How to Stay Safe in Cold Water Paddling

In Spotlight by Daniel

The sport of SUP is a fantastic way to connect with nature and rediscover your love of the water. But like anything else, it is not without its dangers. Especially as the water temperatures begin to drop.

In the past, there have been instances where paddlers have been separated from their boards and caught in dangerous situations. Ones that have resulted in extreme bodily harm and even death.

Whether it be in the ocean, river, or other moving body of water, swirling currents can be surprisingly powerful and even the strongest of swimmers should take the proper action to ensure a safe time on the water.

Today we will be discussing proper cold-water safety protocols to exhibit before paddling. And how a proper practice of each can in some instances, save your life.

The Effects of Cold Water

First, when we say cold-water we mean anywhere in the 50-degree range (10-degree Celsius) and below. But it is equally important to keep in mind if you’re in any water below body temperature long enough your temperature will drop and you can get hypothermia if you are not wearing protective clothing.

What is it about cold water temperatures that increase the dangers of SUP?

In a word: hypothermia.

Hypothermia is defined as a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce it, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Cold-water can rapidly speed up the process of hypothermia through what is known as conduction. Conduction is the process by which heat or electricity is directly transmitted through a substance when there is a difference in temperature.

Think of your body as a battery that produces heat. As you’re submerged in the water for a period of time, either your body will warm the surrounding water or the water will lower your temperature to meet its level. Because your body has been lowered into a large body of water, the heat being produced will not be enough to ward off the temperature change, and quite quickly your body temperature will drop.

With water in the lower 50’s hypothermia will set in at about 30 minutes. With prolonged submersion, swimming becomes difficult in 20 minutes. And if you find yourself in icy water, or anything lower than 32 degrees, there is a good chance you will experience shock once submerged. With cold shock, you will have instantaneous increases in heart rate and blood pressure which can cause heart failure in otherwise healthy individuals. Panic is a likely result, which only exacerbates breathing and thinking difficulties. Most victims are lost at around the 2-minute mark.

What to Do

First, don’t fall in.

Easier said than done. We understand.

Beyond that, make sure you are wearing the correct gear to keep yourself safe while paddling in cold temperatures.

And the first piece of equipment you should always have with you is a proper leash.

Your board is your biggest asset when paddling. Not only because you wouldn’t be able to paddle without it, but also because it is your biggest flotation device. If you are attached to your board at all times by way of a sturdy leash, if you do fall off, you can easily pull it back to your body, hop on top, and stay out of the cold water.

It can also help you out if you feel exhausted, have any symptoms of hypothermia by keeping you afloat, and is an easy piece of equipment to spot in the water for rescuers.

First thing before heading out…

Make sure your leash is strong, not dry rotted, and the Velcro is in good working condition. To reiterate, your board is your greatest asset. Don’t let it get away from you.

Next, grab a proper PFD (personal flotation device).

These can come as the vest variety, or as an inflatable belt PFD.


We approve of either. But, if you are planning on doing some cold water river paddling, we recommend the vest variety. This is due to the extreme circumstances you would find yourself in. Rivers, of course, are full of rocks and boulders. If you were to fall and hit your head, you may not be able to pull the cord on an inflatable belt PFD. With a vest, you will remain floating no matter the circumstances. However, if you are set on using your inflatable PFD, make sure the C02 cartridge is not expired, the belt and cord are in an easily accessible position on your waist, and that the inflation mechanism is in working order. There’s no point in wearing it if it won’t inflate.

After your leash and PFD are secured and ready to go, grab yourself a proper wetsuit or drysuit for the occasion. If you plan on falling multiple times, we recommend a paddling wet-suit. The thicker it is, the warmer it will be.

Why did we mention to wear one if you might be falling in? Well, wet-suits work better to keep you warm by being submerged in the water. A thin layer of liquid is trapped between you and your body inside the neoprene. This thin layer heats up from your body and provides the paddler with a warm layer to protect from the elements. Wet-suits are great for SUP surfing, some river paddling, or on a downwind paddle. Couple your suit with a thick pair of boots, gloves, and a hood, and you’ll be set.

If you plan on paddling flat-water and don’t want the discomfort of a wet-suit to slow you down, a solid dry suit will do the job. Dry-suits allow paddlers to wear warm layers underneath the loose-fitting suit to keep you warm. And if you have proper ones like those made by Ocean Rodeo, then if you happen to fall in, the neck seal and one-piece suit will keep you dry. Just don’t spend all afternoon in the water, they’re not exactly sealed 100% and are not designed to have water on the inside like a wet-suit.

The last precaution any paddler can take is also our favorite. Mainly because SUP is meant to be shared. And that is...paddle with friends!

Having a paddle buddy alongside you for the duration of your time on the water is the safest way to practice paddling in the elements. And it’s just more fun.


At Perfect Paddles, we believe SUP should be enjoyed year-round. But with winter coming in, there are new obstacles to meet and precautions to take in order to make sure you are having a fun and safe time on the water.

By obstacles, we mean, of course, motivation. It can be challenging to have the same drive to get on the water when the temperature drops. And that’s okay. So, instead of motivation, rely instead on commitment. Commitment to stay connected to nature, to your passion, and to your paddling buddies.

And by precautions we mean, to always practice safe paddling by following the guidelines discussed here. Especially in cold water. We understand your love of the sport never fades, even if the leaves begin to. By following these guidelines you can safely paddle all year until that warm sun is shining on your face once again.

However, if you still don't feel comfortable even with all the correct gear, the safest route you can take is finding a local paddling professional and hiring him or her as a guide! A quick search on Perfect Paddles will reveal hundreds of professional instructors from around the world. Just visit our search page HERE, type in your location or a location you would like to paddle, and message them directly so you can know every detail before you go!

If paddling with a friend is safe, just think about how comfortable you will feel with a professional. And of course, if you have any questions, feel free to contact us directly!

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