Anyone paddle in a wetsuit?

SWriverstone

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Looking to extend my paddling to year-round, I've been pondering whether to buy a wetsuit or drysuit. This might seem like a a "duh" kind of question, but I honestly don't know—does anyone paddle in a wetsuit? What I'm really wondering about wetsuits (having almost no experience with them) is whether they significantly limit mobility? (And I'm a high-angle paddler.) Or has wetsuit design evolved to the point where they're very comfortable and stretchy?

I'm not opposed to a drysuit; my biggest concern there is overheating. As I've posted in other threads, I'm a big guy and I tend to paddle hard—so I generate a LOT of heat while paddling. For years (long ago) I used to race in whitewater in 25-degree weather wearing nothing but spandex shorts inside the boat and a lightweight nylon shell—and I was VERY comfortable. (Yes, I know that's not exactly "survival" dress for ocean paddling, LOL.)

I was also following John Ambercrombie's thread on moisture getting into his drysuit. Which makes me wonder, is *any* drysuit actually 100% dry? Seems to me that even if the suit is "dry," condensation and sweat will end up making you damp anyway—which is why I'm wondering if a wetsuit isn't better?

Thanks for any thoughts!
Scott

PS - I work for the Pacific Crest Trail—and one thing that all experienced long-distance hikers know is that when backpacking in adverse conditions, there is no such thing as staying dry. Attempting to keep dry with layers of Gore-Tex and other raingear are doomed to failure—water ALWAYS finds a way to get to your body! (So I'd think that is also true of ocean paddling...)
 

JohnAbercrombie

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Your question should generate lots of comments. :)

Yes, quite a few 'ocean paddlers' I know wear wetsuits and neoprene clothing. Some of those folks don't own drysuits (and don't want one) ; others just use the neoprene as part of the 'clothing toolkit' for certain weather conditions.

Thin neoprene shrirts and bottoms with dry pants with a splash top ready if conditions get wetter/colder - lots of combos will work.

What sort of wetsuit are you thinking of? There are lots of choices in neoprene clothing/suits.

When I first started kayaking, I wore a Farmer John and a 'splash top' over in summer conditions and I don't think I have ever been so hot. I've learned a lot since then. So a wetsuit can be very hot. Conversely, a drysuit with a light layer under can be OK even on a low 20s summer day, for me. That clothing combo would be a problem if I ended up in the ocean for long, but that's not part of the usual scenarios I think about.

And, no I don't think any drysuit is 100% dry. A friend who is an excellent and very experienced paddler calls them 'moist suits' and that's my experience. I'm OK with having my under layers a bit 'steamy' but I don't like it if they are actually wet. At that point I conclude there's something wrong with the drysuit. On a paddling camping trip, 'steamy' clothes will dry with body heat and I don't mind wearing them into a synthetic bag to get them dry. Wet clothes are very unpleasant for me if the weather is rainy.
 
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AM

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Yes, let the comments roll…

Confession: I have spent way more money than reasonable on paddling clothing. Wetsuits, drysuits, semi-dry pieces from a variety of companies and in a variety of materials.

Conclusion: a pox on both materials engineers and marketers. I’m either wet from sweat or wet from rain.

So what are my current choices? Depends on the conditions:

1) Terrible rain: garbage bag over stupidly expensive Gore-tex jacket
2) Immersion likely (ie: surfing): drysuit
3) Cool day/immersion unlikely: fleece plus aforementioned stupidly expensive jacket. Throw in some waterproof pants and rubber boots.
4) Cold day (ie: winter): drysuit
5) Warm day (immersion unlikely): sun shirt and board shorts.

As you can see, I usually don’t dress to swim. I decided long ago that being comfortable while paddling is my priority.

Cheers,
Andrew
 

BigandSmall

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Going for a swim in cold water either will protect you. The drysuit will be substantially more comfortable in the water and arguably will make a beginners learning curve faster. My dry suit aided in saving me from my poor judgement once. Since then I no longer complain about the price.

Lessons I learned, if buying a farmer john wet suit make sure the front zips down far enough to be a relief zip. Then you don't have to strip to the waist for a leak. With the drysuit I went with the Kokatat G-meridian. Doing it again I'd just get a paddling suit without the overshirt or the neck gasket. I trimmed my neck gasket substantially to not pass out and years later now that it's almost worn out it's halfway comfortable.

