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I'd like to paddleboard a bit during the winter. Living in Vancouver, BC, our seawater temperature goes down to about 7C (45F) in January. It's at 12C (60F) right now.

What I am concerned with are the best arrangements of clothing to paddleboard. This is a similar question to people asking the how to plan for winter hiking. In that case, the general recommendation, which I have followed in the past, is to dress in layers and avoid sweating which would sap heat as soon as you stop.

On a paddleboard things will be a little different:

  • I am going out for 60-90 minutes and will be going at a fairly brisk pace during that time.

  • I won't go out when it rains. Probably only when sunny and > 5-10 C. (40-50F)

  • I can't really take clothes on and off and put them somewhere.

  • One goal is to avoid hypothermia if I fall in (I rarely do, but it can happen). If so, I accept I'll just be miserable on the way back to my starting point.

  • Rather not expose goretex to salt water.

Currently I have a Farmer John (link isn't my specific model, just illustrative), which is good for in case I fall in as it will protect my core from heat loss. I wear it with the top down, so it really only comes up to my waist and have a belt CO2 expandable floatation device.

This question is mostly about my upper body. I suspect I can wear a jacket and then open it up as needed.

Edit: I am mostly concerned with managing heat buildup the 95% of the time I don't fall in at all, while wearing clothes to protect from hypothermia if I do fall in. I have experience with cold water, having gone swimming in mountain lakes and 2-3 Polar Bear swims as well and I will never be more than 200-300m from shore, in a harbor area.

Edit 2: As I am going at a brisk speed (5-5.5 km/h) close to shore, my main concern here is to keep from overheating, just as you would if you were slow-jogging in sub-zero weather. The advice there is - start out a chilly level, because heat build up will result in sweating through your clothing, which is neither comfortable nor safe. High speed paddleboarding requires a fair amount of up-down motion from your trunk above your hips, way more upper body movement than most casual kayakers. Your legs are mostly immobile and exposed to the elements however. I'm close to shore, good weather, leashed to the board which I can easily climb back on. The water temp is not something I'm very worried about for short immersions. The particular risk-comfort tradeoffs I am making are my own and may not apply to you, but I am not asking for kayaking gear recommendations here.

Anyone gone through this and have some advice?

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  • What about wearing wetsuit pants, and a separate wetsuit vest or jacket? Then you can wear the vest or jacket with the zipper open for ventilation, and have room for some airflow between the fabric and your back. I'm not sure about the safety/practicality of that arrangement, hence why I'm not posting it as an answer.
    – csk
    Oct 24 '20 at 2:52
  • @csk why not post as an answer? FYI, I am basically posting a variant on your and DanubianSailor 's answers. Nov 4 '20 at 7:35
  • Because I know almost nothing about cold water safety, and this seems like a situation that could be life-threatening. So I think that any answer recommending a given combination of clothing should also address safety concerns, which I'm not qualified to do.
    – csk
    Nov 4 '20 at 18:23
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I'm a kayaker rather than a paddleboarder so I'm a little less exposed, but also 7C seems toasty warm compared to the temperatures we're sometimes out in. Breaking the ice in winter is reasonably common.

The fundamental difference with gearing up for hiking is that you're not as likely to fall in the water while hiking, so gear adds up differently.

Thermal rashie, sometimes two if it's really cold
Long John wetsuit
Shorty cag
You'll probably want to pair some waterproof trousers with the cag, it's mostly to keep the wind out rather than the water. Neoprene gloves if you need, these are the easiest layer to remove.

The trouble with watersports is that you're basically wearing what you're wearing, so err towards keeping warm at your slowest pace rather than fastest, you'll find that you tune your exuberance to the gear you're wearing. You will get hot, but exposure to wind and falling in the water are too high risk for going under-dressed.

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  • We're not really optimizing for the same things. In a kayak, I expect that I may be hours away from landing and heat, if I fall in and I may have a tough time getting back in the kayak (this is from doing a kayak self-rescue course). In this case, I will be less than 5 minutes away at all times from land and getting back on the board is trivial. So, yes, this question is specifically about avoiding overheating at high pace, not about being conservative about cold water immersion for short durations. That's a risk tolerance calculation I'm willing to make, may not be good for everyone. Nov 8 '20 at 19:35
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, for the most part I don't expect to get wet while kayaking, and if I do I can roll any kayak I've yet been presented with. The main thing I'm saying here is that all your gear should be specifically tuned to water sports, and that exposure to the wind is going to be your biggest factor, how many layers you wear is up to you. I wear more in winter because kayaking is a social activity and I end up moving relatively slowly a lot of the time as we chat and paddle.
    – Separatrix
    Nov 9 '20 at 10:17
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7C grad water is quite cold. You can make an experiment and jump in the jacket into water and check how it feel afterwards. Most likely you'll find out it's very miserable.

