How to get into Winter Water Sports

In northern England if we waited for good weather, we would hardly ever leave the house.  Given this fact and our love of SUPs, naturally we are advocates of winter water sports. If you don’t live in the Alps and cross country skiing isn’t your style there are a load of other activities to try when things get chilly. If runners can keep pounding out the icy miles, there’s no reason paddleboarders can’t do the same. Some people even prefer it!

In the spirit of having fun no matter the weather we recommend giving winter paddling a try. This might sound a little nutty, after all,  when people think of winter sports they don’t often think of SUP. With the proper planning and precaution, taking your board out in December is more delight than fright. 

Stand Up Paddle boarding is actually a great cold weather hobby in its own right. The stakes are higher considering the conditions are riskier but good safety practices and common sense will mitigate this. Snorkel suits and foul weather gear are not strictly necessary. You can enjoy a low key winter paddle in an easily accessed area, canals are perfect. Don’t worry, plotting a hardcore trans-Atlantic crossing isn’t necessary to enjoy winter watersports.

The UK is a fantastic winter paddling destination.  We’ve got cold weather and we’ve got miles of rivers and canals. Winter SUP doesn’t have to be painful.  As with all things paddleboard, you can tailor the activity to your desired intensity.  Paddle in street clothes locally or put on a dry suit and make for Shetland.  Its a shame to put your board away just because the coats and jackets have come out.


The Case for Winter Paddling

The scenery is totally different from the water year round but especially in cold weather. Taking it all in as you glide peacefully on your SUP is really special. There is a private joy in the experience because it’s from an angle that is all your own. Plus, a pint tastes fantastic after bashing out a few miles on your board in sub 15 degrees.

If you are afraid of falling in in winter, you should be.  It’s a clear risk. To evaluate whether its a risk worth taking, ask yourself how often you fall in normally.  If you are over the side of your board every time you go out, winter paddling may not be for you or at least not yet. If you have a solid base of paddling experience and are fairly stable, give this unique sport a try.

The water is far busier when the sun is shining and the weather is sweet. You’ll have more space to yourself in cold weather. So if you can stand the temperatures, paddling out of season can actually be more relaxing because there is nobody to bump into. 

Fitness is a year around project so why leave winter races to fell runners? Santa SUP UK is a great way to introduce yourself to your local winter paddling community. There are events all over the country but Bristol in particular has a big one that is worth checking out.

Cold Weather SUP Safety

In the land of health and safety, we’ll need to discuss what safety measures will save your hide. Winter sports are not to be taken lightly whether you’re on a Ski-do in Alaska or ice climbing in Norway. Things are grittier when the mercury drops and you definitely need to take care. In order to mitigate what is an acceptable level of risk, always take these factors into account.

Consider your route carefully before you head out

If you’ll be paddling someplace remote you’ll need to take extra care. No matter where you go if you fall you’ll need to make it back to shore. You will then have to make it to your car from that point.  This is a great time of year for canals, not so great for exploring how far off shore you can paddle in one afternoon.

Stay close to shore

If you can’t swim the distance back to shore then you are too far out. The weight of wet clothes along with the temperature of the water will slow you way, way down. Slice the distance you can comfortably swim in half.  Now slice it in half again.

Don’t go it alone, don’t do it in the dark

If at all possible, find a paddling friend. Your friend doesn’t even have to be the same species as you, a kayak friend will do just fine. You should also avoid paddling in the dark at all costs. Even a very bright head torch can’t acceptably mitigate the danger.Plan your paddle in daylight with a friend and let other people know where you are going and when to expect you back. Don’t go off exploring unfamiliar, technical water for the first time if the weather is cold. Paddle familiar routes and check the forecast before you head out.

What You Need for Winter Paddling

Colder weather = more gear.  You’ll have to wear extra kit to stay warm and safe, bottom line. If you are out for a low key canal paddle you don’t need a drysuit. You might even be able to get away with paddling in normal clothing so long as you are comfortable walking back to your car in soggy Levis.

1. Board

You can use the same board in winter as in summer if yours is high volume enough.   The board should ideally stay raised above the water even when at a standstill.  6” of deck depth provides enough elevation to keep feet dry but not so much that balance is compromised.

2. Leash

You need to wear a leash if you are out paddling in cold weather.If you fall in and are separated from your board, you are putting yourself at very great risk for very little gain. It’s a risk that’s easily mitigated by wearing a leash so please find one you are excited about and wear it.

3. Booties

Don’t go out paddling in your gortex hiking boots. Rememberanything you wear needs to be easy to take off or easy to swim in. Neoprene booties are a good option, some come with a grippy, shoe-like sole. You can buy them for scuba, surfing or for sailing. Just make sure you get at least 5 mm if not thicker in order to have a chance at staying warm. You can layer thin wool socks underneath as well.

4. Wetsuits

Wetsuits are designed for keeping warm in the water and need to be wet in order to insulate as well as intended. They’ll still give you some warmth while dry though.  You’ll need to wear a wetsuit especially if you’re paddling through open water because in the event you fall in it may well save your life. 

On it’s own, it may not keep you warm enough if stay above rather than in the water. For this you can choose layers that peel off quickly in an emergency. Whatever keeps you warm over your wetsuit, make sure you can unzip it or tear it off fast if you need to swim for shore or a friend’s board.

Strategic layers under your wetsuit are also acceptable if they fit. A thin, insulating base layer will keep your core temperature up when dry. Ideally it should be low profile enough not to hinder your wetsuit from insulating if you fall in.

The graphic above gives a clear break down of what thickness is appropriate for what temperature.  Calling a surf shop or emailing a wetsuit manufacturer is also a good idea. 


5. Gloves

You’ll want to keep your hands warm while maintaining a good grip of the paddle. You have more leeway here if paddling for pleasure than training or racing. In the former case, a ski glove will do. For max dexterity, cold weather technical sailing gloves are a great shout. They also make some versions with especially grippy material,  handy for keeping a hold of your paddle.

6. Après SUP

Whether you’ve had a successful dry paddle or you’re coming back all soggy you’ll be cold. Make sure you’ve got something to put on over your (dry wetsuit) or in lieu of your (wet) wetsuit. Now is the time to break out the hand and toe warmers. 

Still need a little inspiration?

Last year Luke Bolsin of Suptonic mag did an interview with Casper Steinfath, pro SUP racer and epic cold water paddler. Casper explains his love of cold weather watersports as follows:

The rush of facing the harshest sides of Mother nature excites me! No matter if you are paddling in midst of summer or in the heart of winter, the feeling of stoke when you leave the water is always the same. I always remind myself of this and I let it serve as my motivation!

The Interview: Casper Steinfath – Source

We hope you’ll consider keeping your SUP wet through all seasons. Stick to canals to start with and save open water arctic trekking for when you’ve logged some cold weather miles. One last thing,  be sure to get a dry bag for your phone.  Happy paddling!

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