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The Ultimate Guide to Cold Weather Paddling

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Would you believe us if we told you that it can actually be enjoyable to paddle board in the fall and winter once you learn a few tricks of the trade? All you need to do is adapt what you wear, put more emphasis on water safety and learn to confidently predict the weather and conditions.

In this post, we are going to review cold weather hazards, how to be paddle prepared, and “dressing for immersion”. We’ll also include some of our best keep warm tips to make your fall and winter paddling adventures toasty and safe.

Ready. SUP. Go!

Cold Weather Hazards

There are 2 types of hazards - environmental and human.

Environmental hazards are things beyond your control. A few examples are the weather (wind, lightning, precipitation, sun), terrain (falling rocks, rough, wet or slippery surfaces, topography, bathymetry), sea state (waves, tides, currents) are less often considered but nonetheless important, presence of wildlife.

Human hazards are things you can control. Your awareness of the changing conditions, personal and group decision making, training, lack of preparation, equipment failure, level of fitness, etc.

Where the combination of hazards overlap this is the potential for an accident.

Most emergencies are a culmination of a number of risk factors rather than just one. Let's take a closer look at common cold-weather paddling hazards and their consequences as well as what you can do to manage them.

Environmental: Weather - wet, cold or windy

Potential risk: hypothermia or frostbite

Management actions: wear waterproof outer layers to stay dry and cut the wind, change wet clothing for dry clothing, eat food and stay hydrated, drink warm fluids, keep moving and build a fire.

Environmental: Terrain & Sea State - ocean conditions, slippery rocks, cold water or ice

Potential risk: cold water immersion (falling off your board), falling on slippery terrain while launching or landing

Management actions: wear a drysuit/thick wetsuit, be confident in your self-rescue and know where to seek shelter and how to warm up and/or get dry quickly. Wear grippy footwear and walk slowly.

Environmental: Presence of wildlife

Potential risk: paddling too close to marine mammals may cause you to be knocked off or injured.

Management actions: be aware of and adhere to local restrictions and best practices when paddling in areas with whales, seals and other marine mammals. All vessels (including paddle boards should maintain 100 meters from whales, dolphins and porpoises at all times). Full details here thanks to BCparks!

Environmental: Your surroundings

Potential risk: cuts and abrasions to self or damage to boards caused by contact with sharp barnacles.

Management actions: wear protective neoprene booties and dismount from the board before landing on rocky shores.

Human: You the paddler

Potential risk: being unprepared

Management actions: keep your essential items in a dry bag that's easily accessible, check the weather and dress accordingly, review route details, make a float plan, and leave it with someone you trust, know your personal limits, understand tide charts and current tables, know where to access information about your paddling destination and stay aware of the changing risks.

Potential risk: health issues, fatigue or lack of fitness, dehydration

Management actions: understand the physical demands of stand-up paddle boarding, practice paddle-specific exercises between paddles, eat well and drink lots, sleep well the night before, bring any medication you will need (allergy meds, insulin etc.) and always be sure to pace yourself.

Human: Your paddling group

Potential risk: poor communication and decision making

Management actions: do a pre-paddle briefing to put it all out there and ensure the group is all on the same page, be aware of peer pressure and speak up as needed, know the group's abilities, be sure each person is appropriately geared up for the conditions, stay together and paddle to the pace of the slowest person, make safe decisions regarding route choices and be flexible.

Human: Solo SUP’ing

Potential risk: everything above minus the group dynamics but with greater challenges should something go wrong

Management actions: check the weather and dress accordingly, review paddling area details, make a float plan and leave it with someone you trust, know your personal limits, stay aware of the changing risks and check-in regularly.

Want more tips for cold weather paddling? Why not grab a copy of our entire Vancouver Island Fall Paddle Guide.

What Happens When You Fall Into Cold Water (Cold Water Immersion)?

Cold Water Shock - 0-1min

Cold water shock is a phenomenon that can occur at any time of year, depending upon where you are paddling, as water is considered cold at 15º C or less. When you are immersed in water noticeably colder than the air, the sudden shock causes you to involuntarily gasp. This initial deep breath along with extremely rapid hyperventilation that can follow causes the aspiration of cold water into your lungs, often resulting in drowning. Cold water shock usually occurs within the first minute of exposure and causes more deaths than hyperthermia. If you stay calm, are wearing a life jacket and a SUP leash, and focus on keeping your airways clear, this phase can pass.

Cold Incapacitation - 1-10min

Within 10 minutes of being immersed in cold water you may lose the effective use of your fingers, arms and legs, making it difficult or impossible to swim, manipulate gear or climb back onto your board. If you are wearing a PFD and SUP leash it will be easier to focus on self-rescue thereby getting yourself out of the water and back on your board fast.