I don't know if there's anyone closer but these guys do rentals so you can see what you like and get a custom fit should you decide to order one. https://www.kayakacademy.com/pages/drysuit-guide
 
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JohnAbercrombie

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I don't know if there's anyone closer but these guys do rentals so you can see what you like and get a custom fit should you decide to order one. https://www.kayakacademy.com/pages/drysuit-guide
George Gronseth and the crew at KayakAcademy have given me excellent advice and service over the years - I've mail-ordered (drysuit, helmet, pumps) and also stopped in a couple of times when in the Seattle area. Give them a call.
 
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cougarmeat

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You are correct. There is no "dry", there is only "less wet".

I mostly wear a neoprene - BUT I pay a lot of attention to the temperature of the water I'll be in and who I'm paddling with.
I wear a 30-year-old Kokatat paddling top (latex wrist gaskets) with a neoprene top under it. Or a "rash guard" top and a "shortie" - like a farmer john but with short, rather than full length, legs. Or a full-length neoprene bottom with a separate neoprene top - and that paddling jacket.

I started with neoprene top/bottom. One day a Paddler told me that he used neoprene until he started paddling with his wife and child. If he had to get into the water, he didn't want to hesitate. He didn't mean he'd hesitate saving his wife because, you know, the water was so cold. It was because when you first jump in there's this interval of "Cold Shock" before your body can heat up the water trapped in the neoprene garments. He didn't want that interval of inability to respond.

And that brings up a discussion point - the DrySuit doesn't keep you warm, you are warm because of the clothes you wear under the dry suit. So that's a challenge - finding the right layering for you in the circumstance you'll be paddling in.

For example, If I'm paddling in a lake, I'll wear neoprene. If I'm paddling with someone whose skill I trust, I'll wear neoprene (because I won't be in the water that long) - assuming normal conditions. If I'm solo, in salt water, I'll always were my Dry Suit. If I'm paddling just with Joy, in salt water, I'll mostly wear my drysuit. If there's a third party with us, I am more likely to fall back to the more comfortable neoprene. So you see - there's a lot of thought about where I'm paddling, who I'm paddling with, and what's my expectation of needing to jump in to assist someone and how long I might be in the water if I go over.

Why not just wear the DrySuit all the time? Because of that "what to wear underneath?" issue. I see people, amazing but true, paddling with their drysuit unzipped (because they are too hot). Do they really think that before they go over there will be some warning and "time out" so they can get their suit zipped up? I've never read about that happening in any of the Deep Trouble reports.

Some drysuit considerations are the feet. Do you get a dry suit with just ankle gaskets or built-in booties? And if built-in, do you get latex or Gore-Tex? If latex, you'll want to always have something kind to the latex under your feet when you change in/out of them. You don't put tiny holes in the bottom of the booties (because of lbs/square inch concentration on tiny rocks and parking lot debris). Some people use a plastic tub they can stand in - or some kind of "Welcome" mat they can also place in front of their tent/hammock.

For the neck - do you want Latex or neoprene? Latex seals better, and neoprene is more comfortable. But when drysuits with neoprene first came out, people reported, when practicing rolling, they'd find a cup of water or so would enter the suit. But remember - repeated rolling is not usually what you are doing. It's like a golfer friend I know who was disappointed with herself because she couldn't repeat the same shot perfectly 10 times in a row. I asked how many times, in a game, she had to make the same shot 10 times in a row. And she acknowledged, "Never." So going to a pool and rolling over and over and over and over again is usually not what will be happening out on the water.

And consider where you will be paddling. For example, you can swim with bare skin around the Gulf Islands in Canada, while scientists use the water off SeaSide Oregon to set their test instruments for zero degrees Kelvin. And who will you be paddling with - might they need assistance? Might you? And how good is your "on the ocean" (rather than "in the pool" - or in my case, "in my memory") roll?

In my "Around the Orcas in 8 Days" My paddling partner was very experienced. We stayed close, we were in popular water, and we wore neoprene. If I were to do the same trip solo. I would absolutely wear a drysuit. It's like that.
 

