Cold Water Warriors | How To Go Surfing In Winter And Have A Good Time

Take your winter surf game from zero to hero with our very useful guide

Featured Image: Chris Burkard

Geographers will point out that, located between 50 and 60 degrees north of the equator, the British Isles are bathed in warm water from the North Atlantic Drift/Gulf Stream, and that we bask in a balmy brine while at similar latitudes, coastlines in Canada are home to iceberg and polar bear.

Technically, they’ve got a point, but ‘warm’ is very much a relative term. Walk down to your nearest seashore in the winter months, dip a finger in the drink.

It’s absolutely freezing.

“Folk want their stoke 365, and are prepared to deal with some discomfort to get it”

While wetsuit technology has come on leaps and bounds in the last decade or so, at the same time so too has the fascination with ever more high latitude surf outposts in ever more icy seas. Folk want their stoke 365, and are prepared to deal with some discomfort to get it.

And yet despite all the science, there are also myths about being warm and staying warm. There are decisions to be made. Let’s explore some of the things to do and not do, in order to survive low mercury shred situations wherever you are.


Snow worries? No worries. Photo: Chris Burkard

You’re only really as good as your rubber coating, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a scoop to reveal the warmer your wetsuit, the better off you’ll be.

However, self-inflicted complications can tend to arise, where folk can have hang ups, often that start with a single bad experience one session, and end up self-fulfilling prophecies that blight their future surfing days. “I don’t do hoods” or “I can’t surf in boots”. I would invite a rethink. You almost certainly can.

In terms of the order of rubber accessory addition with decreasing temperature, the following makes the most sense: Full suit. Full suit plus boots. Full suit, boots, plus hood. Full suit, boots, hood, gloves. You’ll see people with gloves and boots but no hood, which to me at least, seems odd. A hood will keep you warm enough overall to tolerate chilly hands, at least down until about 10 deg C water. But a cold head, even if your fingers are in Bora Bora, and your sesh is effectively over.


Taken on Scotland’s hottest day on record, this. 11°C. Absolute scorcher.

Eating before cold water surfing requires is a delicate balance. The opposing forces in that balance being, well, everyone knows it’s not a good idea to paddle out on a full stomach, cold water or not, and everyone knows, these days, that ideal pre-exercise nutrition should comprise a blend of complex carbs and proteins… bla bla snore. And yet, on your way to the spot, try walking past that counter-top pasty warmer, winking at you.

You go in to top up on fuel/get your lottery ticket, you come out with non #mindful flakes of puff pastry all over your Patagonia fleece, greasy cheese n’ onion reflux and an air of instant regret.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that waiting for the midday temperature warm up brings the elevenses paradox into play. An early afternoon shred means dealing with a yawning luncheon hole… Hey, nobody said this was gonna be easy.


“Aye remember ween this were all fields. Far as eye could see. I like whisky.”

While a wee nip of brandy (whisky/anything else that goes in hip flask) adds old school bravado to your vibe, essentially it’s the worst thing you can do for your core temperature.

Alcohol will actually dilate your blood vessels, meaning you’ll cool even quicker. You might feel a bit warmer temporarily, because so many warmth nerves are located near your skin, but you’re doing the opposite.

So if you decide to indulge a glug of grog pre paddle out, maybe in commemoration of the launching of vessel, or perhaps out of respect for a fallen emcee, that’s totally your call.

Just don’t do it for warmth.



Icy seas might be the only really practical application of the beard, whereby in all other areas its role is merely decorative. In cold water, it actually protects your face from the ravages of the elements. And thus, when the trends have long since passed, when you’re looking back at old photos with the grandkids, while the suburban personal trainer or part-time barista will have to fall back on the flimsy, ‘Yeah, but the Victorian Child Catcher look was all the rage…’ you’ll merely have further evidence of the potency of your gnarl.


Is this Hawaii? No. No, it’s not. It’s Munich, Germany || Photo: iStock

There’s a lot of stuff on the market to help stave of Jack Frost’s sinister threat. Insulated hot bottles with water pump action shower heads for the boot of the car, for example. A Brazilian surfer who lives near me swears by hers, and takes it every winter sesh. You can get heated vests that go under your suit and deliver warmth to the torso, there are all kinds of investments to be made. But ask yourself this: Could I spend that money instead on a surf trip somewhere warm? The better investment might simply be a second winter suit, so that you’ve always got a dry one, and so that the life of both are prolonged.


Wee in Wetsuit?

A man who’s almost certainly just done a whoopsie in his wetsuit || Photo: iStock

Not so much the elephant in the room as the urinal in your backpack, the act of weeing in your wetsuit is one of the things that separates surfers from civilians.

It’s a compulsion that only the bravest man or woman would attempt to deny. For some reason, as soon as you zip up your suit, a no.1 seems imminent. Sure, at sea, you’ll get a hit of warmth briefly, before that instantly turns to frigid yuck.

Over time that will erode the taped seams on your expensive suit, make your boots reek and rot. You know it’s not the thing to do, and yet… and yet.

I once decided to turn my life around, invested in a top end suit with my student loan and vowed that every time I need to go, I’d simply come in, pull the suit down, wee on the rocks and paddle back out. I was miserable. I lasted about a week.

Getting Changed

Surf’s up my cold, cold, dude || Photo: Kea Mowat

What with the aforementioned improvements in wetsuits, it turns out that for most people, the time actually out in the water is broadly comfortable. It’s in the car park where the problems arise, before, after, or most likely, both.

In truth, that bleak, windswept, out of season Pay & Display car park is not the hill any of us chose to die on. Thus you need to sharpen up your car park technique.

“That bleak, windswept, out of season Pay & Display car park is not the hill any of us chose to die on”

Speed is of the essence, but perhaps even more so, a correct order of denuding. Take your shoes off, stand on ’em while you remove your slacks. Then step into wetsuit and don boots without delay. Going barefoot on tundra-esque tarmac, is a totally avoidable no no.

UK pro surfer Reubyn Ash once told me he and brother Joss would be in the public loos warming up their wetsuits and rashies in the hand drier before each brutal wintry paddle out in their grom years. Whether that was down to superstition or mere lack of preparation was unclear, but I will say this: making sure your suit is dry before each session is almost guaranteed to make the waves shite.

Wetsuit in Car

“Bit nippy out, innit? Bit nippy” || Photo: Johannes Hohls

Hmmm. This really depends on how cold we’re talking. When I did a trip to Norway’s Lofoten Islands with pro surfers Tim Boal and Marlon Lipke, we were getting changed in the cabin, driving to the paddle out in our suits, every time. But we were in the Arctic Circle, and had to first shovel 2 feet of snow from the driveway, ffs.

I can see the practical merits of changing at home and driving to the spot, but then again, there’s something about seeing a fully grown adult get out to check the surf, already rubbered up, that erodes a small part of my love for the sport, and by extension, life itself. On the other hand, driving a short (under ten mins) distance home post-surf, especially if, like me, you’ve got an outside warm shower in the yard, feels like a terrific idea.


Get a nice cuppa inside ya. Lovely cuppa tea || Photo: Quincy Alivio

A sudden onset, profound post-surf nap, especially if you have managed to wait to devour that comfort food hit, will be very hard to resist. Just remember, if you’re in the passenger seat of the car, well there are rules. It’s widely accepted that music and in car temperature are at the discretion of the driver, while the right to snooze is generally self-policed. But it can be rather poor form.

If returning to a work or study environment, there is no evidence to suggest that anybody has ever done anything remotely meaningful – having just surfed icy waters or not – without having a proper cup of tea, first.

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