What to wear to SUP in cold water
Imagine you’re out paddling on a beautiful summer day. The sun is hot. You’re wearing only board shorts and a swimsuit. You glide effortlessly along until… you fall in. The water is 55 degrees. Yikes! You quickly climb back onto your board as fast as you can, teeth already chattering.
Falling into cold water can be a shocking experience — and even a dangerous one — unless you are properly dressed. The dilemma is that most of your time paddleboarding is spent on top of your board and out of the water. If the weather is warm, that can make dressing for paddleboarding tricky. Should you dress for the warm weather? Or for the possibility that you might fall in? How to best dress for both? Here’s a breakdown of what I’ve learned about dressing for cold water paddleboarding.
When stand up paddleboarding in cold water during the summer, you can wear a rashguard and board shorts, a shorty wetsuit or separate wetsuit pieces like leggings or a vest. During the cooler months, you may want to wear a full wetsuit or drysuit to stay warm.
In addition to weather, your skill level and paddle plan will be important factors in choosing what to wear. Let’s look at some of the best options for paddleboarding clothes, and how to decide what to wear.
What to consider when choosing what to wear to paddleboard
The colder the water, the more protection you’ll need. I live in California and haven’t become a true winter paddler yet (not sure I ever will!), but even with water temperatures of 55 degrees, I don’t want to spend much time in the water without the proper protection.
Since you will spend most of your time on top of the board, the current weather or air temperature is also really important when deciding what to wear. While paddling in a full wetsuit might be perfect on a foggy morning in the fall, it will make you sweat if you wore the same wetsuit on an 80-degree summer day.
As a beginner, the odds of getting wet are high and you may want to dress more warmly. With more experience you are less likely to spend much time in the water, unless you are surfing, downwinding or working on learning new skills that test your balance.
Consider where and how far you are planning to paddle. If you fell in and got cold, how far are you away from shore? If you are planning a casual paddle in the harbor or staying nearshore, you may be comfortable wearing less protection. But if you’re venturing out on a longer or offshore paddle, you want to be better prepared since you are farther away from shore.
Some basics of dressing for paddling
Dress in layers
The key to being happy in warm weather and cold water is to layer — or to bring layering options with you. That way you can adjust what you are wearing, as needed. For example, I often wear a rash guard under my wetsuit top. If I get too warm, I can take off the wetsuit top and tuck it in a drybag or under the deck rigging.
Don’t dress in cotton, no matter what. When wet, it holds water instead of wicking it away. You will get cold. Your garment gets heavy, making it harder to swim. And once wet, it also chafes. Just say no to cotton for paddling. Opt for quick-drying fabrics instead.
With these factors in mind, let’s explore your clothing options.
Quick-drying base layers
These layers include swimsuits, board shorts, rashguards — anything made from lycra or other quick-drying material. They can be worn by themselves when little protection is needed (e.g., it’s summer and you aren’t going to be spending much time in the water). Or they can be worn under wetsuits when more protection is needed.
Rashguards come in a tank top, short sleeve or long sleeve varieties. They don’t chafe and stay a bit warmer when wet. They also protect you from UVA on sunny days. I especially like the ones that zip up the front (like this one from Carve) because you can regulate your temperature by unzipping it if you get a little warm.
- When to use: On warm days or under your wetsuit.
- Advantages: Comfortable, quick-drying, won’t chafe, can wear under wetsuits for more warmth, lots of styles, easy to find,
- Disadvantages: When worn by itself, a base layer won’t provide warmth if you are submerged.
Wetsuits are made from neoprene material and keep you warm by trapping water between your skin and the suit — your body heat warms that thin layer of water. Wetsuits are worn tight-fitting next to your skin, but you can wear a swimsuit or rashguard underneath.
Wetsuits come in many types and are classified by two things — the amount of skin they cover and thickness.
Wetsuits vary from booty shorts to full head-to-toe coverage — the more of your body that is covered, the warmer you will be.
- Shorty or spring suit: These come in a range of styles, but they are typically a one-piece suit that incorporates shorts and short sleeves, or long sleeves and booty shorts.
- Full coverage: A one-piece suit that incorporates long pants and long sleeves.
- Farmer Jane or Farmer John: A one-piece suit that incorporates long pants and a tank top.
