Coldwater Surfing: Stay Out of Trouble and Maximize Your Session

Coldwater Surfing: Stay Out of Trouble and Maximize Your Session

Winter is here in North America and so are the best waves from coast-to-coast and every Great Lake in between. As a Brazilian immigrant to Canada, I have gone from fearing winter and thinking that one couldn’t leave the house when it snows, to looking forward to those snowstorms so I can jump in the water and catch some of our best waves. While winter surfing is definitely rad—and safe when done with the proper equipment—there are certain risks. When the temperature drops below freezing, the game changes and you need to be proactive and strategic about planning your surf sessions. This is my sixth winter surfing in Canada, and after trying a lot of different gear and approaches to winter surfing, I have learned a few tricks along the way that will make your sessions safer and more enjoyable. 

If you have surfed in colder climates you know that it takes a lot more than a pair of boardshorts and a surfboard. When surfing in below freezing temperatures, you definitely need the appropriate gear. Your wetsuit should be at least 5/4mm and if you have a 6/4mm or a 6.5/5.5mm you will be even warmer. Make sure your wetsuit has a chest zipper or no zipper at all, and don’t even think about layering a hoodless 4/3mm with a detachable hood or vest, as you will get frigid water flushing in everywhere and place yourself at risk of hypothermia. As for booties, go for the thickest you can get—7 or 8 mm is the norm these days—as your feet will be the first part of your body to get cold. When your fingers start to ache in your gloves, it’s time to switch to mittens. Opt for the ones that keep all your fingers but the thumb together, otherwise they will get cold faster. This is your minimal set-up for coldwater surfing in below freezing temperatures, but we will outline a few tips to optimize your gear and keep you warmer longer.

Winter Surfing Canada Great Lakes Surf by Lucas Murnaghan

Packing for your Session

When getting your gear ready, treat it as if you are going on an expedition and double check to make sure you have everything you need. There’s nothing worse than getting to the break to find the waves pumping and realize you left one of your mittens home. If the break you are going to is within 30 minutes from your home, I would recommend suiting up halfway in your wetsuit with your booties on, and wearing your regular layers and your winter jacket on top - and of course don't forget your toque! That way you won’t overheat in the car, but will be pretty much ready to hit it when you get there. Make sure to pack your pants, a thick pair of wool socks and your shoes in your surf bag, as you never know what could happen on the way there or back and it would suck to be in a wet wetsuit on the side of the road changing a flat tire!

Surf the Greats Coldwater Winter Surfing Tips by Tina Heiss

There are a couple life-changing products on the market that really make winter surfing a more pleasant experience. One of my favourite is a pair of 1mm thermal Wetsox. These neoprene socks are made so you can put them on before you get into your wetsuit, so you slide in and out with ease, and you wear them inside your booties. This adds 1mm of insulation to your feet and lower legs, which not only helps with the extra warmth when you get in the water, but if you have to change outside afterwards and it’s cold or there’s snow on the ground, you can take your booties off and walk around without the risk of frostbite.  The other product that revolutionized winter surfing for me it’s the changing ponchos by DryRobe. They are the ultimate heavy duty winter jacket, made from a synthetic wool on the inside that doesn’t get wet with a waterproof and wind breaking outer layer to keep the cold away. You can wear it during your surf checks, to get changed or even wear it all the way to the break and have it waiting for you when you get out of the water. If this isn’t in your budget for this season, head to your local thrift store and look for an oversized parka or used snowmobile suit. While it won’t have the same waterproof and changing qualities, it will offer you the warmth you need.

Surf the Greats Great Lake Surfing Lucas Murnaghan

It’s very important to get your surfboard(s) ready at home before you take off. If you have ever tried to wax a surfboard in cold weather, you know what I’m talking about. Make sure you give it a good wax (x-cold to cold) at home and if possible get your fins and your leash ready to go so you don’t have to fiddle with them in the cold.

One item that should be in every coldwater surfer’s bag is a pair of earplugs. Whether you get a pair of cheap silicone ones  or opt for one of the high-tech ones that let the sound through, make sure you always wear earplugs when surfing in coldwater. If you think that’s not for you or it’s unnecessary, just google ‘Surfer’s Ear’’ and click on Images — that should get the message across. Afterall, infection, surgery and a year out of the water doesn’t sound fun at all.

Surf the Greats Great Lake Surfing Lucas Murnaghan

As I pack my surf gear into my car, I always like to pack a couple extra items that will make my session more enjoyable. The air is very dry in the winter and staying hydrated is more important than ever, so make sure you have a water bottle with enough water for your session and any emergency that may happen. With the cold, your body will burn a lot more calories to keep you warm. I always have some energy bars and gels in my surf bag to make sure that I have sustenance for my sessions. Having a thermos with hot water or tea is a must! You can drink it before you head out or halfway between your session, and you can also pour a little bit inside your wetsuit so you start with warm water instead of having to heat up the cold water that gets in with your body’s warmth. Make sure you leave enough to drink when you get back from your session as you it will help to bring your body temperature back to normal.

