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:
I’m lucky enough to live near the Glide factory and the Great Salt Lake, where the winter air temperature can be below freezing for weeks, but the salty water is unfrozen. Another favorite spot is any lake or slow-moving river which is warmed by geothermal activity. 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 flat water 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. Do not wear cotton. Bring a nearly-empty backpack and as you start to sweat, quickly peel of 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.
If you feel yourself getting warm, get that layer off before you break a sweat. Put it back on later if you start getting cold but before you get chilled. Consider managing your activity, too, to prevent sweating in the first place. Managing your layering is an art and it’s only improved with repetition, so get out there!
First time winter paddlers 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. Think about it. If you were to fall into the water your clothing would quickly absorb so much water weight that recovery is unlikely.
The Wetsuit Debate
Wetsuits are not for winter paddling on a lake. If you stay out of the water (and you’d better), 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. The thin neoprene of wetsuits is simply no match for sub-zero conditions. The exception is foot coverings: I wear neoprene socks with a layer of built-in plastic that makes it impossible for water to reach my feet. Yes, my feet perspire at a higher rate but it’s a trade-off that I’m willing to make because you’ll almost always be standing in puddles of lake water from time to time.
If you’re still not convinced, do a simple test: Don 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, and you’ll remember not to ever wear a wetsuit while on a paddleboard in the winter.
Wear a light backpack that will hold a water bottle, food, waterproofed phone and ample space for your discarded layers of clothing along your journey. Do not fasten the optional belt around your waist. Program your brain to first shed your backpack to the depths in case of an unexpected water evacuation. Ensure that your backpack does not interfere with your ability to inflate your PFD belt if that is your choice of PFD.
Here’s something that winter first-timers don’t consider: The deck of your paddleboard will ice-over quickly. The ice comes from water breaking over the bow and/or the drip 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 cadence and set your training goal on distance instead of top-speed.
This is a good reminder for any winter activity. 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. Your body heat will keep it in liquid form. If it freezes it’s time to go home.
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 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. Try to launch from a dock if possible. As soon as you step in the water your perfect day is compromised.
In Addition to These Above Tips for Winter, Adhere to the Following Normal SUP Practices, Modified for Winter Conditions:
This is a must, but also a double-edged sword in the winter. Having a co-pilot is another redundant comfort and safety layer. Plus you’ve got someone to take pictures of you paddling in the winter. But here’s the problem: Unless your buddy is experienced AND is also following these pointers, they’ll quickly become a threat to your enjoyment and potentially your life. If you have to assist in a water rescue - and you will in an instant because you’re a good person - you lose every advantage for which you’ve prepared. Once you both emerge from the water your life expectancy will be measured in minutes. Pick competent buddies, prepare together and communicate an action plan, including rescue techniques.
Even in the summer I usually take a spare change of clothes in case I end up swimming. In the winter, you absolutely must have dry, warm clothes waiting for you in the car. That warm parka I dissuaded you from wearing while paddling? Have it waiting with open arms in your car. Knit hats, mittens, wool socks are awesome, too. I also keep a stash of emergency blankets in the car during the winter months. If any part of your clothing is saturated or wet, strip down to the dry layer (or bare skin), and get into dry clothes. There is no other way. While I’m on the topic of things to leave in the car, 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. Plus, what good are car keys if they’re in your backpack that now rests at the bottom of the lake?
I always check radar and local weather reports before and during my paddle session. And in the winter I only paddle on lakes that I know well. Similar to summer time paddling, the biggest threat to your life is wind. Be able to see it before it starts. Always watch the behavior of the water or the trees on the horizon. Watch for a change in water color or a change in cloud shapes or coloring. In the winter I don’t take any chances: If the direction of the breeze shifts more than 90 degrees, or the temperature changes +/- five degrees I head straight for shore. If you’re with a group, the decision to bail should be made before you even go out. Talk through the go/no-go signals while on your drive to the lake. Do not waste time arguing or debating on the water while the storm builds.
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 maybe they’ll call you a narcissist. But they’ll be informed and you’ll be safer because of it.
Always wear your PFD. It will give you a better chance at survival and also prevent you from getting a ticket from law enforcement. I wear a Coastguard-approved, inflatable belt with a big yellow handle that I can find with my gloves on and my eyes closed. As you shed extra clothing, do not tie it around your waist. This impedes your access to the belt and its ability to inflate properly. Want extra protection? It’s not a bad idea to carry a standard PFD on the bow of your board if you have tie-downs.
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.