CPS

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I often paddle in a drysuit because I haven't been able to build a wardrobe of thin neoprene layers yet. I wish I had something moderately insulating for those hot summer months when a drysuit is not appropriate. Usually I just wear my thicker wicking synthetics and hope for the best. Something like NRS' Hydroskin would probably be awesome for summer paddling in the Gulf Islands. Warm enough to keep you safe in conditions you are unlikely to need to rely on them.

Ultimately it's juggling act when using a drysuit. How warm to dress based off of the forecast? Sometimes in winter I will go paddling before dawn, and come back well into the afternoon. That can be a wide range of temperatures, so what do I dress for? It can be a tricky balance in a drysuit. But I would rather be a bit uncomfortably warm and steamy while paddling than too cold in a swim. I do get cold easily, and that affects my decisions.


And how breathable is a drysuit anyways....


IMG-20220529-WA0006~2.jpg
 

SZihn

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I do.

I have pants and tops from thin to thick (2.5 MM to 1/2 inch thick) and a Farmer john also which is a 3.5MM. I use a splash jacket at times. I don't have a dry suit and may not ever buy one, --------- for 2 reasons.

#1 They are well out of reach for my budget for the most part. My understanding is that they also wear out fairly quickly (true or not? I'd love to hear the thought of others here about that) and if so, I can't see spending much on a used one.

#2 In the Mountains here the water gets cold in late fall or winter, and gets warm in late spring fairly quickly. From the time the water is too cold for a wet suit to the time it's frozen over solid is about 6- 10 days. So it's not practical for me to spend that amount of money to get 10 days of use in the late fall time or early winter.

In the spring the thaw goes from ice to partly open water in a week or so and then the water is too cold for a wet suit for about 1 more week. I have thick (1/2 inch) top and pants and I have been in the water with it on when there was ice around the edges of the lake and it was a bit unpleasant, but not unbearable. In such temps I wear mitts and pogies as well as a hood. By 1 week later it was fine. In one month I have to go to a thinner suit.

By mid September the water is in the 80s. About right now, we can expect it to start to cool a little every night, but not plunge in temperature until late November. Then in mid to late December it's going to be ice so thick we drive pick-ups over the lake and it doesn't even creek. 2-1/2 to 6 feet of ice is usual by the last week of the year. Night times temps here in the last week of the year are sub zero as a rule, and depending on the year, they can be VERY sub-zero. In fact, day time highs are often sub zero.

After I am fully retired ( in my early 70s, about 3 years from now) I may be able to go to the sea or possible the great lakes and do more paddling and if I can then I will possible consider such an investment. But until that time I cannot justify the high prices that are demanded for them, considering the very limited amount of time I'd need use them.
 
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cougarmeat

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SZihn, there are often end-of-season or closeout sales when a model is discontinued. You can save hundreds of dollars on a drysuit if you can wait and shop. Also, some manufacturers allow one FREE neck gasket change for a better fitting size or switching from Latex to Neoprene.

Because I have the option of wearing neoprene, I don't wear my drysuit every outing. As such, it has lasted years. But I would spend more money if I did it again. I bought a Mariner from NRS - No, not because it was named after my boat. In my experience, NRS sizes are designed for a population that is not me. I'm barely 5'6" and I have to get XL in most of their clothing. So the arm/legs fit is a little ... excessive. But Kokatat had an option (been a long time since I've looked into it) where for $50 more they will semi-customize a suit. That means they won't take your exact measurements, but I can "build" a suit with their standard sizes. Like I'd have the chest component in their L or XL size but the legs and arms in the S size. At my age, many things are becoming "only one buy" in this lifetime. My finances would be different if I were in my 20's or 30's. Or maybe not because I'd have income-producing years.

CPS, your photo brings up a point. For those considering a drysuit, you have to "burp" it once you put it on. That means, squatting down while pulling the gasket away from your neck to let the air escape. Or pulling the gasket way while you walk into the water up to your waist/chest or so. You might think you want the extra flotation the trapped air provides. But if you flip over and try to wet exit, you may find that extra flotation holding you into your seat.
 

SWriverstone

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Thanks for the replies everyone! What's interesting to me is nobody mentioned anything about having a bombproof roll. I don't have a bombproof roll yet, but plan to get one (going to pool sessions this winter).

