The Ultimate Guide to Cold Weather Paddling

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

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.

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.

Psst...we just wrote a great post ALL about PFD’s here.

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. <