What’s It Like Surfing on the Great Lakes in Winter?

On the Great Lakes, this is high season for wave riding

Winter surfing
Ben Paulson of Duluth took advantage of the waves pounding the north shore of Lake Superior, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.
Brian Peterson/Star Tribune via Getty Images

When you think of surfing, your mind probably turns to a scenic beach on a hot day in the middle of the summer. That’s not surprising; after all, one of the definitive documentaries on the sport is called Endless Summer. But just because the temperature drops doesn’t mean that the waves stop coming. And for some dedicated surfers, venturing into the water in the middle of winter is a perfectly understandable way to spend a day.

That said, winter surfing depends a lot on location. And one unlikely spot — the Great Lakes — has gotten as a reputation as a prime destination during the year’s colder months. The New York Times wrote about it in 2021, pointing out that a growing number of surfers were bundling up and heading to the middle of the United States and Canada.

A Surfer Today explainer on the subject notes that the best time to go surfing in the Great Lakes is between September and April. In other words, if you want to surf in, say, Lake Superior, you’re going to want to be especially prepared. (Surfer Today notes that “[s]uper thick wetsuits or drysuits, hoods, boots, gloves, and earplugs” are all essential for safe winter surfing.) The waves that are more common in the colder months are the result of the wind that accompanies storms during that time of year.

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A recent Atlas Obscura article points to another reason why surfers find winter surfing in the Great Lakes irresistible — it helps them deal with the more depressing aspects of winter. Surfing can be beneficial for both physical and mental health, and the community that comes along with it has its own benefits. Yes, even if you’re heading into a lake with freezing temperatures outside.

Atlas Obscura’s reporting does have one caveat, however — if you’re looking to learn to surf, winter is not the time to do it.

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