In whitewater kayaking, having a strong roll is pretty much considered mandatory. If you don't have one, you're not really a whitewater paddler. Swims can be dangerous in whitewater—not to mention it's a lot easier to become separated from your boat and paddle. So a strong roll is the safest and best rescue technique. (I have no idea, generally speaking, what percentage of the coastal kayaking community has a strong roll—meaning, I don't know if it's considered as mandatory in sea kayaking as it is in whitewater?)

The advantage of a roll, of course, is that it reduces the need to constantly be prepared for sustained immersion. Meaning you can get away with wearing less-than-survival gear.

Perhaps like some of you, though, I don't have a strong kayak roll yet...but still want to paddle in the ocean, so... :)
 
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Natasha

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Yes a bombproof roll is important for whitewater. But there is also a common saying in whitewater that "we're all between swims". No matter how good your roll is you will still end up in circumstances where you will swim. As as you progress and your roll improves the circumstances were you need the roll are generally pretty nasty and having good immersion protection is going to be essential. I.e. its not going to be a quick assisted rescue from a friend and return to the warm car within 10 minutes.
 

kayakwriter

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Thanks for the replies everyone! What's interesting to me is nobody mentioned anything about having a bombproof roll. I don't have a bombproof roll yet, but plan to get one (going to pool sessions this winter).
In whitewater kayaking, having a strong roll is pretty much considered mandatory. If you don't have one, you're not really a whitewater paddler. Swims can be dangerous in whitewater—not to mention it's a lot easier to become separated from your boat and paddle. So a strong roll is the safest and best rescue technique. (I have no idea, generally speaking, what percentage of the coastal kayaking community has a strong roll—meaning, I don't know if it's considered as mandatory in sea kayaking as it is in whitewater?)
So back in the day, when I did whitewater and surf kayaking, I did have a bombproof roll. If you didn't, you spent way too much time swimming.

At the time, there was a surprisingly widespread myth that sea kayaks, especially when loaded for touring, couldn't be rolled. Not true, obviously. I could, when I had the bombproof roll, easily do so with a loaded kayak.

Age and injury have made my roll a sometime thing, so I for sure wear immersion wear - but I did that even back when I had the bombproof roll. My thinking was this: even "bombproof" rolls fail sometimes. And if you wind up swimming and separated from your boat in sea kayaking, you may be a long, long way from shore. In surf kayaking, you're typically going to be washed ashore in a few cold minutes and in whitewater, barring canyons, you should be able to eddy out in a few hundred metres. But in sea kayaking, you may be miles from land. (That said, I wore immersion wear when surf and whitewater paddling too.)
 

AM

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Rolling, yes, but even more importantly bracing is part of the risk calculation. If you have a good roll, you by definition have good bracing. Avoiding capsize is the goal: I recall talking to a prominent kayak surfer after watching him take a risky line past some rocks. He told me that in such situations he had a strict “no capsize policy”. That struck me as an interesting mindset.

But also in the risk calculation is route choice, weather, paddling partners, etc. etc. A experienced, thoughtful paddler in a t-shirt is likely safer than a beginner in a drysuit. I recall a photo of Derek Hutchinson paddling among little icebergs in Alaska while wearing a cotton British Airways t-shirt.

But at the heart of this discussion is the same bedevilling hair-splitting that we see in other risk assessments. Is a drysuit to kayaking what a helmet is to cycling? Or a seatbelt is to driving? Or a rope to climbing? I say no, but the analysis gets complicated by other variables.

I’m struggling to find an analogue in another sport. To what can we compare immersion protection?

Cheers,
Andrew
 

kayakwriter

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But at the heart of this discussion is the same bedevilling hair-splitting that we see in other risk assessments. Is a drysuit to kayaking what a helmet is to cycling? Or a seatbelt is to driving? Or a rope to climbing? I say no, but the analysis gets complicated by other variables. I’m struggling to find an analogue in another sport. To what can we compare immersion protection?Cheers, Andrew
Kinda, sorta, sometimes comparable to a rope in climbing - depending on the kind of climbing and the kind of paddling.

Immersion wear in surf, where worse case scenario is if you swim you're going to get laundered on the heavy-duty cold cycle before being dumped ashore might compare to single-pitch top-roping anchored to bolts, whether in a gym or outside. It's a relatively safe place to push your limits and make your learning mistakes (assuming a trustworthy partner has you on belay).

