How to Stay Warm When Surfing or SUPing in Cold Water
I just got back from a surf out on the local beach break. It was cold, really cold. It’s early January and in the next month the water temperatures will dip to a chilly 6 degrees Celsius and the wind chill factor will make it feel a whole lot colder. This is a regular excursion for me, as the surf is usually at it’s best here in Ireland during the winter months.
I’ve been surfing in Irish waters since the early 90s and I have tried everything, especially in those early years, to stay warm, before, during and after every surf mission.
I’m going to share some of the things that worked and some of the things that didn’t work out so well over my 30 years of surfing in the North Atlantic.
The first wetsuit I wore was in December 1991. My brothers and sisters bought me a board for Christmas and I got a hand me down wetsuit from one of my older brothers. I think it was more of a diving suit because it had a zip down the front that really didn’t work properly. Even if it had worked, the suit was still way too big for me. I can vividly remember the first wave I ducked under. The zip came undone and the suit filled up with fridged winter ocean water. I froze instantly and got that dreaded ice cream headache where you become disoriented, a bit dizzy and more or less unable to move for a few moments.
It was a really awful experience but my determination won out. I simply had to catch a wave with my new board. I managed to get a small white water wave after 10 or 15 minutes. It was an incredibly short session and still I came out of the water blue lipped and shivering. Never the less, I was delighted to catch a wave on my new board. I most definitely had caught the surf bug!
After that experience I set out on a 30 year quest on how to stay warm at the beach.
I’ve worn tights under my wetsuit. I’ve rubbed myself down from head to toe in deep heat rub (not recommended). I even saw a mate stand in fresh cow dung to warm up his feet. He shall remain nameless, however, rest assured, he still gets flack for it to this day.
Pissing in your suit worked years ago. The older style suits would flush through, you and your suit wouldn’t even stink after such a desperate measure for warmth. Modern wetsuits, however, hold the water in much more efficiently. This means your over all warmth is greater but it also ensures the pee plus BO smell lingers. You will smell like a homeless person and your wetsuit will smell terrible. It can even permeate into your van/car and make everything smell like a public toilet. Take heed, use this is only as a last ditch effort if no other options are available.
A good wetsuit is essential to stay warm.
Currently I wear a 5|4|3 hooded Tiki wetsuit. I wear a fleece vest inside the suit with 6mm split toe boots and 3mm gloves. I used to go for a 6|5|4 hooded Xcel wetsuit but now I find the Tiki wetsuits really good. They are warm, comfortable, very affordable, and made from limestone to boot! I can no longer justify paying €400 for a wetsuit that will only last for one season when a much cheaper and equally effective option exists.
If you have a 5|4|3mm suit you can always get a thermal or neoprene vest for an extra layer and that added bit of warmth.
Well fitting boots and gloves are essential.
When you are buying the boots make sure that they are a little tight fitting at first. After a few weeks they will loosen out and fit perfectly. If you go for your normal size from the start these too will stretch out and become too big. Baggy boots will tuck under your feet when popping up and make for messing up lots of good waves. Take it from someone who has done it, it’s super frustrating.
Thinner gloves are fine, they take the edge off the cold and are easier to paddle with. If you opt for thicker warmer gloves, it’ll make paddling harder and you’ll tire out earlier. So that’s the trade up, longer surf session versus warmer hands. I pick the longer session every time but ultimately that decision is up to you.
Bring extra layers with you to the beach.
I keep an old jacket in the van to put on between surfs.
Standing around in your wet wetsuit after a surf will ensure you are cold to the bone in no time. You are better off to wrap up and put the heater on in the car or just get out of your suit all together.
Dry your gear out in between surfs.
I always remember to hang my suit up when I get home after a surf but I rarely remember to hang out my gloves and boots. Meaning they are usually still wet when next I need them. I find putting my gloves and boots on the heater under the windscreen will dry them out pretty quickly when driving to the beach. You can even put your wetsuit in the foot well and turn the heater to warm up that area too if it is still wet from your last surf. It won’t dry your suit out entirely but it will heat it up before you get into the water, making it feel less like a dead fish as you struggle into the wet rubber.
Changing in and out of your suit in relative comfort.
When you arrive at your surf break, try to park so that the back of the car is away from the wind. You will be extremely glad of it when getting changed before and after the surf. The car will act as a wind break and keep you that extra bit warmer. The little things really can make a huge difference.
When you are getting back into your warm dry clothes after being in the water, make sure to get those feet and toes good and dry. Foot and toenail fungus are sadly a common enough occurrence among surfers but ensuring they are dry after each and every session can help keep this unfortunate situation under control.
Get a flask or two to bring to the beach with you. One with warm water, the other with a hot drink to warm you up after your surf from the inside out. The warm water can be put into wet boots and gloves before putting them on, making for a much more pleasant changing experience. It can also be used after to rinse your face with, and my oh my does that feel good on your freezing nose.
One last thought for the road…
One of the biggest tips I can give when dealing with the cold is, keep moving when you are in the water. When you are sitting around stationary waiting for a wave to come, you will get cold very quickly. Keep paddling, keep your blood flowing and be ready to catch those waves when they roll in!
It’s a lot easier surfing in cold water now than it was 30 years ago. The technology of wetsuits has improved so greatly that it’s almost an entirely different experience. Never the less, I could always be warmer. I am always learning, making mental notes and gathering ideas. My lifelong goal of surfing excellent waves in relative comfort will continue to develop and as it does I will continue to share what I learn with all of you.
If you have any questions, please get in touch. Feel free to leave them in the comments below or send us an email.
I’d love to hear from you and pass on any knowledge that I can or simply have a chat about what cold water surfing is really like.