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Winter Paddling Tips or Dangerous Advice?

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

Since I've moved back to North Carolina (on the Virginia border actually), I've had to get reacquainted with my cold-weather paddling gear. Even the coldest, windiest days in Santa Barbara didn't require more than a basic double layer: synthetic cold-gear style tights and tops underneath an outer layer. For surfing or downwinding the outer layer was usually a full wetsuit.

I like to put layers under my wetsuit in the cold because it makes putting it on easier. I'm not half naked in the parking lot donning the wetsuit before I paddle in the frigid winter weather. If I don't fall in, they keep me warmer than the neoprene alone: which is made to keep you warm when its wet. If I do work up a sweat, it also wicks it away and makes me feel less clammy in my wetsuit.

But I digress.

Cold North Carolina

Some days it's just plain cold. If it's VERY cold (between 20-40°F) I usually leave my tech tights at home and do wool or alpaca base layers. Notice I said layers - depending on how cold it is, I may add an additional tech layer over the wool/alpaca base. A fleece pullover and tech sweat pants are usually my go-to. These would keep me warm even if I were to fall in on accident. I'm not planning for immersion like I would if I were surfing or downwinding, so I don't use a full wet suit or dry suit. Instead I opt for the NRS neoprene Hydropants and an outdoor (Season5) jacket when it's just cold and breezy. Or, if it is actively raining, I use NRS Hyprotex to keep my body dry and warm. In both of these scenarios, I'm wearing neoprene gloves (sometimes with a wool liner) and 7mm neoprene booties with wool socks underneath (the socks are also great at preventing booty-funk... if you have ever left surf booties in your car, you know the smell.)

These outfits work 99% of the time for my long, slow distance paddles. When I do interval sessions (not very often in the winter - because this is base building season), I might need to remove my jacket and tie it around my waist. But it's very easy to put back on during my cool-down, or if I were to fall in.

All of this protects against immersion, yet provides a reasonable amount of comfort.

I've always gone by the old "Air+Water=100°F" equation to dress for immersion. When I was living in California I heard people say it was 115°F... and then I later found this article citing the official ACA recommendation is 120°F.

I know the good people at REI ( were very well intentioned when they shared this recommendation from the ACA none-the-less. But... I would consider this overcautious to the level of being unsafe.

I understand that they are catering to a wide range of ability levels and by using the 120°F formula, they are covering people that live in very mild or warm climates, as well as the average American, who lives in a bubble of perfect climate control a vast majority of the time. I feel like this graphic is definitely pushing the agenda:

"Better safe than sorry"

If I look at the graphic above, it would have me in a full wetsuit (or, maybe even neoprene separates - let's give them the benefit of the doubt) when the water temp is in the 50's and an air temperature of... anything... all the way up to 100°F.

And let me just say, if the sun is out, you've got another thing coming.

If you are performing workouts on the water and you dress too “safely” then you are more at risk of heat exhaustion which can lead to a life-threatening condition known as heatstroke.

There is no reason to be overly safe like this. It's as if fearing being sued has caused our society to be overly cautious about any recommendations they give - and it's at a detriment. We've actually become so concerned about safety that we're causing the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction.

Let's look at another graphic:

Notice, that even without a wetsuit, if you were immersed in 50°F water for 1 HOUR (the y axis is in HOURS, not minutes), you still fall in the "Low Probability of Death" region. Somewhere between 2 and 2.5 hours you are in Danger.

I feel like the REI graphic only "Prepares for the worst..." without ever "hoping for the best." They are in essence saying that you better dress as if you were going to fall in, be separated from your board, and stranded for hours every time you go for a paddle. They may not have been paddling long enough to see people collapsing from various levels of heat stress and hauled away after winter SUP races where they abided by the "What to wear" graphic above. Or having a winter expedition where the sun comes out, and someone becomes so warm they need to peel back a single-layer neoprene wetsuit or drysuit because they are struggling with heat stress - only to find that their exposed skin or underlayer (now soaked with sweat) leaves them shivering cold. Leaving the remainder of the expedition a fun dance of pulling it back on to get warm and peeling it back to cool off (or just jumping in the cold water to cool off (not a great solution if the wind comes up, though)).

