With lots of rain, wind and dropping temps, many paddlers have stored away their paddling gear with their sights on winter sports. But others such as myself are still paddling. Here’s 10 tips for winter weather paddling clothing.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, Fall and Winter paddling can bring super glassy conditions, clear water visibility and quiet days on the water. Fall colors and blueish-silver winter skies add to the landscape. Big storms bring epic downwind sessions on saltwater and lakes as well as more consistent surf on coast. And one of my favorites, no ferry lines to the various islands on Puget Sound.
Note that everyone runs differently with temperature when it comes to the cold. I tend to get cold, whereas one of my instructors wears minimal clothing, even in Winter as he’s always hot. Follow your instincts and try to avoid peer pressure to go lighter/heavier. If you don’t know, you’ll hopefully figure it out without any uncomfortable experiences.
Mix and match – Depending on the conditions and level of activity, I may wear a rain shell over a full surfing wetsuit or mix up other garments per the goal I have that session for warmth and dryness. It’s ok to try different layers and test out non-paddling specific clothing like bicycling, kayaking and/or skiing.
Winter Paddling Clothing Options –
- Full surfing wetsuit (no zipper) top loading. Often comes with a hood.
- Full surfing wetsuit (with zipper) back zip so easier entry but leaks more. Get a suit with a ‘zipper dam.’ Hood or not.
- Dry Suit – Designed to keep your dry but you must supply the under layers for warmth. Some have foods. Tend to be baggy.
- Top / Bottoms for those that run hot or activities where you’re less likely get wet or swim. Neoprene and nylon materials.
Paddling Tops –
Paddling tops can be worn alone or over another garment like a wetsuit.
NRS has a comfy and warm neoprene zip up top, the NRS Men’s HydroSkin 1.5 Jacket. Also check out neoprene tops with hoods such as the XCEL 1mm Infiniti Neoprene Insulate-X Hooded Wetsuit Top.
ProMotion has a product called ExoSkin which is a waterproof fleece lined top that can be worn alone or over a wetsuit. I use the orange top for hi-vis color on the water.
I also like neoprene hooded vests which can go over or under a wetsuit or jacket. These provide an optional hood, sun bill and nice warmth for the upper body. Check out the toasty XCEL 1mm Infinti Hooded Wetsuit Vest. In warmer seasons, wear with shorts or neoprene pants. ProMotion also has an ExoSkin hooded top as well.
A wind chill breaking water resistant shell can work to keep you warm and dry as well. Mix with neoprene pants or put over a hoodless 4/3mm wetsuit. I’m still using a Kokatat kayaking splash top from 2000. Try before you buy – not all hoods fit every head. Some find connected hoods to be claustrophobic.
The NRS High Tide Splash Jacket is a great product that will keep you dry, the wind off and comes with a hood. Get a hi-vis color to be seen by boats and from shore.
Regular non paddling product jackets or shells are great too. I like OR’s Interstellar AscentShell Jacket which comes in a bright red for visibility on the water and can go over your wetsuit, paddling jacket or just a fleece jacket.
Tip: Kayaking and hiking shops will have more of the GoreTex and Nylon splash jacket type products.
Bottoms / Pants
You can also find paddling pants from Giant Fish.
Hoods / Skull Caps
Hoods and skull caps are great for keeping your head warm. Some are attached to hooded vests and wetsuits. But you can purchase them separately as well. I keep a NRS Storm Cap hood in my PFD to use when I need it.
Some have neck and head coverage or just head (also called a skull cap). I can wear mine under my helmet in tidal rapids at Deception Pass or for big downwinders for comfort and warmth. They also work to keep the water out of your ears to prevent surfer’s ear. An alternative brand is UK’s ReedChillCheater (they have a high visibility orange with sun bill).
Some hate gloves, I love em’. They also protect your hand from the paddle on long days and add grip. In full on winter I use Glacier Gloves that are fleece lined. NRS’s Maverick glove is a nice one, not as thick at Glacier Gloves and turns in at the wrist to reduce water from coming in.
I stuff these in my PFD or kayak hatch if not in use. In time the fingers will blow out but they still work. I usually go through one pair a year. Kayakers will see more wear on the upper thumbs.
Tip: If you’re not into gloves, taping your fingers with sports tape is an alternative.
Like gloves, some love em’ and some don’t need them. I get cold and like to protect my feet from rocks, barnacles and glass on the beach or parking lot. Booties also provide traction on my SUP. For several years, I’ve been hooked on the NRS FreeStyle WetShoes for myself and for my class rentals.
They’re fleece lined, waterproof and cheap but also durable. I used to use the 7mm 5-7mm surf brands but they were $90, lasted one season and had poor traction underfoot. There are zip up booties if you don’t like ankle high but they’re not waterproof. I once brought my FreeStyle booties to Oahu for reef protection which worked great.
Tip: Place your wetsuit legs over your booties to slow water from coming in.
Bootie Liners in Winter – In super cold temps, you’ll want to keep your feet dry to stay warm. Wet wool socks will slide in your booties messing with your traction, control and comfort. Instead slide in the the NRS Hydroskin 0.5mm socks or the SealSkinz mid-weight mid-length socks in your booties which are both waterproof and add a touch of more insulation.
In rough water conditions (or actually anything in full on winter) I wear a full surfing wetsuit. Since I get cold, I wear a zipper-less 5/4mm. On balmy days I’ll may wear a back zip 4/3mm. Wetsuits these days are flexible, comfortable and over $200 are completely dry due to liquid or taped sealed seams.
Winter or cold water suits tend to be zipper-less, meaning you enter through the shoulder area. It takes some practice but after awhile it’s no a big deal. I can get in and out of mine in a minute or less. No zipper means less leaking and a warmer experience. Some come with hoods, others not. With a hood, my neck doesn’t flush when I wipe out and I can peel on or off the hood as needed. With a hoodless suit, I may add a hooded vest (above) to prevent flushing.
I use the Ripcurl 5/4mm Flash Bomb (Women’s) + (Mens) which is fleece lined and completely dry. In cold winter conditions, staying dry will keep your warmer. For surf skiers, kayakers and OC folks, this suit will keep your bum dry and warm!
Wetsuit Thickness Explained:
5/4mm = 5mm in body and legs, 4mm in arms. With paddling, you don’t want to go over 4mm in the arms for flexibility.
* Wet wetsuit tip – put your hand or foot in a plastic bag and then stuff in the suit – it’ll slide right on. Or wear a thin rash guard or non-cotton shirt (no collar) underneath which will also boost your warmth.
Another option for full on winter conditions and cold water. More pricey than a wetsuit but some prefer the looseness of the fabric vs a tighter feeling wetsuit. Warm comparison between each are the same, especially with the newer super warm seam sealed wetsuits. And you get a pee zipper. Check out the NRS Pivot Dry Suit or the Kokatat Front End Dry Suit.
.. are a great innovation for changing your clothes in a public area. I usually use a towel but on hormonal rain days wished I had something more substantial. I did see a guy at the coast using a shower robe which was clever. Companies such as ProMotion and Surf Fur make them as well. Check out the Mystic Robe.
* Changing Tip – Stand on a yoga mat, cut piece of camping sleep pad or in your dry bucket to keep your feet warm. See my article on 30 Tips for Better Winter Paddling from former SUP Magazine
Any questions give me a holler: rob@salmonbaypaddle / www.salmonbaypaddle.com
Check out my year round SUP, Kayak and Surf ski classes in Seattle. Beginning to Advanced instruction and PSUPA Certification.