If you’re serious about cold water surfing, you need the right gear. You can’t be worried about hypothermia, especially while you’re chasing big waves. Don’t be cheap – the right gear will save your life.

Wetsuits - Just how thick?

Wetsuit technology has advanced quite a bit in the last few years. With so many options, it’s hard to decide which one to choose. Your best bet is to ask the locals what they’re wearing.

If you don’t know any locals, here are a few basic tips:

- You need a hooded wetsuit. A detachable hood won’t cut it – your suit will be flushed with cold water after every duck dive.
- Pick one with a chest zip or no zipper. There are only a few back zip hooded wetsuits on the market for a good reason – they aren’t effective.
- Make sure it fits like a glove – try the suit on in-person if possible

 

**Staff Picks - Vissla 7 Seas 5-4-3 Wetsuit (45-55 °F water temp.) and Patagonia R5 Yulex Wetsuit (sub-45 °F water temp.)

Gloves vs. Mittens - Who wore it better?

Even if you’re constantly paddling around to stay warm, your fingers are going to get cold.

We’re pro-mittens. We recommend 5 to 8 mm mittens or crab claw gloves so your fingers can share heat. They may not be as “stylish” as gloves, but you’ll be able to surf longer.

Staff Picks - Quicksilver Crab Claw Gloves (45-55 °F water temp.) and Flashbomb 7/5MM Mittens (sub-45 °F water temp.)

Booties (no, not that kind)

Since your feet will be underwater while you’re waiting for the next wave, they’ll be the first body part to go numb. With cold feet, you’ll have less feel for your board and it will be harder to pop up.

Some people like soft-bottomed booties for a barefoot feel. We like hard-bottomed boots for a different reason. They provide a bit more stability when you can’t feel your toes.

Whatever you decide, make sure they’re thick (at least 6 to 8 mm).

**Staff Picks - Solite 5 mm Custom 2.0 Booties (45-55 °F water temp.) and Solite 8 mm Custom Fire Booties (sub-45 °F water temp.)

Accessories that will make your life much easier

Changing in & out of your gear in sub-zero temperatures is not fun. But you don’t have to expose your bare skin to the elements. With the windproof & waterproof Waterparka, you can stay warm even as the temperature drops. It's also designed to wear before you go out to heat up the body the whole ride to the beach, which is supposed to allow you to stay out longer.

Wetsuit hoods keep most of the water out. But even the best of us get flushed on big wipeouts. Not such a big deal when you’re in warmer temperatures, but cold air & water can be disastrous for your ears. Prolonged exposure to cold can cause surfer’s ear, or bony growths in the ear canal. Pick up some earplugs, even if it’s just a cheap silicone pair. You may not be able to hear as well, but you’ll thank us later.

Wetsuit booties aren’t easy to put on. They’re even harder to get off once they’re wet. But with a thin pair of thermal socks, they’ll slip on & off more easily and provide an extra layer of warmth.

Your surf wax can make or break a session (literally). Make sure you choose a cold water wax that is made for these conditions. If you use warm water wax, it will freeze and harden, leaving you with no grip.

Pack a Thermos of warm water to pour on your gloves & booties when you get out. They’re going to be numb and a splash of warm water will bring them back to life.

Preheat your body

Eat a nutritious meal 1-2 hours before your session. We recommend simple carbohydrates and a source of protein.

If you’re paddling out for dawn patrol, eat a balanced meal the night before and a light snack in the morning.

Make sure you’ve packed everything. There’s nothing worse than showing up to an empty point break only to realize you’re missing one of your gloves.

Suit up halfway before you leave the house. It will make your life a lot easier (and warmer) when you show up to the break. Pull the wetsuit up to your waist and put on your thermal socks & booties. Then, throw on some top layers and your Waterparka for the drive. Think of it like preheating your body.

Check your setup before you leave home. It’s nearly impossible to wax a board or change your fins when your fingers are icicles. And don’t even think about trying to do it with your wetsuit mittens on.

***Pro Tip - Wax near the rails of your board. Wetsuit mittens don’t have the best grip but the wax will help you hold onto your board on duck dives.

Before you paddle out

Finding the courage to brave the cold weather is half the battle. Even if you show up to perfect conditions and an empty lineup, it’s tough to step out of a warm car.

