Ok badass, I get it. You don’t want your river surfing season to end when the leaves start to fall. Because depending on where you are, maybe the big rivers don’t even drop in the winter, or maybe things get good when the winter’s powder just starts to melt, so the water you’re surfing in the spring was snow 24 hours before it’s a wave. Whatever the case may be, this isn’t board shorts season. Here are some winter surfing tips and gear recommendations to keep you warm and safe, and some additions to your Christmas list.
A Winter Wetsuit
The 3/2 or 4/3 wetsuit that got you through the summer and shoulder seasons may be a diehard, but as the water temperature starts to drop, it’s not going to cut it anymore. Now, you can stretch out your season some with a hooded vest like this one. It’s a nice addition to your setup, particularly if you’re on a budget, but if you’re going to spend a lot of time in cold water, you’re going to need a big-time wetsuit.
Check out the wetsuit guide if you haven’t already so you have an understanding of the differences in construction that you’ll see in wetsuit descriptions. Unfortunately, the colder the water, the bigger impact the expensive upgrades are going to have. Colder water leaking into your suit or flushing into your suit is uncomfortable and, at cold enough temperatures, dangerous. And more flexible neoprene is more noticeable the thicker the neoprene gets. So this may be a place where you want to spend some money.
Patagonia lines their wetsuits with wool, which allows them to use thinner rubber
(they no longer use neoprene) and get more warmth out of it. Otherwise, you’re going to be looking for something at least 5mm thick, like the Psycho Tech or Heat from O’Neill the Flashbomb from Rip Curl. If you start looking at suits in the 6 or 7mm range, make sure you try them on first; a lot of the suits in that range are dive suits and will restrict your movement quite a bit.
You were probably already wearing booties into the fall, but midwinter is going to bring the need for either heavier booties (up to 7mm) or at least layer standard booties along with neoprene socks to keep things warm.
If your big-time wetsuit doesn’t come with a hood, you’re going to want to get one of those as well, like this one. It’ll help cut down on heat loss and adds another layer of protection against River Surfer’s Ear, which is an even bigger potential problem if you’re surfing in extra cold water.
Gloves are also a necessity; many cold-water surfing sessions have been shut down thanks to cold hands. If you tend to run warm, something as light as a 2mm glove might cut it, like this one. But if you’re in real cold water or your hands tend to run cold, pull out the big guns and get a pair of 5-7mm neoprene mittens, like these.
Or Maybe a Drysuit
Wetsuits keep a thin layer of warm water between you and your suit, but they still
conduct heat away from your body since there isn’t much space between your warm body and the ice-cold winter water. A drysuit, like the name implies, keeps the water away from your skin, keeping you warmer. But drysuits haven’t really caught on in surfing, largely due to issues ocean surfers encounter – they’re harder to paddle in, harder to duck-dive in, and harder to catch waves in, since they tend to be baggier and create more drag in the water. Even the few drysuits made for watersports like kitesurfing like O’Neill’s Boost are rarely used for surfing for those reasons.
On the bright side, river surfer’s don’t duck dive, paddle less than ocean surfers, and you can catch some waves by acid-dropping straight onto the wave. So drysuits become more of an option. That’s especially the case for SUP surfers, who often use kayaking drysuits like those from Kokatat or Sweet. If you’re looking at drysuits, Gore-Tex is the gold standard and may be worth springing for, because cheaper fabrics simply don’t breathe as well, and when you’re clad head-to-toe in waterproof fabric that doesn’t breathe, you get wet from sweat in pretty short order.
If you do get a drysuit, you can layer to your heart’s content. Most people will find they’re comfortable in a polypro base layer, plus a fleece or other fuzzy midlayer, and then the drysuit over the top. Don’t forget mittens and footwear.
Fleece Changing Poncho
You had a good surf session, you’re getting back to your car, and now it’s time to change into something dry. Maybe it’s windy and snowing out. This isn’t the time to try and change under whatever old towel has been sitting in your trunk all summer. Get a changing poncho so you can change in warmth and style.
A Gallon of Warm Water
Want to become a hero among your river surfing friends? Before you go out, fill a gallon jug with hot tap water and wrap it in your changing poncho and winter jacket in your car. After surfing, apply as required to free frozen zippers and car doors, restore bloodflow to feet, and drink to rehydrate and warm everyone from the inside out. If you want to get really fancy with this idea, the Rinse Kit can be charged with hot water from your faucet and then you’ve got a hot pressurized shower in the parking lot of your river surf spot.
Speaking of warming everyone from the inside out, bourbon or schnapps in a flask wouldn’t hurt anybody either. I’ll often bring tea or hot toddies in one of these thermoses, since they’ll keep hot things hot for hours, even in a cold car.