Surfing in cold temperatures can be mentally and physically challenging.
I spend most of the winter season battling the cold Canadian weather in search of waves. The ocean temperature can hover between 7 to 10°C (45 to 50°F), which is downright frigid!
It’s not just cold ocean temperatures that will impact your enjoyment level, but everything from frozen hands and feet, changing in the rain and wind and walking through the snow to get to the beach.
Recently, I had a friend come to the coast to go surfing for a couple of days in the winter and he asked, “What are some tips I should follow to get ready for cold water surfing.”
Cold water surfing is fun if you spend extra time getting prepared. As long as you wear extra layers, have a warm wetsuit, select the correct surfboard for the conditions, stay busy in the water, follow surfing etiquette and pack a warm beverage for the ride home, you’ll have a great time.
Read on for the all the tips on How to Survive When You Surf Canadian Winters.
1. Wear a Winter Wetsuit
Wearing a warm wetsuit is the most important thing you can do to increase your enjoyment when cold water surfing. Let’s be clear, a warm wetsuit won’t make you feel “toasty” but it will make you comfortable enough to endure the conditions.
In Western Canada, the minimum wetsuit thickness that is recommended for winter surfing is a hooded full wetsuit that is 5mm/4mm thick (5mm in the torso and 4mm in the arms and legs).
Because the winter ocean temperature can range between 7 to 10°C (45 to 50°F), lots of surfers wear a full hooded wetsuit that is 6mm/5mm or 5.5mm/4.5mm thick. Like this one below (also discussed at Recommended Gear – Best Wetsuits):
It is also important to make sure your wetsuit is in good condition, without any holes, rips or tears that will let the cold water in. This usually means, you will want to wear your best or newest wetsuit in the winter and rotate it out when it no longer keeps you warm.
It is pretty easy to determine if your wetsuit is warm enough. Go surfing for 2-3 hours and if you complain a lot on the ride home, you probably need a warmer wetsuit.
2. Choose Wetsuit Boots & Gloves rated for Cold Water Surfing
Boots & Gloves are important to keep your hands and feet warm when cold water surfing. In the Western Canadian winter, the most common boot thickness is 5mm- 7mm and gloves are usually in the range of 3mm-5mm thick.
Because you use your hands and feet all the time, boots and gloves come in contact with your surfboard, rocks, fins etc and will wear faster than any other accessory. I buy new boots and gloves every year for the winter season and use my older pairs for surfing in the summer.
Surfing without gloves and booties in the winter isn’t really an option. I often see people without gloves or boots “toughening it out” but it isn’t a great long term strategy. Invest in a good set of gloves and boots and you’ll be much happier!
3. Surfing Accessories that add warmth
Wetsuit accessories, like a thermal rash guard with or without an attached hood, worn under your wetsuit can provide additional warmth.
This is a strategy I have used when my wetsuit is starting to lose it’s warmth. I purchased a long sleeved thermal rash guards that I wore under my wetsuit for a couple of seasons to provide an additional insulating layer.
If you have a full wetsuit without a hood, you can purchase a rash guard with a hood and you will kill two birds with one stone; an insulating layer for your upper body and and a hood to protect your head from the elements. See the photo below as an example.
Adding accessories to your existing suit is a great strategy if you are planning on surfing in colder conditions for a short period of time. After many years of trial and error, I can confirm that nothing beats a good quality hooded full suit for cold water surfing.
When you layer accessories under your wetsuit like a hooded vest, you will give up some flexibility and increase the likelihood of chafing.
4. Staying Warm Before and After Your Surf Session
This seems pretty self explanatory but I see a lot of people at the beach on a cold day that are dressed for the Californian summer.
A good rule of thumb to follow is if you are dressed only to be warm enough for the car ride or for a five minute surf check, then you are probably under dressed.
You need to be prepared for cold, wet, blustery weather. If you are undecided about where you are going to go surfing, you may need to be prepared for a hike to the beach or prepared for a lot of standing around outside as you wait for the conditions to change.
A waterproof jacket, boots, warm layers, and even long underwear and a toque (beanie for non Canadians) are recommended.
Consider bringing extra clothes for the ride home. You can always remove layers on the way home if you are too hot. I always bring an extra pair of socks because I like to make sure I can warm up my frozen feet on the way home.
5. Don’t Dump Hot Water in Your Wetsuit to Warm Up!
In my younger years, I used to pack a container of hot water and use it to flush my wetsuit right before going surfing.
Over time, I stopped using this strategy because it didn’t seem to make me any warmer. It actually made my wetsuit and booties more water logged than needed and I found that the extra water in my wetsuit ended up making me colder after it cooled down.
Today, I make sure my wetsuit is dry in advance of the surf session. I find that starting with a dry wetsuit is warmer than flushing your wetsuit with hot water. Some people may disagree with me but it took many years of trial and error to come to this realization.
6. Change into Your Wetsuit Quickly To Avoid Rain and Snow
Changing fast is an art form but totally necessary when the weather is cold. If you are lucky enough to live near the beach, have a van or surf in a community with change rooms, then you can take your time when changing.
For the vast majority of surfers in my area, we change outside our vehicles as quickly as we can. Sometimes it’s raining or snowing and hovering around 0 degrees celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). Speed is the goal.
Starting with a dry wetsuit makes it easier, but you can also put plastic bags on your feet to allow them to slide through your wetsuit more easily. If you don’t have plastic bags in your car, try keeping your socks on, it will work as well.
Change fast. If it’s cold, change faster!