If you assume falling into water is something that could happen to you (I assume you do) you have basically 2 options. A wet suit, in cold conditions with addition of the ice vest, and a dry suit.

The best in the wet suit is that if you're overheating, you can always cool down in the water. Sweating is not a problem, because you assume you'll be wet anyway. The problem is if it's too cold to keep your wet body warm. An ice vest helps to some extent. In a sunny day you can take heat from the sun - a dark suit absorbs sun energy quite heavily. The problem is when it's cloudy and windy.

A dry suit keeps you dry and warm. The problem is that anything you put under it will be something you'll have on you the whole time. Taking something off is really not an option on the paddleboard. The risk of falling into water is too high, and the dry suit gives you really little warmth. All the warmth comes from the layers under it, which is granted only because they are dry.

Although good quality dry suits breathe to some extent, sweating is a problem, so it's a tradeoff. You must try what fits you the best.

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  • Wet or dry suit will be much too warm while paddling quickly. Keep in mind - almost all the time, I will barely even get my feet wet and I want to keep it just that way, so I am not going to be shedding heat by going in the water. Oct 23 '20 at 21:23
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica if the wet suit is too warm for you, than you could use neopren shorties. I don't think there's something between. Oct 23 '20 at 21:44
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Don't forget a hat!

The key item that I see missing from other answers is a neoprene hat.

Much of your heat loss will be through the top of your head.

A neoprene hat will significantly reduce that heat loss. It also will not get damaged if you wind up in the water.

The great thing about a hat is that you can easily take it off if you are too warm. Neoprene hats are quite lightweight, and so aren't a burden to carry when on or off.

Some neoprene hats have a fuzzy polyester lining that can make them even more comfortable and even warmer.

There are many styles of neoprene hats: some feature a neoprene bill, while others use a polyester bill (I don't recommend getting one with a cotton bill).

If your are alive, your head will most likely be the most elevated part of your body. As such, you can affix SOLAS reflective patches or tape to the front, back, and sides of your hat to greatly increase your visibility if it gets dark outside.

If you buy a hat, don't forget to buy some paracord. Attach alligator clips at each end of a small piece of paracord. Then attach one of the clips to the back of your hat, and another to your shirt/jacket/wetsuit. That way, you won't lose your new hat if the wind blows or you accidentally knock it off while paddling.

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For now, what I am doing is:

  • Farmer John wetsuit. Neoprene booties. Neoprene 2mm gloves. I can zip up the Farmer John or belt it up to my waist if it's not very cold.

  • I have a std boating oilskin top and a super warm synthetic fleece in a 2nd waterproof bag. This is my change-of-clothing for if I fall in.

  • Summer sun-blocking nylon longsleeves. The key is that they dry very easily and don't absorb much water. The Farmer John is fairly open on top, so if it's chilly I don't overheat.

  • cotton T-shirt over. Synthetic would be better, cold wet cotton is deadly, but cotton is fine dry.

  • CO2 inflatable life vest is in a belt.

Fall in?

  • deploy or do not deploy inflatable life vest. There's a std surfboard line to SUP, not huge risk past thermal shock first 10+ seconds. Blowing up CO2 vest is not ideal. $40 too.

  • get back on board.

  • Back on board, strip wet std outdoors top. Put on fleece top, then oilskin. Heat however would be little problem with full neoprene up to arms. Head home :-(

Possible improvements:

  • Lightweight ski/snowboard combo lock which I also have. Loop it to top of board and I can walk/taxi back on land in my wet stuff and leave board behind.

BTW, not in the least bit relaxed about sea safety. Been living near the water too long. Love it, respect it.

Update - falling in.

I finally ended up falling in while not paying attention to side waves. Water was probably around 8-10C, air temp around 7C. The farmer john let in some water, but I was quickly back on the board.

Put on the oilskin, but not the fleece, and went back home, which took about an hour.

I was perfectly fine, the oilskin cut off the wind and the exertion warmed the wet longsleeves over my arms while the farmer john's wetsuit kept my core warm. Switched to the fleece while deflating and putting away the board (10 minutes) and I wasn't really cold for any of this.

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