Winter Paddling: Cold Water Paddling Tips for the Winter Warrior in you!

Global Partner

Now, there are those of us who would never paddle in temps less than 60 degrees. That’s cool 😉 But then, if you live in the North East or the PNW and you have a penchant for paddling, you have to make accommodations to paddle in a variety of seasons, especially winter paddling. It’s all about the gear.

There is nothing you can not do when it comes to paddling, but one has to have proper equipment, good gear, safety equipment and a plan. After paddling through some of the toughest winters New Yorkers have seen in DECADES and doing most of that on dawn patrols, I can definitively tell you cold weather paddling is gorgeous, serene and imminently possible. Yes, YOU can paddle through the winter. Here’s how:

Winter paddling tips Evelyn ODoherty Kevin Ahearn
Winter paddling has a magic and mystique to it. Choosing our days wisely, having GOOD GEAR is essential. There are still moments to be enjoyed all season long. Photo by: Kevin Ahearn


Good gear is essential. You can’t screw around with this. If you are seriously planning on putting yourself out on the water in freezing temps or below, you’ve got to have proper equipment. Period.

Cold Weather paddling tips
For cold weather paddling, good booties are essential. Get yourself a pair of 5mm or 7mm boots to keep the toes warm and functioning for the length of your paddle

Booties– 5mm or 7mm wetsuit boots are required. You can’t get around this. Buy them off season (in summer) when they’re on sale and store them until the temps drop. They’re worth their weight in gold. Take good care of your booties.

Cold Weather Paddling tips
Wetsuit or daysuit: Each have their advantages. Be smart about your gear, layer up  but leave room to MOVE underneath if you get into trouble. Shoulder flexion and arm rotation is necessary. Photo by: James Katsipsis

Wetsuit or drysuit? Here’s the thing. You can wear either, but be aware that a wetsuit is designed to be worn WET/IN THE WATER. That way, the water enters inside the neoprene and your body temp heats it up warming you. If you wear a wetsuit to paddle, on top of the water, it doesn’t hold heat well and the wind will cut right through it. Wetsuits also tend to be restrictive in terms of body movement because they are tight to the body which can make paddling harder.

A lot of people opt for the Farmer John style of wetsuit for winter: long legs but a no arms.  This gives greater freedom of movement for the shoulders and a little breathing room so you don’t get too clammy as you begin to heat up. O’Neil makes a hyper flexible wetsuit which tend to run roomy in the shoulders which is great for paddling workouts.

Be smart. If you’re wearing a wetsuit, layer up underneath and on top. I usually wear a wool underlayer, either a tank top or l/s shirt for wicking and warmth. Then the wetsuit zips over. Another layer is required on top to block the wind, maybe a fleece or down vest (sometimes I wear my rain shell … great insulation!). Just be aware that any top layer may become weighty if you fall in and it gets wet. So plan accordingly. Keep it simple and something you can get out of quickly in any situation.

Cold water paddling tips Evelyn ODoherty wetsuit
Wetsuits are great if you know how to layer under and over for winter paddling. Photo by: James Katsipsis

Drysuit – these are sealed uniforms usually with gaskets at the ankles/wrists and neck.  The Starboard Sup Suit is a great all-around dry suit made specifically with paddling in mind. You can layer up underneath. Again, think running gear or leggings on bottom, micro fleece or wool on top. The more layers you have on, the warmer you feel but the bulkier your outfit which can (like the wetsuit) get in the way of winter paddling. Layer smart and use your best judgement in weight. Drysuits usually fill with air to keep you buoyant in case you fall but you want to be able to move freely in the water if that happens. Don’t dress like the Stay Puff Marshmellow Man in there.

A dry suit is a great way to insulate and keep heat next to your body. As the weather gets colder you can add layers, boots and gloves to stay toasty all winter season long!

Hats – Yup. You’re gonna need them. Again a neoprene hood won’t block the wind by itself and generally can’t hold heat like a wool cap. An attached hood to a wetsuit can also restrict your neck movement and make paddling difficult. Buy a few good pieces of head gear, fleece headbands, wool hats and play around with it to feel what’s right for you. Hats are important in keeping warm. Don’t hold back here. Get something decent.

Cold Weather paddling tips head gear
Head gear: Be creative to stay warm! Photo by: Dell Cullum

Gloves – We all get pretty creative with glove choices. Depending on your style of paddling, you might choose a regular ski glove, good for recreational paddling and a slower stroke due to their thickness. They can be hard to get a good grip on the paddle. If you’re race training, look into technical gloves of some kind: sailing, kiting or work gloves. You’ll need dexterity and warmth with a good palm grip for cadence and speed. In mid-fall/early winter temperatures, I prefer the fingerless gloves that allow me to feel the paddle shaft without exposing my whole hand to the cool carbon.

Socks – Optional. It depends on the quality and condition of your booties. In the cold, cold winter months (February and March here in the North East) I usually pull on a wool ski sock underneath my boots for an added layer of warmth. Works like a charm and makes it easier to get my boots on and off. Can’t say enough about ’em!

