Surviving Cold Water Surfing in the Pacific Northwest
Surfing in the Pacific Northwest is a fickle beast. Known for cold water, mushy waves and great camping, PNW surf life often revolves around endless car travel and getting skunked on a regular basis. Every fall, a glimmer of hope appears as the waves get cleaner, more consistent and a bit more barrel-ish, but this also means increased rain fall and strong offshore winds. Sounds great, right?! On top of the often nasty conditions, you still have to put your wetsuit on when it’s raining sideways!
That being said, it becomes very clear that solid preparation and the right gear will make your surf life a little bit nicer. There are a few things you should know to help elevate your level to expert on a classic PNW surf trip, while investing in some solid gear will also make a big difference.
What gear is right for you? Are you tough, buff, and full of guff? Then put on some board shorts, paddle out and brag about it at the bar later! If you are an actual human being and plan on surfing in cold water (below 55° F), then you might want to consider these things to keep you happy/alive during a successful NW surf session.
Made out of neoprene, with a few exceptions, a wetsuit is your armor and since the human body on average loses body temperature about 25 times faster in water than air your wetsuit acts an insulator from the water and air.
The 5/4/3mm is going to be your best option. If you need anything warmer then you are probably in Alaska or planning a surf trip with Chris Burkard. In that case you can go as high as 7mm. If you are like the rest of us and want a super warm option while still possessing the ability to paddle your board then go with this thickness. A hood is also highly recommended. When combined with 3mm+ surf booties and surfing gloves, you should be protected into the mid to low 40’s. Just remember, the thicker you go the warmer you’ll be, but you will lose a lot of dexterity, especially in your fingers and feet which will affect your board feel and mobility when fighting off sharks. Too real?
Although the parking lot at your surf break is likely one of the few places to casually accept public nudity, this ain’t no revolution. Your friends will thank you and you will also thank yourself. When talking surf ponchos we have two words: life changer. You won’t freeze or flash anyone anymore as you grudgingly defy physics and get that wetsuit over your ankles. On the plus side, people will probably think you are into tunics so that is pretty rad too.
Surfing and insulated jackets go together like Busch tall boys and bad decisions. It’s a relationship that is impossible to ignore and you are better off just giving in and fully committing to it. This is going to be your BAE, your savior and life partner. We highly recommend the Patagonia Down Sweater but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of other great options. Maybe you prefer a synthetic insulated mid layer built with Thermoball or Polartec – when you’ve been wet for a few hours it always feels nice to put on a cozy dry jacket. We also recommend bringing along a solid wool base layer that fits nice and tight, especially if you are hiking in. It will save your skin and you’ll use less energy to stay warm.
Possibly the greatest weapon in your quiver, a dialed set of tried and true boots will save you from ruining your nice shoes and keep your feet dry. XTRATUF boots are unbeatable, but if the off season fisherman look isn’t your vibe then try some Danner or Sorel boots. Anything that has been treated or rated as waterproof will be great, just don’t go with suede – just don’t.
A classic PNW surf spot involves hiking in to the break through mangled tree limbs and a rocky beach, meaning it’s nice to have something that protects your board. Also, there are times when you eat sh*t slipping down the muddy cliff you are trying to traverse to the beach. There are quite a few quality bags out there, but make sure you pick one with padding, a shoulder strap, and a burly exterior that can take a decent amount of abuse. One of our favorite bags is the Wayward Stock Roll Top. This thing is buff and made of Magnatuff™ polyester with a padded layer so it won’t rip and prevents board damage. It’s also made in Seattle so you know it was designed for this type of stuff.
Pro Tip: It can be used as sleeping bag for emergency overnighters but not recommended.
Sudz for your budz!
Nothing tops a day of getting destroyed by walls of ice water like kicking back in the van, wetsuit draped over the hood and a can of brew in your hand. When it comes to throwing down in the parking lot you are better off with some belly warmers, so dip your fist into that cooler and grab a can of your favorite NW Pale. Or maybe you are a clinical psychopath and prefer varieties of IPA.
Being in the Pacific Northwest is unlike any other place in the world and to embrace its challenges is an experience in of itself. You won’t know until you go so give it a shot! Even though we didn’t cover everything, this should help give you an idea of how to prepare. At the end of the day all you can do is reflect on wins and losses, but most importantly embrace something you love. The saying “prepare for the worst, hope for the best” comes to mind. Live by that and you will do just fine.