Up here in the Pacific NW, most kayakers wear dry suits and sometimes scoff at anyone with anything different. That sort of thinking comes from dated info stating that a paddler will survive longer in a dry suit in cold water. But in recent years, wetsuits have come a long way and are as warm if not warmer depending on the product. Materials such as the Japanese limestone neoprene, the Merino wool lined Patagonia suits, and the toasty battery warmed wetsuit by RipCurl are changing perceptions.
After owning two $900 dry suits over the years, I quickly became a fan of my $350 4/3mm Xcel Infinity wetsuit not only for the price, but contrary to what others told me, the wetsuit was more flexible than the dry suit. I found the neoprene to be super stretchy and comfortable unlike the baggy and sometimes partially air filled Gortex fabric. Yea, off course I always remove the air from my suit, but there always is some left nonetheless. There are also no seasonal gasket repairs on wetsuits, or weekly maintenance with the lubricant 303 to protect the latex gaskets, not to mention purchasing new gaskets. I found it easier to swim as i am more aerodynamic and if i get a hole in a wetsuit, no big deal. Not so with a dry suit. Tired of the neck gasket strangling you? Not an issue with wetsuits. I also don't get the nasty neck rash after a long day of surfing from the salt and sand mixture.
Want to stay dry? Wetsuits such as the Xcel Infinity Drylock will keep your core dry, just as a dry suit will do, sorta. I always had tiny fabric or gasket leaks in my dry suit, and perspiration after a good paddle left me somewhat damp. So much for being dry. For men, the advantage of a dry suit is the pee zipper, but then most surfers I know just pee in their wetsuits and immediately flush the suit out or do so with fresh water after the session.
Wanna stay warm? I get cold easily. In a kayak class last Feb on the Washington Coast, we had daily temps in the 30's, and windchill much cooler. We weren't doing much activity, mostly sitting in our boats on the water for hours. I froze my a... off. I had a full dry suit, one thick polartech layer, and two fleece layers under. Not to mention two hoods, gloves and 7mm booties over my Gortex feet. I was feeling a bit blimpish, and still cold. I wished I had brought my wetsuit, which not only allows me to wear a capilene or polartech shirt of any thickness under, but also gortex drytop over the suit. I had used this wetsuit combo in similiar conditions before, but wore the dry suit thinking I'd could layer more stuff under and stay warmer. Maybe not. Also surfers in our region are regularly spending considerable hours fully immersed in the water in winter without an issue.
What does 4/3mm mean? 4mm chest, 3mm arms and legs. a 5/4/3, means 5mm chest, 4mm legs, 3mm arms. Some friends own 6mm, others a 4/3. it depends on your body and how you perceive cold. I'm open to layering, so the 4/3 quickly becomes a 6mm by adding non cotton synthetic clothing under, or my trusty RipCurl hooded vest over the suit. If I get too warm, I can strip layers.
An alternative to a full wetsuit is the Farmer John/Jane armless wetsuit, usually 3mm, and a Gortex drytop. If in warmer or very safe conditions, this combo allows for warmth yet more options for layering or removing clothing. The downside is that a considerable dunking in cold water will affect you quickly as there's no way to prevent water from entering under your drytop.
Trusted wetsuit companies: Patagonia, O'Neill, RipCurl, Xcel, Matuse. Axxe I'm told makes a very custom warm suit.
Tips for wetsuits:
- When putting it on for the first time, the pull string goes on your back. Newbies often put wetsuits on backwards.
- Wetsuits with no zippers are warmer and leak less, but will be more difficult to put on. Got old stiff shoulders? Get a zipper.
- Does the suit feel stiff at first? Neoprene loosens up when wet.
- While rental wetsuits are often not in the best shape, renting is away to find your preferred thickness and suit type.
- It's ok to put on a rash guard or capilene layer under your suit to boost warmth. I also put a kayaking dry top over in cold temps.
- Do your arms get cold? Put bicycling arm warmers on under your suit.
- It's ok to mix brands. I have a Xcel suit, RipCurl hooded vest, Kokatat hood with a chin strap, and Glacier Gloves.
- Need warm under clothing? O'Neill has thick crew neck fleece shirts, as does Kokatat, and Immersion Research. Check kayak shops too for gear.
- Most importantly, each his own! Find what works best for you.