Hypothermia - 10min-1hour

Cold water immersion quickly leads to hypothermia. When you are in the water, immersion hypothermia develops and progresses even more quickly than regular hypothermia. Cold water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, drastically reducing your core temperature.

You can become unconscious in as little as an hour. Once you are unconscious your chances of survival without immediate rescue and treatment are slim. We all know hypothermia to be a life-threatening condition, and like most wilderness first aid scenarios, the best ‘treatment’ is prevention.

Facts from the National Weather Service regarding cold water immersion

  • Roughly 20 percent of those who fall into cold water die in the first minute.

  • Even strong swimmers will lose muscle control in about 10 minutes.

  • Body heat can be lost 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air.

  • Wearing a PFD significantly increases your chances of survival.

IMPORTANT TIP: Always wearing a SUP leash lets you get out of the cold water fast so never leave shore without it!

What are the signs of hypothermia?

The quickest way to remember this is “umbles, stumbles, mumbles” a brief version of the six signs to watch for throughout your paddle, especially when it's windy, wet or someone just fell in;

  1. Confusion (Umbles)

  2. Slurred speech (Mumbles)

  3. Muscle weakness (Stumbles)

  4. Fatigue (Stumbles)

  5. Shivering

  6. Cool skin with a cold sensation

How do I treat hypothermia?

Hypothermia is a potentially life-threatening condition that needs emergency medical attention.

Here are a few things you should do while you are waiting for medical attention to arrive;

  • Remove any wet clothes, hats, gloves, shoes, and socks.

  • Protect the person against the wind, drafts, and any further heat loss.

  • Wrap them in warm blankets and clothing.

  • Move them gently to a warm, dry shelter as soon as possible.

  • Begin rewarming the person with extra prewarmed clothing.

  • Take the person's temperature if you have a thermometer.

  • Offer warm liquids, but avoid alcohol and caffeine, which speed up heat loss.

How to Paddle Prepared for Cold Weather

It’s important to understand just how serious things can be if you or your fellow paddleboarders fall into cold water. Although it isn’t always possible to avoid going into the water, there are things you can do to prevent a simple dunk from becoming an emergency.

Let’s review the cold weather best practices;

  1. Always carry the required safety equipment and ensure vessel preparedness. It really could save your life on the water.

  2. ALWAYS wear a wetsuit or drysuit (and associated layers!). Wetsuits (nine times out of ten) will prevent thermal shock. The neoprene will prevent your skin from cooling down too much on immersion. Drysuits keep the water off your skin altogether and are a cold-weather GAMECHANGER! Check out our What to Wear Paddle boarding post for full details.

  3. Always wear a properly fitted PDF. It is your most important piece of equipment when it comes to survival in cold water.

  4. Always wear a SUP leash appropriate for the conditions. A leash is a lifeline to your board. You can quickly climb on your board and access dry clothes as well as communication devices to call for help if needed. Without a leash, you risk losing your board in wind and waves and the situation escalating to a life-threatening emergency.

  5. Carry warm, dry clothes secured to your board in an easily accessible dry bag. Read our 'How to Pack a Dry Bag for a Day Trip' for full details.

Is wearing a leash really necessary? - YES!

This simple mechanism keeps you and your board tethered together. Leashes ensure you are able to reach your board quickly and then self-rescue.You will have ready access to warm clothing, fuel and communication devices. We have said it before and we will say it again. Don’t leave shore without a leash!

Pssst... We have a full post all about leashes and why they are so important (and what you need to know before using one). Read here for more information.

What should I think about before I go paddling in cold weather?

Plan, plan plan! Having a paddle plan is always important and even more so when you want to minimize your risks when paddling in cold water.

  • Check the weather. Knowing the air temperature, the wind chill (and wind speed/direction), the water temperature as well as sunrise/set times helps you plan your route and make decisions while you’re out there.

  • Be sure to monitor weather conditions throughout your trip - weather can be unpredictable and rapidly change for the worse.

  • Know the tides and currents for the area you will be paddling. Understand how to use tide tables and current charts.

  • Identify your hazards. Which hazards can be mitigated or reduced? Which ones are you not comfortable with? Don’t go if you’re not comfortable with the risks.

Is it safe to paddle alone in these cold temperatures?

We don’t recommend you paddle alone when it's really cold, like Canadian winter cold! It is always good to go with a buddy or in a group. Before leaving shore all paddlers should be clear on their plan of action if anything were to happen. Be sure to leave your trip plan with a trusted person and take check in times seriously.