Wetsuit thickness is measured in millimeters (mm). A fairly lightweight wetsuit might be 1, 2 or 3 mm thick. The thickness is often given in two numbers — a 2/3mm wetsuit has parts of the wetsuit that are 2 mm thick and other parts that are 3 mm thick. A thick wetsuit could be 4 mm or even 7 mm (but 7 mm suits are mostly for activities like scuba diving where you are submerged for long periods of time.) The colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit you may want.
If you’re a beginner heading out for your first SUP adventure — and you aren’t lucky enough to be in Hawaii — I recommend wearing at least a shorty wetsuit. If you fall in, you will be thankful to have the wetsuit. If you don’t fall in, you can always unzip or pull the top of the wetsuit down to cool off. Most shops that rent SUP boards will offer you a wetsuit, so don’t feel pressured to buy something before you go.
- When to use: Great for beginners, good for all skill levels on cool days, when planning to go farther offshore (longer paddle) or when may fall in a lot.
- Advantages: Low maintenance piece of equipment, fairly inexpensive, lasts a long time, keeps you warm, easy to find, lots of options.
- Disadvantages: Wetsuits aren’t breathable, so not ideal on very warm days. But you can always jump in the water to cool off, unzip the wetsuit to let some air in, or opt for a mix-and-match wetsuit separates.
Mix & match wetsuit separates
Wetsuits now come in a multitude of mix and match pieces that provide warmth and more convenience. Instead of getting a full wetsuit, you can opt for neoprene leggings, tops, vests or jackets. These provide more flexibility to tailor your paddling gear to the weather and your paddle plan. My go-to outfit most of the year is a pair of 1/2mm neoprene leggings and a rashguard. On colder days or when I’m paddling farther, I may also wear a neoprene top or vest for additional warmth. These individual pieces make layering easy.
These are like your favorite gym pants but with a little added warmth when wet. They come in a range of thicknesses, but often a thin 1-2mm layer is enough. Try these 1.5 mm leggings from NRS.
Wetsuit tops and vests
- When to use: A great choice for short casual paddles or longer paddles. Adjust the thickness and type of pieces to the conditions.
- Advantages: Comfortable, easy to adjust layers as needed, more convenient than one-piece suits.
- Disadvantages: Not as warm as a full wetsuit or drysuit.
For the real coldwater paddle enthusiasts a drysuit might be the way to go. Drysuits have tight seals at the neck, wrists and ankles to prevent any water from entering the suit. You wear base layers like fleece underneath to keep you warm.
- When to use: For paddling in very cold water and/or weather, or when doing down winding paddles in cold water (where may fall in a lot).
- Advantages: Staying dry is the best way to stay warm in very cold conditions.
- Disadvantages: It can be difficult to get into the suit, more expensive than wetsuits, drysuits require some maintenance.
Clothing options for standup paddleboarding on cold water
|Type of paddling||Weather|
|Warm, sunny days||Cooler days|
|Paddling in a protected harbor, or staying nearshore|
Thin wetsuit top, vest or leggings
|Paddling longer or farther offshore, or likely to spend more time in the water|
Booties, gloves, hood
How to your keep feet, hands and head warm
Often the first thing to get cold when paddleboarding in cold water is your toes. And numb feet make it nearly impossible to enjoy your day. If you struggle with frozen toes, try some wetsuit booties. I don’t wear them often because I don’t like how they feel on my board, but my toes have appreciated them on days when the water is really cold.
Wetsuit gloves can be helpful if your fingers are getting chilled, but keep them thin enough so you can maintain a grip on your paddle. I’ve had luck with the O’Neill Psycho line of gloves.
And if your head spends significant time in the water, you may want a neoprene hood to keep your brain and ears from freezing. As the inventor of the original wetsuit, the O’Neill brand has lots of booties, gloves and hood options to choose from.
How to warm up after your paddle
After paddling on cold days, it’s always nice to strip off your wetsuit, get into dry clothes and warm up. Don’t underestimate the importance of warm socks. Pack a towel, warm socks, comfy clothes that are easy to pull on like sweats and a warm puffy coat. Other nice post-paddle items are a beanie to warm your head and a thermos filled with a hot beverage of choice.
Paddling in cold water can be fantastic — as long as you are prepared. Remember that no one ever expects to fall in, but if you do, you’ll be very glad to have the extra layer.