It is no secret that I am partial to cold water surf trips and have been now for the best part of 20 years. This all started in the early 2000s following a return trip to the north coast of Scotland, revisiting places I had competed at a decade earlier. Perfect waves aside, I was instantly sold on the crisp clean air, abundant wildlife, and most importantly, the empty waves. After several further trips north to Scotland, always scoring good empty, or almost empty, waves, I then started exploring further afield, to places like the Outer Hebrides and Orkney, and then Norway and Iceland. Most recently, I explored 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle on an island where I knew a particular reef could be found.
Back at home, I would regularly show friends back home photos of amazing waves and they would be like ‘Wow, that looks amazing,’ and then when I suggested a trip, the response would always be the same, ‘Looks nice, but way too cold for me.’ The cold never bothered me though, and over time I have learned many ways of coping with harsh conditions, which has enabled me to surf waves even in blizzard conditions in water as cold as 3 or 4c, even once with lumps of ice floating in it.
The following are my tips to get you through the coldest of surf sessions:
1) Prepare the night before – Don’t be lazy. We have all done it, come home after a surf, hungry and in need of a hot cuppa, and can’t be bothered to hang up the wet gear. Stop and make sure you hang it up. Your enthusiasm levels will be much higher next day with nice dry gear to put on.
2) Make sure you eat something – Have a good warming breakfast. Porridge is my go to before surfing on very cold days. I definitely feel it boosts my warmth and energy, and on winter days, if I rush out without eating, I really do feel colder in the surf.
3) Layer up – When I was younger growing up winter surfing, I would wear the thickest heaviest gear I could to the beach. This would include cheap thermals, sometimes more than one tee on top, thick jumpers or hoodies, heavyweight jackets, scarfs and hats, until I resembled the Michelin man. I have since learned this is not the most efficient way to stay warm. My Scandinavian surf trips have taught me how the locals dress. It is all about thin breathable layers and merino wool. Pre and post surf, I now wear merino or thermal socks, merino long johns often under fleece lined trousers, a thin merino base layer, a wool jumper, an ethically sourced lightweight down jacket, woolly hat and gloves/mittens.
4) Don’t cut corners on surf gear – As we know there is a minefield of different wetsuits all claiming to be better than the next. For me the key thing is to make sure your winter suit fits well and invest in a decent hood. Your head can be a key area of heat loss, so a decent technical heat reflecting hood can make all the difference. On extra cold surf trips where the water drops below 5c and air temperatures are sub zero, I will usually wear 7mm mittens and booties, and slip a thin thermal polypropylene vest and shorts underneath too. For usual winters at home where the sea drops to around 8c, I usually get by in 3mm mittens and 4mm booties.
5) Wear mittens – As mentioned above, I always wear mittens. Mittens will keep you far warmer then gloves where your fingers become isolated. Back in the day when I worked the surf shops, we would tell everyone to wear mittens, but we would rarely sell any, as everyone would opt for much colder gloves instead. If you look around your local beach, you will probably find the most experienced ones in the water will be the ones wearing mittens. Some surfers question their grip, however, as a bodyboarder grip is essential to me and mittens have never given me any problems grip wise.
6) Keep moving – Warm up those muscles and stretch before you hit the surf. Once out there, try to keep moving and don’t sit too long waiting for waves. You want to be getting waves not cold.
7) Know when to get out – Once you reach the shakes and loss of focus stage, you have definitely been in too long and are experiencing the first symptoms of hypothermia. Even if its pumping, you need to get out, get dry, and warm yourself up.
8) Don’t dally – When I get out of very cold surf, I don’t dally around in my wetsuit. I am the master of the speed change and will get out of my wetsuit and into my cosy merino wool, insulating jacket, and woolly hat in an instant. Often I am fully changed whilst friends are still trying to get their wetsuits peeled down.
9) Warm up feed – Post surf, my go to will be to head for a hot cuppa and body warming bowl of soup.
10) See 1 – Don’t forget when you get back home or to your base, get that wet gear hung up straight away to start drying ready for the next session.