Immersion wear miles at sea, in very cold weather and water, might be more comparable to multi-pitching while placing your own pro as you go. If you swim or fall, you done screwed up badly, and your safety gear is a Hail Mary play.
 
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cougarmeat

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You may find the "bomb proof" roll is a bit of a myth. It's more like, "I have a bomb-proof roll most of the time". :)

Also, you'll note the references to rolling and whitewater boats. Every class I've taken teaches rolling in WhiteWater boats. Transferring that skill to a full-size kayak (around 17 ft) is, as they say, "... an exercise for the student." With a WhiteWater boat, once your body learns to keep its head down and lift it last, you can almost roll by thinking, "I want to roll". You'll have to practice bracing because you'll come up so fast and strong that you'll throw yourself over the on the other side. Of course all that is in a POOL.

When you transfer your "bomb-proof" roll to the expedition kayak, you may find you have to slow things down a bit, so the timing of the paddle stroke and hip snap are synced with the kayak rotation. It's more psychological than physical because you are making the same moves.

And the mental game definitely comes into it. For example, when I was practicing by myself at the pool, a person in a white water class was looking at my boat with interest. I saw that they could easily nail the roll in their white water boat. So I offered to let them try in my 17 ft kayak. They couldn't do it. It seemed like they thought they had to muscle it more and that threw them off.

Another metal block can be the paddle. I purposely practiced with my skinny Little Dipper paddle. Because I knew the roll came from the body position and hip snap. A big flat paddle wasn't necessary. In another club class (not professional), I was having trouble with re-entry and roll and asked an instructor to show me something with my boat. He looked at my skinny paddle and I could see there was a concern. He couldn't roll to the boat. Now I've rolled it many times. He had just developed a mental dependency on using a wide blade.

Once you are bomb-proof in the pool, it's time to go to a lake. - no cement side walls, no black strip at the bottom of the water, water WAY over your head. Then you can try it in swells or white caps.

If you want to cement it into your muscle memory and see if you really have a "roll", you can try the Lumpy Waters class that is held in Pacific City each year.

Just a note, when your boat is upside down, it's pretty empty of water. Only once I was able to take a big breath, pull myself back under the boat and into the cockpit, attach the spray skirt, and roll back up in a pretty dry boat. And that was in a pool.

So remember, once you have a roll, practice the re-entry and roll as well. Maybe more.
 

SWriverstone

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More good replies—thanks again!

I'd agree that a roll isn't 100%. But as some point out, much of the risk calculation is determined by your experience and ability...and how much you choose to push your envelope (if at all).

As a whitewater slalom racer, my roll was good enough that I could flip right after one slalom gate and just keep going, all the way around and roll up before the next slalom gate—all in heavy whitewater. It literally became an automatic reflex. BUT...we never raced on anything more difficult than class 3 rapids. In those circumstances, once I learned to roll, I never swam again in thousands of hours of paddling (but that's partly because I never paddled anything more difficult than class 3).

Similarly, while I want to paddle more in the ocean, I would never deliberately put myself out there in gale-force winds and huge breaking waves—even if I did have a bombproof roll. Because for me, that's no fun. (At least not at age 60, LOL.)

None of which is to dismiss the need for immersion protection. Just recognizing the truth in the statement "An experienced, thoughtful paddler in a t-shirt is likely safer than a beginner in a drysuit." Which I interpret to mean careful planning, detailed awareness of weather and conditions, extensive experience-based knowledge of what to expect and the willingness to avoid high risk all probably make up 90% of safety at sea (the other 10% being gear).

Scott
 

CPS

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CPS, your photo brings up a point. For those considering a drysuit, you have to "burp" it once you put it on. That means, squatting down while pulling the gasket away from your neck to let the air escape. Or pulling the gasket way while you walk into the water up to your waist/chest or so. You might think you want the extra flotation the trapped air provides. But if you flip over and try to wet exit, you may find that extra flotation holding you into your seat.
Another complicating factor of burping drysuits, at least for me, is that I'm fairly small but proportioned in such a way that I don't fit in anything but a large in standard sizing of the drysuits I've tried. So even when I burp as described there's a decent amount of air left in the suit.
To get that nice vacuum sealed look I usually walk into the water and break the seal as described.
Also gives a good chance to make sure all zippers as fully done up...
 
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