A Guide to Cold Water Surfing

Don't let late winter's icy temperatures keep you from getting barreled with these key tips
March 2, 2016Words by Tim HawkenPhotos by Bryson Malone

As winter drags on, a lot of people head indoors to stoke up the fire and continue with hibernation mode. However, for more adventurous hearts, this time of year can be an invitation to revel in the elements. The irony of the winter season is that while the ocean temps plunge, bigger storm systems means bigger and better waves for surfers.

And considering the water around places like San Francisco hit 50 degrees Fahrenheit or below in January [and the rest of the year, it feels like], it’s always good to be prepared, no matter what time of year it is – but especially if you want to make the most of a Polar Vortex-fuelled surf. With that in mind, here are five tips to ease the chill of cold water surfing.  

Obvious? Yes. That’s why it’s number one. What may not be so obvious is what actually makes up ‘the right’ wetsuit. A couple of things to pay attention to when on the search for a new suit.

Serious winter surfing needs at least a 4/3mm suit (that’s 4mm rubber in the body and 3mm in the arms and legs to stay flexible where you need it). Depending on whether you’re braving places like Canada or Europe, you may need a 5/4mm or 6/5/4mm suit.

The most crucial thing is that the seams are sealed. Look for terms like GBS (glued and blind stitched), welded seams, or liquid tape. If you see a winter suit that says "flatlock," don’t buy it — It will leak like a teabag.

You want to be looking for suits with polypropylene lining. This fabric wicks moisture away from the skin, keeping you dry and warm. Smooth neoprene panels on the exterior of the suit can also help with wind chill.

I can’t emphasize how important it is that your wetsuit snug to ensure good insulation. Any room between you and the suit is just asking for cold water to sluice in. Shoot for "Spanx tight" and you’ll be good to go.

Coco Chanel had a thing for accessories making an outfit. While pearl earrings probably won’t keep you warm, there are plenty of things that will. Booties, gloves, and a neoprene hood are just three that could mean the difference between blissful comfort and hypothermia.

For my money, a hood is the most important. Some say boots are, but if, like me, you’ve had your ears drilled out because of Surfer’s Ear, then you’ll have your priorities in order. You also lose most of your body heat out of your melon, so keeping that in will help keep the rest of you toasty.

Booties for sure are important too. Depending on whether you like to feel you board under your feet, you’ll need to pick soft soles or ones that are thicker. If you regularly surf breaks with sharp rocks or reef, then the trade off for thicker soles is well worth it.

Gloves come third. Coming out of a long winter surf and not being able to open your car because all of the strength has gone from your fingers is not an ideal situation.

Other options for accessories include polypropylene vests and shorts, in case your wetsuit doesn’t have the lining already. Oh, and ear plugs – they might not keep you warmer but they do help stave off the dreaded Surfer’s Ear. Trust me, three months out of the water with a headache you can’t escape from is not worth the $15 saving you would have saved by deciding to let your ears go nude.

Frankly, I’m surprised more people don’t do this. An arctic wind billowing up your towel into the nether regions is something I'd rather avoid.

If you know the surf is good, it’s a no-brainer to change into your wetsuit before you head out. If you’re 50/50 on what the surf is like, but are just keen to get in, then already being swathed in rubber is a great motivator. I love nothing more than pulling on my suit in front of the heater at home, putting some sweats over the top, and jumping in the car to meet my friends at the beach. Imagine talking your buddies into heading out in dicey conditions — they start to shiver when pulling their gear out of the trunk, while you simply jump out and pull off your sweater to reveal a pre-change advantage.  

The added bonus of all this is a post-surf hot shower when you get home. Just keep an extra, dry towel ready in the car so you don’t get saltwater on your seats.

Pro Tip: Fill up a NEMO Helio Pressure Shower with warm water, store it in your YETI cooler while you're surfing, and get ready for a hot shower the second you step out of the waves.

There’s not much worse in winter than having to pull on a cold, wet wetsuit before you even get in the water. Obviously, it’s pretty hard to ensure your wetsuit stays dry at all times, but there are a few tricks that can help you avoid the soggy suit blues.

First, take your wetsuit off before you get in the shower at home. During the drive back from the beach, your body heat has been helping evaporate the water from the surf. Drenching the thing again just starts the cycle all over again. While fresh water does evaporate a touch faster than salt water, the extra dunk is much worse. If you do like to rinse out your suit for care reasons, do it the day before you’re unlikely to want to hit the waves. Also, some people just absolutely LOVE taking their wetsuit off in the shower. If that’s you, weigh up your options – some bliss after the surf, or icy moisture on your skin prior to your next session.

Next, if you hang your wetsuit outdoors, bring it in at night. When the temp drops and moisture gathers in the air, your suit is going to be the first thing that soaks in the damp. Hang it in the warmest room in the house overnight.

Finally, if you’re surfing more than once a day during winter on the regular, invest in a second suit. Worth. Every. Single. Penny.

Getting out of the ocean into the cold air is sometimes worse than being in the water itself. If you have to get changed in the parking lot, then get yourself a hooded poncho towel. Yes, they make them for adults, and it's pure joy slipping one over your head to beat at least some of the wind chill.

Next, keep a pair of woolen gloves in your glove compartment. The faster your fingers thaw, the quicker your whole body will heat up. You’ll have the satisfaction of letting that storage spot actually live up to its name too. If you’re really hardcore, some chemical hand warmers like you get at the snow are also a good idea.

Finally, for your feet – Ugg boots. You’ll live in these things in winter. I have two pairs — one for outdoors, one for in. If you’re not into Uggs for moral or just fashion reasons, then make sure you have a few pairs of really good woolen socks. Not as good, but they’re close. 

Editors Note: We can't say we've ever put on Uggs post-surf session — Tim is from Australia, so we get it – but we've found that Glerups aren't just for the indoors. These wool slippers are the best things to slide onto your feet after a few hours in the cold water.

If all else fails, just go to Hawaii. This might not be an option for some, especially every year. But if you’re serious about surfing you should go at least once. Winter is the best time of year on the islands, and you can surf in shorts while you watch some of the most amazing surfing you’re likely to ever lay eyes on. [H]


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