6 Things You Need To Know About Winter Paddle Boarding
We know that Winter season is a really hard time for a lot of people. It can easily become months to dread, to feel disconnected and detached from nature. But just because there's snow on the ground or cold air doesn't mean it can hold you back from enjoying your time on your paddle board and feeling like your beautiful and bright Summery self.
Don't Put Your SUP Away for Winter!
Winter months provide some of the best lake paddling conditions available if you’re educated and prepared. Consider these benefits: Open, flat water is available in most northern states through the winter and is accessible if you follow a few tips.
These tips are in no particular order, and they apply specifically to flatwater paddling (lakes and slow-moving rivers.) The overall rule is to stay out of the water and stay dry.
Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is an extremely aerobic activity. Just like winter running, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, you will start to sweat – and sweat is your winter activity enemy.
The solution to keeping warm for a vigorous winter paddle is simple: Wear layers of synthetic clothing, just as you would for winter running for your base layer. Do not wear cotton. Bring a nearly-empty backpack and as you start to sweat, quickly peel off the culprit item of clothing and store it in your backpack.
It’s not uncommon to have nearly everything in my backpack after one mile of paddling in sub-zero, sunny weather. As you select your paddling wardrobe always consider how quickly you can get out of it. Look for items that don’t require buttons, zippers, and Velcro. All three are extremely hard to fasten/unfasten while wearing gloves.
First-time winter paddle boarders fall into the trap of wearing bulky parkas, snow pants, and thick turtleneck sweaters. Don’t do it.
Bulking up is bad for two reasons: There’s nowhere to stash the bulky items once you start sweating, and; bulky clothing tends to quickly absorb large quantities of water when submerged. If you were to fall into the water your clothing would quickly absorb so much water weight that recovery is unlikely.
The Wetsuit Debate
Winter Wetsuits are not for winter paddling on a lake. If you stay out of the water, the wetsuit immediately induces sweating. You will be soaked by your own perspiration before you get more than 100 yards. And, once wet from sweat or lake water, you are at a high-risk for wind chill-induced hypothermia.
If you’re still not convinced, do a simple test: Put on your wetsuit and favorite shoes for a ½ mile run in your neighborhood on a wintery day. If you’re lucky enough to survive the neighbors’ ridicule, you’ll be able to experience the cycle of overheating, induced sweat, and amplified wind chill. You will be shivering by the time you return home.
The thin neoprene of wetsuits is simply no match for sub-zero conditions. The exception are wetsuit boots.
Wear a light backpack (we recommend a dry bag) that will hold a water bottle, food, phone, and ample space for your discarded layers of clothing along your journey. Program your brain to first shed your backpack in case of an unexpected water evacuation.
Here’s something that winter first-timers don’t consider: The deck of your paddleboard will ice-over quickly. The ice comes from the water that drips from crossing your paddle repeatedly over the deck.
This buildup has the potential to create a very slippery surface under your feet. There’s no remedy for this, so be aware and don’t be afraid to cut your session short after an hour if your feet start to slip. Once the deck is iced over, it’s game over.
The most proactive thing you can do is to prevent water from hitting the deck in the first place. Consider a less vigorous paddle and set your training goal on distance instead of top-speed.
People are programmed to drink when they’re hot, not when they’re dehydrated. This is bad because you’re not going to get hot while paddling in the winter. So remember to drink frequently to stay hydrated. Keep a water bottle in your backpack.
There’s no reason to head for the middle of the lake. Paddle the shoreline and stay within 1/8 mile of land. But be aware of ice: Lakes normally freeze first in the calm and shallows near the shore.
Stay Dry, Always
So you've got a good balance on your board, but don't overlook your walk to the lake and the launch. Design an approach and extraction that keeps your feet dry. Unfortunately you aren't water resistant so as soon as you step in the water your perfect day is compromised.
In Addition to These Above Tips for Winter, Following Normal SUP Practices, Modified for Winter Conditions:
In the winter, you absolutely must have dry, warm clothes waiting for you in the car, beanie, mittens, wool socks, and parka's are awesome. If any part of your clothing is saturated or wet, strip down to the dry layer, and get into dry clothes.
I recommend leaving your car keys in or near the car. If you’re in a safe neighborhood, consider leaving the car unlocked. Do everything possible to make an emergency entrance easier for a panicked mind and numb fingers. Besides, what good are car keys if they’re in your backpack that now rests at the bottom of the lake?
I always check the local weather reports before and during my paddle session. And in the winter I only paddle on lakes that I know well.
Always watch the behavior of the water or the trees on the horizon. Watch for a change in watercolor or a change in cloud shapes or coloring. In the cold weather, don’t take any chances.
Inform Others of Your Plans
This simple practice doesn’t have to be so hard. At the very least, make a status update on social media and let everybody know you’re about to push off at the dock. Maybe they’ll be envious or call you a narcissist. But they’ll be informed and you’ll be safer for it.
Always wear your PFD (personal flotation device). As you shed extra clothing, do not tie it around your waist.
On extremely cold days, you can wear a river-certified PFD over your layers. This over-buoyant jacket traps body heat quite well, and I overheat unless it’s very cold out.
This is a no-brainer for me on flat water. A leash + PFD + common sense, together are your best defense against a fatality.
So those are the pointers for enjoying flatwater SUP in the winter. As always, evaluate your abilities and your determination to succeed before trying winter paddling. It’s not for everybody but if you’ve made it this far then I think it’s for you.