Once you’re ready to commit, pull up the rest of your suit. Don’t forget your earplugs.

After you put on the gloves & booties, make sure to pull your wetsuit sleeves over the top of them. It’s the most effective way to keep cold water out.

And unless you want to pull a muscle on your first wave, stretch before getting in the water. Take a quick jog or do some light stretching to loosen up your muscles. You might even break a sweat.

We don’t need to remind you that it’s dangerous to surf alone. Weather conditions can change fast, especially in the winter. Always paddle out with a friend. If nothing else, at least you’ll have someone to share frozen memories with.

While you’re out in the lineup

You’ve done everything you can to preheat your body. Now, it’s time to surf. Here’s how to stay warm in the water.

Duck dive with your head facing down. Otherwise, you’ll be left with the worst brain freeze of your life when cold water flushes your suit. All of that preparation will have been for nothing.

Keep paddling around while you’re in between sets. You need to keep your blood flowing to stay warm. Tired shoulders are way better than numb fingers and toes.

Speaking of worn out shoulders…you may notice some changes in your surfing with the extra thick neoprene. It’s meant to keep you warm, not make you more flexible. You’ll have less paddle power, shorter endurance, and a slower pop up.

Plus, your board won’t be as responsive with thick booties.

Your hands and feet will be the first things to get cold. If you’re struggling to keep them warm or have lost feeling in your extremities, get out immediately. Though it varies from person to person, most people last about 1-2 hours before they reach this point.

Wetsuits do a great job keeping you warm, but your body can only keep up for so long.

(Almost) time to get back in a warm car

It’s time to make it back to your car.

With whatever feeling is left in your fingers, start the car. Turn the heat on high – you’ll need it.
Hopefully, you scored some great waves. It’s time to warm up – easier said than done.

Like every surfer on the planet, you probably had a couple “last waves.” At this point, your hands & feet are probably numb.

The warm car is only a few hundred feet away, but it might as well be a few miles. Your feet will be tender as you walk across hard ground. And if you paddled out during a blizzard, you might have to hike through deep snow to get back to your car.

We won’t lie. Taking off your wetsuit after a session is the worst part of cold water surfing. Your entire body is numb and all you want to do is warm up.

You have two options: take it off at the beach or take it off when you get home.

If you don’t live too far away, throw on your Waterparka and take it off when you get home. Your fingers should be thawed out by the time you’re back which will make it much easier.

Still cold when you get home? Take it off in the hot shower. You can even clean the wetsuit while you’re at it.

For longer drives, you might have to suck it up and take the suit off in the cold. This won’t be a pleasant experience. But a few extra minutes in the cold is better than an hour-long car ride in a damp wetsuit. Here’s how to do it:

Grab your Thermos of warm water and pour it over your hands & feet. If the water is too hot, you’ll damage your nerves – so be careful. Pour what’s left of the water into your wetsuit to quickly heat the rest of your body.

If you have a truck or van, you can probably change in your car without too much hassle.

For everyone else, throw on your Waterparka and quickly strip down. Or you can strip down in the freezing air – your choice. Put on some heavy layers once the suit is down to your waist.

Now, the booties have to come off. There really isn’t a great way to do this but it’s common to kneel down or elevate one foot on the trunk of your car. Place your sandals or a mat down so there’s a layer of insulation between your skin and the snow.

Quickly step out of the rest of the neoprene and put dry pants and socks on immediately.

One last thing – don’t forget to secure your board to the roof rack! Your fingers are going to be in pain by now, but it’s better than forgetting your board.

Finally, it’s time to warm up

You should be feeling better by the time you’re back home, but your body still needs to heat up.

Drink some hot tea to heat your body from the inside out and put on more layers of clothing. You might even start to sweat – that’s okay.

You just burned a lot of calories. Drink plenty of water and eat something to replenish your energy.

The last thing you probably want to think about is paddling back out. But when the swell picks up, you need to be ready. Hang up your wetsuit, booties, and gloves so they can dry properly.

Hang the wetsuit in the shower or somewhere it can drain without creating a mess in your home. Tilt the gloves and booties up on a rack so they can dry. Once most of the water has drained, point a small fan at them to make sure all of the water is gone.

After a couple of hours, you’ll be ready for your next cold water surf session.

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