We love to think of surfing as a summertime activity, grouping surfers into the stereotype of having sun-dried hair that is stiff with salt. While this tropical dream is the truth in many instances, it’s not the reality for all. For many of us, our favorite activity demands surfing essentials for cold water as the best swell arrives at the peak of winter.
Perhaps you’re a surfer yourself, looking for all of the necessary gear to make you last longer in the frigid water. Or maybe you’re shopping for the perfect gift for a loved one who comes home with blue lips and numb hands at the end of every session. Either way, you’re in the right place.
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11 Essential Surfing Items for Cold Water
Have you ever watched from the shore as the waves boast their awesome ability to form perfect barrels or fat, juicy chunks promising a long, fun ride? The only thing holding you back is the freezing air that emanates from the water. It’s going to be a cold one! Turn your 20-minute surf into a fun, two-hour activity with the following surfing essentials for cold water.
Having a thick, cold-water wetsuit is essential. If you’ve ever tried to paddle out in freezing cold water without being fully equipped, then you’ll know how paralyzing it can be. Depending on the temperature of the water, the best cold-water surfing wetsuit will most likely be 5mm in thickness.
You don’t need to go surfing in the Antarctic to bump up the thickness of your suit. While most people surf in a 4/3mm in Muizenberg’s waters in Cape Town, I very seldom paddle out without my trusty 5mm. I’d rather be warm and take regular dips into the water than freeze and hate every second.
Another detail to consider is the wind-factor. Often the water is bearable and it’s the wind that makes us cold. It’s always good to have a good quality weather jacket for while you are out the water too.
Along with my 5mm wetsuit, I normally paddle out with my booties on. Surf booties are favorites for surfers around the world, in tropical waters for avoiding reef injuries, and in cold waters to make sure that your toes don’t fall off.
Booties typically come in various designs. You can choose between split toe booties, round toe booties, velcro straps, and other sealants. The best surf booties for you will depend on what you find most comfortable. Just like wetsuits, booties also come in a variety of thicknesses depending on the temperature of the water.
Make sure that your booties are the right size. If they are too big, then they will fill up with water. If they are too small, then they will cause your feet to cramp. Picking just the right size will make sure that you have the barefoot feeling in a toasty way.
Sometimes, paddling through icy water can leave your hands feeling numb and pretty useless when it comes to catching a wave. To be honest, gloves are only really needed in super cold water. Other times, your hands tend to warm up fairly quickly once the initial shock wears off.
A pair of properly sealed neoprene gloves will help to keep your hands warm. Surfer’s gloves are specifically designed to stretch where needed, be lightweight in design, hold grip when you jump up and grab your rails, and offer an all-around cozier experience.
Just like booties, you have the option of getting mittens, lobster, or fingered gloves. If you really want to maximize your session and your comfort, then fingered gloves are the way to go.
A lot of cold water wetsuits will have a built-in hood. This is great if you surf cold water a lot of the time and the temperature doesn’t vary too much. In our experience, a hooded surf vest, or chicken vest as it is colloquially known, is equally as effective and significantly more versatile.
Anyone who has had their fair share of duck-diving cold water will know the threat of brain freeze. If you’re unfamiliar, then imagine your brain on the brink of explosion and the unrelenting cold fire of the ocean continuing to batter you down. That’s the sort of brain freeze that you can expect.
In these moments, a chicken vest can be your saving grace. The hooded surfing vest fits snug under your wetsuit and gives you an extra layer of warmth on your chest, and protects your head from the cold.
Another perk of a hooded surfing vest is that your ears stay covered and protected from the cold water. But what if you don’t have a hood? If you have sensitive ears, then surfer earplugs are an essential item.
Surfers earplugs are awesome for ducking under the cold water and preventing it from getting blocked into your ears. But that’s not all. They also protect your ears from icy wind that can cause damage to your ears when they are wet.
When picking your earplugs, make sure that they are waterproof and soft. This way, they should fit into your ears comfortably and allow for hearing, but without causing any damage. As a surfer, earplugs with a cord are a bonus!
How many times have you gone out for a winter session thinking that the cold will keep you safe from the sun’s harmful UV rays? The winter sun is just as dangerous as the summer sun because people often forget to protect themselves.
Even though it’s cold, having a reef-safe sunscreen is an essential item for a surfing trip. We say reef-safe because we’re conscious of the harmful oxybenzone and oxtinoxate that damages coral reefs.
As much as we respect the ocean and the power that it holds, we should also respect the sun. Whether we’re surfing in cold water or not.
7. Traction Pad
It’s known that winter swell in parts of the world is particularly powerful and heavy. Winter is a major swell magnet but is best enjoyed prepared. This preparation extends beyond what you wear on your body and includes how you prepare your board.
Even with booties on, your feet can still get a bit cold. Or maybe you’re forgoing booties completely. A traction pad will be the guarantee that you have that little bit of extra grip in the cold water.
Traction pads are especially great to use on a shortboard when you want more control to carve the wave despite the frosty conditions.
Cold water surf wax serves the same function as the traction pad, making sure that your feet stay firm as you maneuver the surfboard along with the wave. Many people make the mistake of using their warm water wax to prepare their board and hope that it will do the same job.
However, cold water surf wax is specifically designed with chillier temperatures in mind. The sticky layer creates a beaded texture on the board when applied properly. This helps to keep your feet in place when their level of numbness is unreliable.
Cold water surfing essentials extend beyond the water, and to the land when you’re craving a bit of comfort from the chill. When you step out of the water, you’ll want to know that you have a warm towel to wrap yourself inside.
These changing towels are especially awesome because they have you covered from the moment that you unzip your wetsuit and peel back the neoprene. They may not be the most attractive garments around, but they sure are warm.
We all know how most surfing session ends with a scan over the waves and replay of all of our highlight moments. What better way to do so than in a thick, poncho towel!
10. Hand Warmers
This essential is more of a luxury, but definitely worth the inclusion for particularly cold surfing destinations. The air-activated packs are perfect for warming up your digits on your hands and feet.
The long-lasting heat is easy to activate, odorless and safe to use. Keep one on your tire and shake it up directly after emerging from the water, bringing your fingers back to life. Or keep them in your surf bag and reward yourself with a stream of toasty warmth after pulling on your poncho!
Although the hand warmers are single-use, the heat lasts a fair amount of time. So you only need to pack a few for each trip. Game changer!
I don’t need an excuse to drink coffee (or tea, or hot chocolate, or any warm drink really). However, nothing can compare to that first hot sip from a thermos that floods straight to your feet, warming you up instantly. That’s why a thermos is one of our top surfing essentials for cold water surfing – even though you don’t use it in the water.
Make sure that you invest in a reliable thermos, and fill it up on the morning of your surf trip. If you really want a dose of warmth (and caffeine) then you can swig a cup on the way in. And you’ll be ready for anything!
Although this is more of a skill than an item, it’s an essential none-the-less. Not only does the cold have the power to knock the breath out of you, but the winter swell is also stereotypically heavier.
A breath-holding course is an awesome gift for yourself – or a loved one who surfs – to build the confidence needed to tackle the big, cold water. You’ll be surprised by how much your body is capable of, and a little bit of training can go a long way.
As Cape Town locals, we’ve learned the joy of slugging on a coffee after a chilly session. Nothing quite beats the feeling of getting the life back into your fingers and snuggling your head into a beanie in the middle of winter.
While we both love the tropical surf destinations where all that’s required is something to prevent chaff, there’s no denying that winter surf destinations have their own appeal. And when you’re properly prepared, it’s even better! So, make sure that you’re stocked up on the surfing essentials for cold water.