Wetsuits vs Drysuits?

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.


Anonymous said…
nice writeup on suits rob. one question for you...coming from a wetsuit newbie. i have a new quiksilver 4/3 cell that fits great, and has all seams blindstitched, glued, and taped. recently took it out for a test immersion in the sound a few weeks ago. arms and legs fine, no leakage. i got a little flush from the back zip at the neck, no biggie. but the biggest surprise was a lot of water coming in around the groin area where the leg panels are sewn together.

i was wondering if this is this normal.. for a lot of water to come in through the seams? my gloves and booties don't have that issue w/ the seams. the suit is only a few months old and i can send it in for warranty (already called and talked to qs about it). not sure what they can do to fix either.

whaddaya think? thanks! jon
ya, that sounds odd. wetsuits will leak in spots, but it shouldn't be a full on leak. after nearly two years with my xcel, it's only dry in the torso area, but i still stay warm. i do wear thin neoprene shorts under mine on really cold days and a fleece crew neck top under which if i do get a leak, it's not as shocking. my neck is stretched out and the zipper leaks on wipeouts, but the hooded vest which i wear on top prevents water leakage. where's you get the suit from? got your paipo yet?
Anonymous said…
i got the suit from snocon (it was on sale for a deal). i'm thinking about sending it in for warranty... but that would mean missing some paddling time!

board looks great, but the real test will be in the water. i'll probably take it back to hawaii sometime soon.
we'll heading to oahu for 3 days on the 17th, then a week by kona. can't wait! i always feel naked without my 4/3, booties, gloves, hood, etc..
Anonymous said…
have fun in hawaii! send me an email if you're interested in where to surf or paddle on oahu and what shops to go to. don't know much about the big island and kona tho.

i may be out this weekend at GG. -jon
jon, thanks. we'll mostly be at waikiki, then a day trip to makaha and maybe to the north sure to poke around. the big island is tough, pretty rocky, tough access often requiring 4wd. there's a good break by kona called Pine Trees and a few little ones in town. i got kicked out of one by the outrigger hotel for having a 'kayak' there, not allowed at that beach. i think i'll mostly boogie board, take it easy. maybe rent a sup.
Anonymous said…
have fun in hawaii. on oahu: wet feet (aina haina) and tropical blends (queen st. near ala moana) are 2 good SUP shops. there's a few in kapahulu (near waikiki) also.

there's a lot of places that rent or demo and you can paddle/surf almost anywhere. i like to paddle in the swimming channel at ala moana park since it's protected and good for flat water. you'll probably want to ride some waves since you'll be in hawaii tho. lots of good little breaks between queens and diamond head since you're staying in waikiki. most surfers are cool with SUP's sharing the breaks as long as they aren't wave hogs. watch out for box jellyfish pretty much everywhere on the south shore (waikiki). they show up like clockwork 9-11 days after the full moon.

sorry don't know much about the big island. but watch out for the big guys in grey suits out near kona, especially near the old airport. lots of shark stories by surfers and divers there.