Monday, November 7, 2011

Cold Weather Paddling

There are many articles and resources out there that can give you a great deal of detail on all the options for bundling up for cold weather stand up paddling. After paddling through last winter, talking to fellow paddlers, and doing some research I have learned some simple basics that might help you stay out on the water through the winter months. By no means, though, is this meant to be a detailed article on the "high tech" of cold weather paddle boarding. Rather some opinions from personal experiences - after some trial and error!

With our mild winters around Charleston, there is really not going to be a day that isn't paddle-able during the chilly season. The biggest question is simply "what" to wear on any given day. Which really comes down to "what are you trying to do on that given day"?

If you're heading out to put some miles in, tour the water ways, get some exercise or even just take a leisurely paddle, odds are you're going to stay on your board (i.e., not take a dip in the water). It's actually sort of amazing how 45 degree water can motivate you to stay on your board - you become a much more cautious paddler in the January. Though, we'll all take a plunge every now and again. But, for these "safe" days when the expectation is to stay out of the water, what most of us have found works best is to simply dress as though you were heading out for a jog or bike ride in the same temps.

Layers work best - that way you can add or subtract during your paddle depending upon how you feel. And, layers of thin, insulating, wicking materials. Things that are easy to find at outdoor sporting outfitters and running shops. Thin wool garments are easy to find these days, too...wool will help to keep you warm even when it gets wet. And, there are specialty versions these days that are very thin, very comfortable. They make for a good base layer on a super cold day.

A next step up for layering your core is often a good breathable windbreaker-type jacket - waterproof if possible. I typically use my ski jacket shell on days where it is very windy and cold and/or raining. And, I would expect that if (when) I fall in and take a dip, a good quality outer shell won't soak up too much water, and will probably retain a good deal of "wind breaking" property when I get back on the board.

And, as for taking a dip, hopefully that will be the exception. But, with that ALWAYS a possibility, probably best to avoid clothing that'll get soaked and heavy, like thick cotton, plain old tee shirts, etc.

On the wetsuit / neoprene topic, that will be very much dependent upon "what" you're doing. If you are heading out primarily SUP surfing, then a wetsuit (full or otherwise) will be pretty much a must, just as though you were surfing on a surf board. Even in a wetsuit, it is definitely chilly when you pop back up and stand on your paddle board and are waiting for the next wave -- more motivation to STAY ON the board and out of the water whenever possible. Some people have discussed wearing kayaker "splash pants" or some other "windbreaker" type of pants on top of your neoprene - with the rationale being that it will keep you a bit warmer when you get back standing up on your board by blocking the wind away from the wet neoprene layer underneath. But, if you are repetitively getting soaked, a somewhat bulky pair of splash pants also might end up being more annoying than simply wearing a good neoprene wetsuit by itself

In general, though, neoprene is probably best to stay away from when you plan on staying out of the water and ON your board on a given day. It doesn't breathe -- you might be surprised how soaking wet you are from sweating when you get back from your flat water trek. And, a good full wetsuit will be VERY constraining to the range of motion of your arms, shoulders, chest, back. That said, some days, when it's freezing, AND you think you just might be taking a dip in the water, better safe than sorry. Those are days in which wearing a full wetsuit, even if you PLAN on staying dry, might save you in the event you fall off of your board on a 30 degree afternoon. But, a better idea might be a sleeveless wetsuit, which will at least give you some added range of motion - then layer thin, breathable, insulated, water friendly shirts on top (easy to take off as needed). On the "how to best use neoprene for stand up paddling?" topic, my best "find" has been a pair of neoprene pants. Keeps the bottom half of my body relatively warm and dry, especially if I'm going to be on a long trek that might include some ocean surf, chop, etc (e.g. a winter ocean downwinder). And, then, layer lots up top with thin wool, Lycra/polyester, and other cold weather "running-type" shirts. Layering your upper body with various thin, versatile materials really helps you to fine tune things for a particular day and a particular type of paddling trek...and, will allow you to continue to fine tune things once you're out on the water.

As for feet, that might be the "make or break" issue. If your feet are numb and cold, everything will be miserable. So, invest in some good neoprene booties. And, some people will even use a thin layer of wool socks inside their booties on the coldest of days.

Hands - gloves, can also be a "make or break" issue on very cold, windy, wet days. Neoprene wetsuit gloves are good in general, but can be too hot if you're not getting wet, or if it's not extremely cold out. Often, ski glove liners work very well.

A super helpful trick that I learned last year (not rocket science) is to START off warm. If you start your paddle off cold, on a freezing day, it'll be hard to feel good. So, get changed into your gear in your car, with the heater blowing and THEN get your board off your roof and get ready to roll.

The biggest take home is probably to have a variety of options. Experiment. Mix and match. Trial and error. And, most of all, don't let the winter months keep you off of the water.

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