Hand warmers – The jury is out on these. Good for recreational paddlers that don’t mind having the warmer slip around a bit in their palm but not useful for winter racers who need dexterity and smooth transitions for regular cadence. Keep a couple in your pocket for emergencies.

Safety Tips:

KNOW your CONDITIONS: I can’t stress this enough for winter paddling. I have a huge nautical map attached to my kitchen wall where I can look, visualize wind direction and see where I can go & tuck in to be in the lee. You need to know the temps, both air and water, and wind speed and direction. Wind chill is a huge factor in winter paddling! If the outside thermometer says it’s 34 degrees but the wind is blowing 12-15 kts out of the North, your windchill is in the 20’s. That’s significant. Pay attention.

Cold weather paddling tips tribe
In cooler temps, or in ANY temps, it’s always better to paddle together. Find a friend. Build a team. Your tribe will paddle with you all year long. Photo by: Stefan Beaumont

PLAN your ROUTE: Winter conditions aren’t really a time where we can just wander around out there. Have a plan and stick to it. If you know your wind direction, paddle into it first while your fresh and use the wind behind you as you return home. It makes a difference. The last thing we need in winter is to fatigue on our way back to the car with the wind blowing hard in our face and our body temperatures dropping. Take care. Be smart about it.

Cold Weather Paddling tips float plan
If paddling solo, leave a float plan with a family member or a friend so that there is someone who knows you’re out there and the approximate time you will be back. Photo by: Kevin Ahearn

Leave a FLOAT PLAN: Again, winter paddling needs a little more attention to safety. Leave a ‘float plan’ with your spouse or friend. Tell them where you are launching from, what time and what time you expect to be back. This goes with planning your route. If people know where you are, they can check on you or at least gauge when you should be back to your car in a goodly amount of time. I often text my husband right before I launch and when I get back to the car. It’s good practice and let’s him know that I’m back, I’m OK and he doesn’t have to come looking for me.

Cold water paddling tips
In off-season paddling, safety is paramount. Don’t be a kook; always wear your PFD and leash.

ALWAYS wear your LEASH and PFD
: Winter safety and year-round standup paddling etiquette says, don’t be a kook. Wear your safety equipment. It’s the law.

CELL PHONES:  I can’t tell you how many cell phones I’ve dropped in the drink.  I’m a picture taker and I love it.  I usually try to bag my cell phone in one of those plastic carriers with the double seal.  I’ve heard the Life Proof cases are pretty good if you can get them to fit right.  Either way, don’t drop the phone.  Remember too, in winter, the cold will zap your battery faster than usual.  So keep an eye on your charge and head back to shore before your phone shuts off.  It’s a good thing to have in case of an emergency.

STAY within sight of SHORE and be prepared to SWIM back: A general rule of thumb is don’t go any further from shore than you are ready to swim back. This means in winter, you might hug the shore a little more closely in case you do fall (it happens, everybody falls!) you can get back in before you get too cold from being wet. Be smart.

WATCH for DUCK HUNTERS: Winter is duck hunting season in the North East. I can’t count how many times (esp. at dawn) when I’ve been on the water and heard gunshots. Generally, what I would say is KNOW where the HUNTERS are. They may not see you so you NEED to KNOW where they’re at and stay away. Don’t assume they will see you or stop what they are doing for you. Be super cognizant of your surroundings and stay SAFE.

Winter paddling tips tie downs
When coming off of the water, tie down your board quickly before your fingers start to stiffen up and working the straps becomes a problem. Change in to fresh gloves if possible. Photo by: James Katsipsis

APRES PADDLE:  In winter, getting out of the water, the board strapped onto the car and heading home to get warm/dry can often be the most challenging part of the paddle.  Don’t dally.  Once you get off of the water, move quickly.  The quicker you get your board onto your car and strapped down, the less time there is for your fingers to freeze while you’re fumbling with the straps.  I usually keep a separate pair of gloves in my car to slip on immediately after coming out of the water.  After, I tie everything down then I change out of my boots, throw any wet, cold gear in the back and drive home.  It’s nice to keep a thermos of tea or coffee in the car waiting for you so if you have a chill, a sip of steaming liquid can warm you from the inside out.

The most important thing to remember about winter paddling is to BE Safe and Have FUN. It’s still a beautiful world out there, even if it’s a little COLD 😉
Previous articleMagic Carpet Ride With Rémi Quique in Brazil
Next articleDays Like This: Dream into summer with this video by O’Neill Wetsuits
Evelyn O'Doherty, editor & publisher of the new Standup Journal 2.0 is a former school teacher gone rogue. She left her career as a teacher in order to spend more time near or on the water after learning to surf turned her life around (upsidedown?). She is a year-round surfer and paddler living on the eastern tip of Long Island in NY who is a certified SUP instructor, seasoned SUP racer and avid longboard surfer. Evelyn was hired as Online Editor to Standup Journal in 2016. Her passion for the project quickly led to her success and eventually taking over the mag herself in Oct. 2018. Today, as editor, publisher and chief bottle washer at Standup Journal, Evelyn keeps her toes wet writing, traveling, paddling, surfing, and learning to foil. You can find her most days paddling out on Gardiner's Bay or surfing Ditch Plains in Montauk, NY.