Heading out

So you found the perfect wave to surf, parked your car and are ready to get out. This is the critical moment to ensure you have a safe session. If anything is going to go wrong it’s going to be halfway through your session or as you are finishing up. Having an ‘exit strategy’ is of utmost importance when surfing coldwater. Make sure you have your first-aid kit stocked in the truck, along with an emergency blanket, extra clothes and supplies. Also, make sure your heater works as you will need it to warm up when you get out of the water. If you have a Dryrobe, either wear it to the break so you can walk back wearing it, or have it ready to wear it in your car. If not, make sure you have waterproof seat covers and a changing towel so you don’t ruin your car seats. Your tea thermos should be ready to drink and make sure you have a dry pair of waterproof low-profile gloves that you can put on when you come back. Have you considered what to do with your keys? If you are bringing a bag to the break, you can put it in the bag, otherwise you may have to stash it in your wetsuit or hide it somewhere. A stash lock comes in very handy for you to lock your keys outside your car and not worry about someone stealing your keys. So, you have your exit plan, you pour a little bit of your hot water or tea in your suit—make sure it’s not too hot so you don’t burn yourself—you lock your car and run to your surf break. Let the fun begin...

Surf the Greats Great Lake Surfing Tina Heiss

In the Water

You walk out on the water and it feels like your shins are going to freeze. The first few duck-dives feel like your head is going to explode, but just take a few deep breaths and keep paddling to generate heat. Soon enough, all the discomfort goes away and you are surfing with probably just a handful of surfers and enjoying some of the best waves we get. Every now and then, you may get knocked around and have some freezing water flushing into your wetsuit. That’s totally normal, and within minutes your body will warm it up. If you planned accordingly, you intentionally didn’t pee before getting out on the water so you can now deploy your secret weapon.  We believe there are two types of surfers: those who pee in their wetsuits, and those who lie about it. I definitely pee in mine and can speak openly about it. 

Surf the Greats Great Lake Surfing Lucas Murnaghan

When you notice that you are starting to get a bit chilly, try paddling back and forth around the line-up to stay warm. Remember, you will only stay warm if you keep moving! When it gets to a point in which you can’t warm up anymore, it’s time to get out. When surfing warm water, we often tell ourselves ‘one more good one’ and a couple hours go by as we catch wave after wave. When surfing below freezing conditions, you need to listen to your body and be proactive about it. There’s about a 30 minute gap from the moment you start to get cold to the moment you need to begin warming up again. Not to mention that you may have to hike through knee-deep snow and ice to get back to your car...

Getting out

You get out of the water and begin to quickly walk back while you froth over all the waves you caught. At this point, you probably can’t feel your fingers and toes, but don’t worry, they will come back. When you get to your car, you know exactly where you left your keys because you planned ahead. Stash your board under the car so it doesn’t blow away with the wind, get in the car, turn it on and crank up the heat. Put some music on and take your time. If you have icicles hanging off your wettie, those will have to thaw out before you can get it off. Drink some of your tea and slowly take your mittens off, dry off your hands and put on your dry warm gloves. Now you can get outside and deal with your board safely. If you live within a 30 minute drive, I would recommend just driving home in your suit. With the heat cranked up, you will be toasty on your drive. Don’t mind the weird looks at stop lights, it happens to all of us. When you get home, you can head straight to the shower and comfortably get out of your  gear. 

Surf the Greats Great Lake Surfing Tina Heiss

If driving home is not an option and you have to change in the parking lot, start taking off the top part of your wetsuit in the car and put on a couple warm and dry layers. Make sure you have a warm toque—that’s what we call a beanie north of the border—to keep your ears warm. When changing outside, it’s important to have a dry pad to stand on. I’m a big fan of the change mats that turn into gear bags that you can pack all your gear in and keep it from making a mess in your car and around the house. If you don’t have one, a large IKEA bag does the trick. If you are changing outside and you have a Dryrobe and Wetsox on, you are laughing. Just try to keep the process quick, and don’t get freaked out when you look at your feet and it looks like a scene from Six Feet Under. No, they are not dead and will slowly come back if you put on some warm socks and get in your car.

Maintaining your gear

I usually wash all my gear in the shower. You can use a bucket or plug your tub and add a squirt of ‘Piss Off’ to clean and sanitize your rubber. Rinse it properly afterwards and hang it in the shower or somewhere where the water can drain. Once most of the water has drained, hang it somewhere where you can put a fan blowing on it.  For booties, gloves, and mittens, you can use one of those vent racks used for skiing/snowboarding mittens. You want something that will keep them upright and that you can blow air through it to make sure it dries. After a couple of hours, you can flip your wettie inside out—or right side depending on how you started—and in just a few hours, all your gear will be ready for you to get out again for your next session.

Surf the Greats Great Lake Surfing Tina Heiss

Some of my best memories of surfing have been during the harshest winter days. It’s fun, the waves are amazing, and it certainly makes for unique and memorable stories. It can be done safely, but you have to be strategic and plan ahead. You are the one responsible for your safety, and incorporating some of these tips into your sessions, will help you stay out of trouble and get the most out of winter.  

Words by Antonio Lennert. Photographs by Tina Heiss and Lucas Murnaghan.

Antonio Lennert Portrait

Antonio is an ISA-certified surf coach, movement teacher and community builder. He was born and raised in Brazil and graduated from OCAD University with a degree in Graphic Design. Antonio is the founder and CEO of Surf the Greats. Find him on Instagram.