Autumn and winter bring freezing rain, snow squalls, gale-force winds and phenomenal freshwater surfing in Northern Michigan. From finding the perfect surfing spot to learning how these huge waves appear in Lake Michigan, here’s everything you need to know to get on the water Up North this winter.

The Great Lakes are massive, glorious and, sometimes, frightening bodies of fresh water. For me, the lakes’ beauty and allure only grow the longer I spend trying to comprehend them. Lake Michigan—just the third largest of the five Great Lakes by volume—still holds an almost incomprehensible amount of water: A fact I’m never more aware of than when I’m getting tossed around by its turbulent, icy waves during a snow squall while trying to surf.

In many ways, surfing on the Great Lakes is more challenging than on the oceans. The water here is less buoyant, the waves come in quicker sets, they’re harder to predict and most of the time they’re comparatively terrible. It’s for these same reasons, though, that riding a good freshwater wave brings with it a sense of joy that is hard to replicate elsewhere, no matter the weather.

Winter Surfing in Northern Michigan

Photo by Grant Piering

Related Read: Searching for more outdoor adventures Up North? Visit our Northern MIchigan Outdoors page.

When the conditions align perfectly for potential waves, there’s not much time to plan ahead. If you’re not able to drop what you’re doing to get to the waves during the few hours that they may be at their best, you’ll miss out. We don’t have the luxury of planning our time off around surfing up here; rather, it’s the other way around. When you’re able to shift your schedule to line up with the movement of the wind and water, there’s a good chance that your surfing buddies had the same idea, and you’re all about to have a great day on the water.

By the end of October and into November, gale-force winds can bring sideways snow squalls, blistering wind chill, freezing rain and all-around general discomfort. But they can also bring the waves. To find a surf-able wave on a lake, it’s almost equally as important to be a good meteorologist as it is to be a skilled, determined and well-practiced cold water-loving athlete. For these reasons, it’s understandable why so many are hesitant to share the location of a good wave with a stranger; we’d prefer you find it the old-fashioned way.

Winter Surfing in Northern Michigan

Photo by Grant Piering

For those just starting their search for Lake Michigan waves, it’s necessary to understand just why and how these waves appear on the big lake. Water heats and cools more slowly than land. From September to October and into November, these massive lakes retain heat from the increasingly warm Northern Michigan summers we get to experience for a few months each year.

When the ambient air temperature drops as the year progresses, that colder air from above falls, coming into contact with the comparatively warm water, heating up the air and moving it on its way. This creates regions of differing pressure. Differing pressure equates to air moving from one location to another in an attempt to equalize. In other words, wind. And waves.

Winter Surfing in Northern Michigan walking through snow

Photo by Grant Piering

Knowing how these winds interact with the lake and local landscapes is the next step to figuring out where to go to find a wave. If you’re serious about learning to surf, you should begin by studying weather patterns. Start watching the wind forecast for your area. Memorize local maps. Visit different areas on the lakeshore during various wind conditions to see how the lake changes and where waves do or don’t appear. Take notes. Visit your local surf shop. Talk to friends who have done their research and see how much they’re willing to share.

There’s no way to guarantee waves at any location on the big lake, but understanding how these natural forces interact is the first step toward any Great Lakes surfing journey. Soon enough, a glance at the wind forecast will provide you with enough information to know if it’s worth a shot to head out to the lake (hint: it’s always a good idea to head to the lake).

True, we keep our best surfing spots to ourselves. But do the work to find the waves and you’ll find us, smiling. Be prepared for cold. Be prepared for failure. Surfing on a lake is an adventure you can’t fully prepare for until the first freezing wave breaks over your head, but the excitement and smiles are never-ending after that.

Winter Surfing in Northern Michigan

Photo by Grant Piering

Grant Piering is an adventure-lifestyle videographer and photographer showcasing organic experiences and memories from around his home in the heart of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Visit grantpiering.com for more information.

Winter Surfing in Northern Michigan with surfboard

Photo by Grant Piering

The Risks & Rewards of Great Lakes Surfing

Ella Skrocki was pushed into her first waves on her parents’ old windsurfing board at 7 years old. A couple of years later, in 2004, her parents, Frank and Beryl Skrocki went out on a limb to open the region’s first full-service surf shop, Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak, in Empire. Ella’s deep-rooted passion for surfing and the community her parents have built has her now running the shop alongside Beryl, and siblings Annabel and Reiss.

Here, Ella shares her passion for surfing and sage advice for those looking to catch a wave, whether it’s your first time winter surfing (or surfing period):

Surfing is a journey, a puzzle, a practice, a meditation, a surprise, an experiment, an expression. There are so many elements to Great Lakes surfing that are both so challenging, and so rewarding. But my deepest love for surfing comes from the connection I make with the water and the natural, present state I drop into when dropping down the face of a wave.

When the gales of November sweep across our freshwater seas, those dedicated to the triumphs of winter surfing wrestle into thick neoprene and trudge out into the elements for a brutally rewarding Great Lakes surf experience.

Winter surfing is not for the faint of heart and requires a strong commitment to safety, etiquette and responsibility. While many may be tempted to jump into the surf at the height of the season, remember that our mighty Great Lakes are no standard inland bodies of water and their power is so often underestimated. Just as you wouldn’t zip down a double black diamond your first day on skis, be wary and respectful of the lake and your abilities before diving in.

If you are drawn to surfing, take a lesson in the comfort of the summer season, connect with the community, invest in the proper gear and learn the foundational safety and etiquette skills that are absolutely vital for entering the water when the wind is howling or the snow is blowing.

Find Ella and the rest of the Skrocki family in the water all year long, or pop into Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak for a friendly conversation.

Winter Surfing in Northern Michigan

Photo by Grant Piering

Photo(s) by Grant Piering