7. Fuel Up In Advance
It is always good strategy to try and limit the opportunity for excuses when cold water surfing.
Because it takes a lot of mental and physical effort to get yourself to the beach on a cold day, you may want to consume some calories well in advance so you are prepared to go surfing right away or wait for better conditions if necessary.
Personally, I like to eat a light meal 2-3 hours before going surfing because it is such an active sport. If you need a snack to keep you going, make sure to consume it at least an hour before going in the water and make sure to stick to foods that easily digest.
8. Do A Quick Surf Warm Up
Once you are changed into your wetsuit, boots and gloves, make sure to do a quick warm up before you get in the water.
In the cold weather your body will tense up even if you don’t realize it. It’s important to get the body warm and loose by doing some running on the spot, jumping jacks or sun salutations (yoga moves) to get the body ready for the session.
Don’t worry about what you look like when you are doing your warm up routine on the beach, most people are probably just watching and thinking “that looks like a good idea!”
Check out the short warm routine in the video below:
9. Apply Some Anti-Chafe Cream to prevent Wetsuit Rash
The key to cold water surfing is being comfortable. With thicker wetsuits and extra accessories, like thermal rash guards, hoods, gloves and booties, the potential for chafing is higher.
It becomes distracting, uncomfortable and sometimes painful when you are surfing and you can feel your wetsuit rubbing on a tender part of your body like the underarms or neck area.
Applying anti-chafe cream in advance of your cold water surfing sessions is a great preventative strategy. I recommend BodyGlide. It comes in a small, easy to carry application stick and can be found at most sport stores.
If you would like more tips on preventing wetsuit chafing, read my detailed article, titled How do Surfers Stop Wetsuit Chafing: 10 Battle Tested Tips
10. Stay Busy in the Water when surfing in cold water
Staying busy, or paddling around within the line up, is a great strategy for staying warm and catching more waves.
Rather than just sitting for long periods in a large group of surfers and waiting for waves, you may want to paddle over to other less crowded peaks so that you catch more waves, which will keep you warm.
As well, you can play the inside/outside game where you catch a wave from the main peak and then rather than paddling back to sit and wait at the same spot, you stay closer to shore and catch a couple of smaller waves just for fun.
Or follow the “go on anything” motto, where you paddle for any and all waves regardless of the quality. You may end up going over the falls or paddling into close outs but at least you’ll be getting exercise and staying warm.
11. Follow Surfing Etiquette
Following surfing etiquette is important in all weather, but especially in cold winter conditions. Don’t forget that everyone in the water has braved the same frigid weather in an effort to catch waves.
It is important to wait your turn and not to drop in on anyone. The most common excuse you will hear when someone becomes impatient and drops in on another surfer is “I dropped in because I was getting cold”
Don’t be that person. Everyone is getting cold!
Surfing in cold weather isn’t easy, but it becomes more manageable when surfers follow the rules.
12. Ride a Surfboard with More Float
Because you will be wearing a thick wetsuit, your range of motion will be restricted when compared to surfing in board shorts in a tropical location.
With the added weight of the wetsuit, boots & gloves, you will be slower and heavier and it will be helpful to ride a larger board with more flotation. You will need to compensate for 5-10 pounds of additional weight from the water soaked neoprene covering your body.
A larger surfboard with more buoyancy is very advantageous. It will allow you to paddle faster, make it easier to catch waves and sit higher in the water and out of the cold.
As well, the cold water will impact your flexibility and explosiveness. Put simply, you may never feel totally “warmed up” so you need the assistance of a bigger board. It’s a bit like driving a pick-up truck with winter tires in the snow, it won’t be as quick and nimble as a motorbike, but it will be more stable and allow you to thrive in challenging conditions.
You don’t need to go crazy with upsizing your surfboard for cold water surfing, in the winter I usually ride a surfboard that is 10-15% bigger.
Surfing is the funnest sport on the planet. When I go surfing with my friends, I have the best time. Lots of laughs, positive encouragement and and fun times are had by all.
But surfing sometimes gets a bad name because surfers are known for being unfriendly to outsiders. In cold weather, there are more frowns in the water than smiles. This makes surfing in the winter a little bit depressing at times.
I have had the pleasure of surfing with some really smiley, friendly surfers over the years and they had the power to change the mood of everyone in the water by their good nature. It was a joyful experience to surf with them.
I tend to be a quieter more reserved person in the water so I try and remind myself to say hi, encourage others and smile!
14. Use a Rubber Tote or Waterproof Bag to transport Wetsuits
When you are done surfing, you will need somewhere to put your soaked wetsuit, gloves and booties so they don’t drip all over the trunk of your car. The inexpensive option to carry your wetsuit to/from the beach in your car is a $10 plastic tote. I used one like this for years (see photo below):
At some point, I stopped using a tote and moved to a waterproof bag for my wetsuit, booties and gloves. A waterproof bag takes up less room in your car and makes it way easier to hike to the beach with your gear.
There are lots of different wet/dry backpacks on the market for you to choose from. They are pricier than a plastic tote but they are worth the investment.
I have had the same waterproof bag with a single shoulder strap for over twenty years. My sister bought it as a present for my birthday many years ago.
It is pretty beat up but it has never let me down. It is similar to the design of the bag in the photo below.
15. Always Reward Yourself Post Surf Session
Congratulations! You have braved the cold weather, changed in the icy rain and surfed in the freezing ocean. Now it is time to reward yourself.
Whether it’s packing a warm thermos of hot chocolate, stopping off at your favorite coffee shop or sharing stories around the camp fire with friends, it’s important to celebrate your accomplishment.