Yes. As you paddle, you will learn. And it is always wise to bring a little daybag with extra layers or safety gear if it puts your mind at ease.

The REI graphic may be an OK starting point for some, and they did give amazing advice in the article when it comes to layering and the thickness and style of wetsuits... But if you are serious about paddling, or using paddling for fitness and training, then it leaves a lot to be desired.

All I'm really saying is: We need to be cognizant of being "safe" to the point of it becoming unsafe. Over-dressing is one of these instances.

I'm not one to complain without offering a viable solution, so I have done so at length in my Paddle Ninja article: Are You Dressed Properly for Cold Weather Paddling?? In the article I give a new proposed graphic to aid in clothing choices that considers convective forces like rain and wind, as well as radiative forces like the sun.

Just in case, I'm going to put it here for you as well.

Full instructions on how to use this somewhat functional graphic can be found in that blog post.

But the short and dirty is: baseline is air+water=100°F. Use your cursor to find the approximate location of the intersection of the air and water temperature during your planned paddle. Then, check the wind forecast, and move your cursor down (if necessary) to a spot of color gradient that matches the anticipated wind speed. Then, move your cursor up if there's nothing but sunshine, not at all if it's partly cloudy, and down more if there's no sun. Finally, if there is light precipitation, move your cursor down. The more precipitation, or the heavier it is, move your cursor down further.

Notice: there isn’t a “snow” part of this graphic - snow is dry. Rain is wet. Being rained on will drastically alter your clothing choice because if you are being rained on and aren’t staying dry, your body is playing keep up as the cold rain sucks up your body heat and drips off - being snowed on is just cute.

Hows that for a 5 dimensional interactive graph without coding skills?

We could just leave it there. But, this is my personal blog. I'm going to go a little more into depth in regards to this graphic, and give a few examples of paddlers that may use it.

Example 1:

Say I am a paddler and I want to go out in the winter. I check the conditions. The water temp is 42 and the air temp is 50 - move your mouse cursor to approximately that location on the graphic. It’s below the line.

I’m going to go surfing (I get and stay pretty wet when surfing and splashing around in the waves) - therefore I am going to move my cursor closer to the little water/rain droplets in the graphic. Confirming my choice to wear a wetsuit. Now, what if the sun is out with no clouds. I can move my cursor a little towards the sunshine, and it may land me closer to the baseline. I have a decent bit of body fat insulation too... In this case, I would likely consider using neoprene separates while surfing, or one with a front chest zip that I could open up to cool down in case the sun was making me very hot. Especially if I’m working hard to catch a few of those waves!

Example 2:

I am a paddler, I’ve been paddling for a long time and have a big race to train for. I need to put in a long, slow paddle (not a lot of high intensity). I check the forecast and see water temp 40 and air temp 28. Well below the line. There is also rain in the forecast, no sun, and there is a 15mph headwind along my planned course. The more I move my cursor to the left to match it to the wind gradient color and towards the raindrops, the more clothing layers I need to add to make my paddle a pleasant one. The rain forecast has me reaching for my hyprotex rain gear, a dry top and pant (separates, in case I want to shed the top).

Example 3:

I’m a new paddler, I’m loving it! There’s a warm day with ample sunshine in the forecast and I’m going to head out. The water is around 50 and the air temp is going to be 60! If I mouse my cursor to that spot on the graph, it looks like I’m in the clear, I don’t need to wear winter-gear. But a little more backstory. I work in an office where it’s a balmy 72°F at all times, and my house is that temperature too. I commute to work, and my car is also that temperature. When I go outside in the summer, I’m hot. When I go out in the winter, I’m cold. Maybe I live in warm and sunny Florida or California.

