Top 3 Tips for Paddle Boarding in the Winter

Paddle The Current is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC  Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide  a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking  to or,,, or 

Many people think I’m crazy when I mention stand up paddle boarding (SUP) in the winter months, but off season paddling has it’s advantages.  In Chicago, Lake Michigan and the Chicago River are free of boats - which means calm waters.  One of my favorite paddle trips is the Chicago River before or after the tour boat season - you have the city all to yourself!  Paddle boarding in the winter does require additional gear and planning to stay safe, but it’s totally worth it.  

Top 3 Tips for SUP in the Winter

Buy Winter Gear

You need the right gear to paddle in cooler temperatures and don’t mess around with this - safety first! 

  • Drysuit - Most people ask me if I wear a wetsuit in the winter.  In Chicago, I wear a drysuit because I need protection from cold water AND air temperatures.  Keep in mind, a wetsuit is designed to be wet in the water and isn’t all that warm above water.  They are also very restrictive, which can impact your paddle boarding experience.  With a drysuit, you can layer warm clothing underneath - think a wool base and top layers.  If you are a runner, dress very similar to a cold weather run without the windbreaker.  Drysuits have waterproof seals at the openings (neck, wrists, and ankles) to prevent water from penetrating the suit.  Leave a little air in the drysuit to act as a flotation device, too.

  • Wetsuit Booties - You must protect your feet.  If any part of your body does get wet, it will be your feet - it’s almost a guarantee.  Some drysuits have socks, like mine, but they are not the same as  wetsuit booties.  Wetsuit booties are designed to get wet and will protect your feet.  Buy wetsuit booties that are 5-7 mm thick. 

  • Gloves - Gloves are very important and can be anything that will keep your hands warm and dry.  I wear a base wool glove with neoprene gloves over the top.  You’ll want gloves that will grip the paddle and allow for easy movement. 

  • Hats - What type of hat really depends on the air temperature.  I’ve worn a knit hat alone or with a wool hat underneath.  On some days, you may only need a warm headband.  Have many options on hand so you are prepared.  Always pack a dry hat in your dry bag in the event you fall into the water.

Check the Weather

During the fall, winter and spring months, the weather can be unpredictable, so it’s essential to check the weather before launching your paddle board into any body of water.  No matter what the water conditions are during these months, dress safely for the weather. 

  • Calculating temperature - The American Canoe Association recommends a drysuit or wetsuit when the combined air and water temperatures are less than 120 degrees - this is a good rule of thumb.  The National Centers for Environmental Information  or the National Weather Service have great resources for determining water temperature.  When you are determining the air temperature, remember to consider the affect of wind and use the “feels like” temperature in your calculations.  If you have any doubts at all, wear your drysuit. 

  • Check the wind speed/direction - The wind is an important factor to consider when calculating air temperature, but it will also impact what time of day you choose to paddle and where.  Typically, winds are lighter in the mornings and evenings, but the temperature will likely be colder.  I always check the forecasted winds to get an idea of when I should paddle and which routes would be best.  The Chicago River is typically a good paddle spot in the off season, but if there is a strong wind from the east, that might influence where I launch and dock my paddle board. 

Plan your Route

No matter what the season, you should always have a general plan for your paddle adventure, but it’s absolutely necessary in colder months.

  • Stay close to shore - In the colder months, it’s a good idea to choose paddle routes that are close to shore. The main reason is speed of getting off the water, but this also makes you visible to people on shore and easier to locate in the event of an emergency.

  • Pack dry clothes - Just in case you fall in the water, you’ll want dry clothes as a back up. The neoprene gloves might not be best for packing up your board, so bring some warm, dry gloves. It’s also important to pack a dry hat.

  • Communicate your plan - Once you’ve decided where and when you will be paddling, tell someone. Let them know when you expect to be back and check in with them. This is for your safety, so don’t skip this step!

With a little preparation, off season SUP can be very rewarding.  Along with decreased traffic on the water, you’ll feel a sense of adventure and peace - just you and nature.   Instead of dreading winter, you might find yourself getting excited!