Wetsuits & Drysuits

September 22, 2004

Suited For Paddling, Staying Warm With the Right Wetsuit or Drysuit

Kayaker with wetsuit. Photo: Jerry & Marcy Monkman

AMC Outdoors, October 2004

A few words sum it up : “We couldn’t paddle safely without wetsuits and drysuits in New England,” says Cheryl Wallace, a professional Maine sea kayaking guide and American Canoe Association instructor.

No knowledgeable whitewater or sea kayaker would disagree. Whitewater runs in the Northeast often flow best when snowmelt swells rivers with icy runoff. In early spring, paddlers can be seen challenging foaming rapids even as snow coats the river banks and air temperatures hover near freezing.

Offshore, the Atlantic Ocean keeps its cool until late spring-in most of New England, seawater won’t reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit until sometime in May. Even during the summer, when sea kayakers along the Mid-Atlantic coast enjoy ocean temps in the upper 60s or even 70s, paddlers along the Maine coast seldom experience water above the upper 50s.

While this might make paddling sound like a chilly endeavor, remember the old outdoor adage: There are never cold conditions…only cold equipment. With the right wetsuit or drysuit, you can be warm and comfortable on your next paddling adventure, regardless of the water and weather. But what are wetsuits and drysuits, exactly, and how do you decide between the various types and styles?

Wetsuits vs. drysuits

The names explain their primary difference: A wetsuit traps a thin layer of water between your skin and the suit’s insulating layer of neoprene, which the body then heats for warmth. A drysuit, on the other hand, is totally waterproof and has gaskets at the neck, wrists, and ankles to seal out water. Both come in full-body styles as well as just tops or bottoms. Wetsuits are also available as shorties, which are cut off at the knees; or as “farmer Johns”, a sleeveless overalls-style suit.

Wetsuits start at under $100 and range up to $200-$300. They are designed to be form-fitting, and vary in thickness from 0.5 millimeters to 5 millimeters or more. The thicker the neoprene, the warmer-but more constrictive-the wetsuit will be. Neoprene stretches, but not a lot, and more neoprene means increased resistance to movement. To address this, warmer wetsuits usually have thinner and more flexible materials in areas that need a wide range of motion, like the shoulders and arms. (Note that wetsuits designed for activities like windsurfing and diving will not be flexible enough in the shoulders for paddling.) Wetsuits also offer some skin protection against rocks if you find yourself out of your boat and floating downriver.

Drysuits fit more loosely than wetsuits, are completely wind- and waterproof, and allow room to wear insulating layers underneath. Constructed using a thin layer of durable fabric (usually a heavyweight nylon), drysuits keep you warm by protecting the clothing beneath from wind and waterÑthink of them as a heavy-duty, fully sealed rain jacket. Full-body non-breathable drysuits start around $350, while breathable Gore-Tex models run from $500 to $1,000 or more. Full drysuits are generally recommended for colder conditions, while dry tops alone are commonly used in cool water.

One suit, two suit, wetsuit, drysuit

In deciding whether to go with a wetsuit, drysuit, or combination of the two, first consider the water and air temperatures. In milder conditions, wetsuits are generally preferable. A sleeveless wetsuit will keep you comfortable without causing you to overheat, while a drysuit tends to be unpleasantly hot in warm conditions.

As a general guideline, a wetsuit will need to be 0.5-2 millimeters thick to keep you comfortable in warm air temperatures and cool to warm water (60 degrees Fahrenheit and up). As temperatures cool into the 50s, a 2-3 millimeter suit is preferable. For temperatures below 50, however, a wetsuit needs to be 4-5 millimeters or more. At this point, most paddlers opt for the greater freedom of motion of a drysuit. For venturing into the coldest conditions, when the water may be only a few degrees above freezing, a full drysuit is the way to go.

Another key part of the equation is the likelihood of getting wet. For whitewater paddling or sea kayaking on rough seas, when regular dousing is likely to occur and the potential for rolling, capsizing, or a wet exit exists, you will want to choose a warmer set-up.

Many paddlers prepare for a wide range of conditions by using a wetsuit-drysuit combination. A popular technique is to invest in both a drytop and a 3-millimeter farmer John wetsuit, which gives you the flexibility to wear just the wetsuit when conditions are mild, or both when temperatures are colder or getting wet is more likely.

Fit and features

When shopping for a wetsuit or drysuit, the most important factor to consider is a good fit. In order to effectively trap a thin layer of water, a wetsuit should fit as snugly as possible without being overly restrictive. A loose-fitting wetsuit will allow greater freedom of motion, but will also make it easier for heat-robbing cold water to flow through the suit and wash away the warm layer next to your skin. A loose fit also increases the likelihood of a most unpleasant full-body “flush” in the event of a heavy dousing or immersion. A drysuit should fit loosely enough to allow warm layers underneath, but not be so loose that it gets cumbersome if you go in the water. For both, check the fit in areas where chafing is common. Practice a paddling motion with the suit on-if you feel friction around your armpits or neck, try a different model.

For drysuits, pay close attention to the seals on the wrists, neck, and ankles for a tight fit. “Typically there is a little discomfort,” says Kent Ford, a former U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team member. “In my experience, gaskets have to be cut for comfort. And there is a saying that drysuit gaskets are the most comfortable the day before they tear and are rendered useless.” To relieve some of that discomfort, Mark Schappert, whitewater chair of AMC’s Connecticut Chapter, is a fan of dry socks, which are permanently attached to drysuit legs. They allow the paddler to wear bulky socks and booties inside the suit, eliminating the need for a tight-fitting ankle gasket.

Other wetsuit and drysuit features to consider include reinforced seat and knees, an integral hood for extra warmth, and a front zipper (for men) or drop seat (for women) for relieving yourself without having to remove the suit, especially in cold conditions. Some women prefer using a front zipper and feminine urinary device, rather than having to sit on a drop-seat zipper while paddling. It’s also possible to customize some drysuits with features like shoulder pockets and reflective sleeve tape.

Cold-water accessories

In cold water, neoprene gloves or mittens will prevent your hands from becoming frozen claws on the paddle shaft. Look for pre-curved models that help mitigate the hand fatigue caused by gripping the paddle for hours. Pogies-insulated mittens that fit over a paddle shaft-allow you to insert and remove your hands without having the glove come off the paddle, but if you exit the boat, your hands will come out of the pogies and be exposed to the water. If chafing is a problem, consider a rash guard, a close-fitting top of smooth fabric that is worn under a wetsuit or drysuit to prevent friction against the skin. It will also add additional warmth. A neoprene skullcap, or hoodie, is another great way to stay warmer-just make sure your helmet fits over it.

This year, don’t let conditions leave you high and dry-paddle on! 

Related: Care and Repair of Your Wetsuit

An archive of Michael Lanza’s columns can be found at www.outdoors.org/

Search AMC Outdoors and Blogs


Search for:

Michael Lanza

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.