I decide to go for a paddle in just my jogging clothes on this day. The sun is shining and I’m having a blast. Until… I fall in. There isn’t any wind, but I’m feeling chilled none the less, I don’t have much body fat. I get to shore safely, but I’m very uncomfortable and feeling stressed. I decide to never do that again and buy a wetsuit.

I go out in the exact same conditions for a weekend race the following week in my new wetsuit. I don’t fall in, and start exerting myself, feeling pretty good… Until… I overheat baking in the sun like a potato. I get pulled off the water with heat exhaustion.

What am I trying to accomplish by showing you all of these 3 examples… especially when there is so much variation between the paddlers - and even variation for the same paddler in the same weather across different days and activities?

I’m trying to get you to think. At least just a little. I know that’s not terribly en vogue. But you can’t rely on some internet graphic or blog post to tell you what to wear.

Paddle clothing is something that is as unique to the individual as the individual themselves. But here are a few tips to help you make good decisions alongside my shiny new graphic... be forewarned, you may have to use your brain and make your own choices.

  • Know your history and abilities & Plan accordingly Do you live in a balmy world that is always 72°F home, office, car commute and you're rarely outside? Or maybe you do venture outside, but live in a very mild climate for most of the year. If you never let your body get cold or hot, then it is scientifically supported that your body is less able to handle heat or cold stress. Don't feel bad about it, just acknowledge it and maybe start taking baby steps to improve it. If you don't thermoregulate well, you will likely need a lot of layers when it's warm. Layers keep you warm, but enable you to shed and add a layer when it's needed. This would be considered your "tolerance" and it's why you see some people shivering in wetsuits and other people sweating uncomfortably. Your tolerance is impacted by things like your calorie intake, your body fat and brown fat stores, and how narrow or broad your daily range of prolonged temperature exposure is. I would argue that if you keep your home/office/car everything at a balmy 72°F year round, then you need to move your cursor on the graphic to the left. Do you do Wim Hoff breathing, take ice baths or cold showers, or regularly expose yourself to heat stresses and sweat it out in saunas? Chances are you can wear a much wider variety of clothing and be safer. If you regularly practice cold exposure, like cold showers, or seasonal adaptation (limiting your use of the thermostat), then you don't need to move the cursor in my proposed graphic any more. Are you falling in constantly, or very stable on your craft? Are you able to remount your craft in challenging conditions EVERY. SINGLE. TIME? If you're in the water more than not, then neoprene is the way to go... or maybe even a drysuit in certain climates. If you're stable, you may be staying close enough to home and safety to not worry, or you may opt to pack a little emergency dry bag. Either way, if you're relating this to the graphic above, don't move your cursor for staying dry, move the cursor way left if you're in the water a lot. Also, if you see people in your paddling community cite things like Air+Water=120°F (or 115°F) and they're from Florida and you're from upstate New York... or Canada, then you can almost be certain that you have different baselines - take their advice with a grain of salt.

  • Have a backup plan You may check the weather and head out expecting one set of conditions just to be surprised by a freak front. It's not a bad idea to have a backup plan, like calling the paddle short, pulling off for shelter, or doing a core-warming high intensity paddle to your takeout point. I may have mentioned before, that even if you have a backup plan... or a backup-backup plan, sometimes things still happen...

  • Accept that life is not all rainbows and butterflies and you are performing a potentially dangerous activity where you can't possibly account for every scenario - get over it or don’t do it. If you do decide to "DO IT" then trust me when I say, there will be bad days, there will be scary days, there will be challenges to face, but face them you will - and each time you overcome another obstacle you develop more experience and confidence that makes your life more fulfilling, rich, and masterful. You will make mistakes, but that's what training is for - set yourself up to fail in safe environments first. Don't spend your life locked in fear - get out there.

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