Regardless of your experience level, if you were to fall in cold water, it is impossible to tell how your body will react and cope with the initial cold shock. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

We are happy to be your paddling buddy on a private or small group lesson, connect you with other paddlers and support your learning through the cold-weather season! Blue Jellyfish SUP Adventures will be maintaining our social paddles and lessons all winter long.

What should I do for ice safety?

Avoid it! Just kidding, we understand that sometimes it isn’t always possible. Always paddle in the water and avoid the areas with lots of floating ice. Ice can be sharp, unpredictable and could damage your board. We have seen people in the past walking over frozen sections of ice to get to their desired destination, please don’t do this - it isn’t worth the risk.

Can I paddle when it’s dark?

Night paddling can be exciting in the summer, and while possible in the winter there are added risks to consider. As winter approaches the temperature drops and the sun sets earlier. Remember when the sun sets the air temperature DROPS quickly and dramatically!

If you want to avoid paddling in the dark, through the colder seasons, check the time of sunset in the area you plan to paddle. Aim to be back on land one hour before sunset to give yourself a buffer should anything delay your return.

ALWAYS tell a friend or family member where you are going and when you expect to be back. It’s important to include details that would make it easy for search and rescue to find you such as the type and colour of equipment you are using and what you are wearing.

Check out this blog post for more information on our five most important safety requirements.

How will I get warm again? By following “Our Best Keep Warm Tips”

  • A microfiber towel and warm, dry clothes are a must onboard. A fleece or wool sweater, warm pants, and a puffy jacket are great along with wool socks, gloves, neck gaiter and a toque.

  • Keep an extra toque, wool socks, cozy gloves, pants and fleece or sweater along with a winter coat stored in your car. So when you get back you can get dry AND WARM!

  • Packing a thermos of something warm to eat or drink during and after your paddle board session is also a good trick to help keep you warm and refuelled after spending time on the water. Hot chocolate, tea and soup are great options to warm you up and put a smile on your face. Be prepared to share - save the Bailey’s for an apres paddle treat.

  • Throw a couple of air-activated hand warmers in your dry bag for those times when your fingers need thawing. This is particularly useful for those who paddle with Raynaud's Syndrome.

  • Wear wool socks in your neoprene booties and take one or 2 extra pairs to change up if your feet get wet on longer paddles.

  • Wear a neck gaiter or buff around your neck to prevent drafts. This can make a big difference in your overall comfort. They can also be used as a towel in a pinch. (If you need help choosing a neck gaiter or any accessories be sure to check out our shop with products that we love and can proudly recommend)

  • Don’t forget to keep easy to pull on pair of boots or shoes in the car so you can quickly warm up your feet without fumbling too much with cold fingers.

  • Stay fuelled with healthy high-energy snacks. Your body is kept warm when you snack frequently.

  • Ventilate and hydrate. One often overlooked concept when cold weather paddling, is the fact that you are exerting energy and may heat up to the point of sweating. Wear well-ventilated clothing so that condensation may escape rather than remain trapped to create a chill. A rain jacket with underarm vents open both blocks the wind and allows excess heat to dissipate.

  • Dress in layers and practice. You may find yourself putting it on, taking it off, putting it back on again...the more you paddle the more you will be able to dial in the layering system that works best for you.

What are the biggest takeaways I should remember?

  • Wear your lifejacket - It’s the most effective piece of safety equipment you can use while on the water.

  • Wear a SUP leash appropriate for the conditions - it is your lifeline to your board.

  • Carry the required safety equipment and ensure vessel preparedness. It could save your life on the water.

  • Be aware of cold water risks - The immediate effects of cold water immersion can be life-threatening.

  • Don’t drink and paddle - For your own safety and the safety of others, you must be attentive and responsive. Plus alcohol thins your blood and makes your body colder faster.

  • Go guided at first - Familiarize yourself with the area and activity in which you are engaging.

  • Always leave a trip plan - Our blog post, Best Paddle Boarding Apps, Websites and Tech Tools can help you plan your adventure.

To conclude

As you can see, just because there isn't sunshine and blue skies every day doesn’t mean you can’t be out paddle boarding! It is still possible to enjoy your time out on the water all year long.

If you take these extra precautions that we have mentioned and maintain good judgement then you will be ready to launch into fall and winter Stand Up Paddle adventures with confidence...

Do you have any questions or want further advice? Don’t hesitate to give us a call or send us an email.

What are your favourite tips for keeping warm?

Sea you on the water with your wool socks on 🐋

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