Let’s face it — warm water is ideal for any surfer. Unfortunately, many surf spots only have warmer water temps for a few months out of the year. One good thing about the weather getting colder is that there are usually better waves in the fall and winter months, and most surf spots are less crowded than when it’s warmer. The downside is that the water temps drop quickly so you need to adapt to the elements in order to be able to surf year-round.
I know many of you think we are crazy to get in the ocean when the water temps fall into the 30s and 40s and the air temps are about the same. The desire to paddle out in near-freezing weather is the same reason surfers miss family birthdays, holiday gatherings, and will literally rearrange their lives to be near the ocean.
Surfing is a lifestyle and going for months without catching a wave is not an option. Becoming a cold-water surfer doesn’t take much — you obviously need a thicker wetsuit, gloves, boots and hood, but you also need the right mindset. A friend of mine once said that surfing in the winter is like a whole new hobby compared to surfing in the summer.
Here are a few tips to get you started surfing in the colder months:
1. Invest in a good wetsuit. There are many different types of wetsuits on the market. Each brand has different options to choose from, based on price and thickness. As with most anything there are different levels of quality — good, better, best. The best wetsuits will cost you more, but keep you warmer and last a lot longer than the less expensive ones. The water temperature in which you will be surfing will determine what thickness of suit you need. Depending on where you are, you may need several different wetsuits for different times of the year.
2. Boots, gloves and a hood — the thicker the better! These come in different thicknesses like the wetsuits. The thinner ones (3 mil) are great for surfing in the fall months, but if you want to go out in the ocean when the water is in the 30s, you will definitely need something thicker (5 or 7 mil). Gloves also come in different styles. I prefer gloves that fit like a real glove for dexterity purposes, while others prefer “mitten-type” gloves that are sometimes called “lobster-claw.” It’s basically a personal preference. Whatever you purchase, don’t make the mistake of buying too small or big. They should be a little snug and awkward to put on — that is normal!
3. Never surf alone. This is a good rule to follow any time of the year, but especially in the winter. When it’s cold, there are fewer people on the beach and a lot fewer surfers in the water. If you get hurt, you need someone there to help. Even the best surfer should never paddle out by themselves. Also, remember to bring your cell phone on the beach just in case.
4. When in doubt, don’t go out. Know what you’re capable of. You should never paddle out in conditions that you are unsure of, especially in the cold water. Your reaction time is going to be slower due to the colder conditions and the added weight of your wetsuit. You will not be able to stay out as long as you would like. If you’re used to 2 – 3 hour surf sessions in the summer, you need to realize that you may only be able to last 30-60 minutes in the winter. Some people also surf with a longer and/or thicker board in the winter due to the added weight from wetsuits and the increased difficulty with paddling.
5. Know what you are getting into. Paddling on a surfboard is humbling enough for beginners in nice, warm conditions, but paddling out dressed in rubber is even more exhausting! You may want to begin in small, clean conditions in order to get comfortable with your winter gear. Know that when you go under, which you will, it will not be the most enjoyable experience. In fact you will most likely get what feels like an “ice cream headache” without the ice cream! It will subside quickly, but you must remember to relax and not panic — even if you take a few waves on the head as you get out to the line up.
6. Prepare yourself before you surf for after. Park your car in direct sunlight. Find a place protected from the chilling wind. Get dressed in the car with the heat on, or if you don’t have any stops to make, dress at home and drive in your wetsuit! Bring a small cooler filled with warm water to rinse yourself when you get out of the water. If you feel comfortable driving home in a wet wetsuit, put a lot of towels in the driver’s seat so you won’t soak your car and get undressed in your warm shower!
7. Learn when your body has had enough. When it’s cold, you cannot surf as long as you would like to, even if the waves are great. When I start feeling a chill, I know in a few more minutes I will begin to shiver. This is when it’s time to take a wave into the beach because hypothermia is a serious medical condition that can come on quickly, especially when the water is in the 30’s or 40’s.
8. Stay in shape. To be a good surfer you need continue your training throughout the winter months, especially when you can’t get out in the water as much as you want to. Swimming is as close as you can get to paddling and will help build your endurance and confidence in the water. Running, biking, and any other cardiovascular exercise at a higher intensity for 30-60 minutes a day will also help lengthen your surf sessions in any season. Try to get in the water as often as you can because in order to become a better surfer you need to surf regularly! After nearly three weeks out of the water, I surfed today and felt how much strength and endurance I lost in that short period of time. If you’re wondering why you haven’t progressed in your surfing, but you’ve only been able to get out once or twice a month, that’s most likely the reason!
9. Plan a warm weather surfing vacation! Nothing helps a surfer get through a cold winter more than traveling to a warmer climate. I travel to Hawaii because I know I am guaranteed to have waves anytime I go, and plan my surf trips in an inexpensive way. There are plenty of other surf destinations you can find at a reasonable price, but do your planning. Make sure the waves are the type of waves you are comfortable in, or slightly out of your comfort zone. If you prefer small, long boarding waves then you don’t want to book a vacation where the waves are steep, overhead barrels.
Just last week we had a day of fun, small waves with unusual warm air temps for December — it was actually the first day of winter! We loaded up the kids to play on the beach and were able to surf with good friends all day long. It felt like a summer afternoon at the beach (except for the ocean temperature hovering around 50 degrees). Even though we had to wear our winter surfing gear, it was pure happiness for all of us with a day of much-needed play!
If surfing has become your lifestyle and you cannot imagine going a winter without catching a wave, it’s time to get comfortable in cold water. People will think you are crazy for doing it, but that’s okay — only a surfer understands. You will score fun, empty waves and keep yourself stoked until the weather warms up again. Trust me, every time you go out you will catch at least one wave that makes it worth it!