Sunny and warm don't always go hand in hand. So while taking a wintertime trip to the beach virtually guarantees small (or nonexistent) crowds, it also guarantees cool weather – assuming the beach isn't in Australia or the Caribbean, that is. Most North American and European beaches are wild in the winter, all whipping winds and whitecaps. The scenery is beautiful, but staying put long enough to enjoy it requires you to dress appropriately.
Pick Fast-Drying Fabrics
On many beaches, the winter months are too cold for shorts. Opt for capris or long pants that are easy to pull or fold up at the ankles, so the hems don't drag in the cold, wet sand. Even with that precaution, pants might get damp, so avoid denim or wool and wear pants made of synthetic fibers, which dry more quickly than natural fabrics. Leggings or track pants are ideal. On top, wear a close-fitting tank top or T-shirt topped with a long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt or sweater. If strong winds whip the top layer around, the snug tank or T-shirt will stay right against the skin for warmth.
Keep Sun and Wind Protection in Mind
UV index values, which measure the sun's danger, are low to moderate in the United States during the winter months. But because bright surfaces – like large bodies of water and white sand – reflect the sun's rays, it's possible to sustain sun damage from even a short wintertime beach visit. Wear sunscreen and a brimmed hat that fit snugly. A loose sun hat may blow away in the wind. Bring sunglasses too, to shield eyes from both the sun's rays and from the wind. A hooded windbreaker is useful for beach-goers who are sensitive to the cold. Alternately, bring a thin beach blanket and wrap it around your shoulders while walking or looking out at the waves.
Favor Washable, Walkable Footwear
Warm, dry sand feels amazing underfoot. Cold, wet sand feels anything but pleasant, and it does a number on shoes. Flip-flops or other sandals may be inadequate protection against the chill. If it's rained or snowed in the area recently, wear rubber boots over warm socks. (Pick low boots if you plan to fly to the beach town and have limited suitcase space.) A pair of old sneakers or machine-washable canvas sneakers is also suitable. Pack a spare pair of socks to change into after a beach walk, in case the original pair gets wet.
Sometimes, Bikinis Are Best
Don't make the mistake of assuming that just because it's winter that all beaches will be empty and cold. Some beaches in places like South Florida, Texas and Southern California attract sunbathers even in winter. Hawaiian beaches also tend to have bikini-worth temperatures all year long. Check the forecast and water temperatures before packing, but keep in mind that even on warm beaches, the temperatures start to drop by mid-afternoon in winter. Wear a long sundress and cardigan or a pair of nylon pants and a button-down shirt over a bathing suit. These pieces are warm and comfortable enough to pull on over a wet suit.