Jon Turk wrote a nice article on the benefits of wetsuits vs drysuits some years ago for Sea Kayaker magazine. I wanted to put together some of my own empirical assessments based on real world tests over this spring to perhaps figure out for myself if wetsuits and paddling are really a bad investment. And in the interest of full disclosure I have a Kokatat full gore-tex meridian drysuit that I love.
After Kokatat started developing full gore-tex paddling suits that were really light and flexible, wetsuits got a bit of a bad name within paddling. After getting into kayak surfing I started noticing what other people were using on Lake Michigan. I noticed that no one else other than kayakers were using drysuits. Board surfers were in 5/4 wetsuits in dec, or 4/3 in Nov, kite surfers and windsurfers often wear 4/3 suits. Hoods, booties, and gloves of course are the norm, but no one wore drysuits. My question was why? Wouldn’t you want to be dry inside like the kayakers are in their gore-tex suits?
Well the answer is somewhat no. But the reasons are a little surprising.
I think there are two major factors at play, and one minor factor.
The first major factor is cost. The average full goretex/breathable proprietary material suit, (which is the only one worth having in my opinion) costs somewhere between $800-$1200 dollars.
Ouch. My wallet hurts.
The average 4/3 Full wetsuit is somewhere between $300-$400.
Ok so there is roughly an average 60%-75% cost reduction in going with a wetsuit.
Why? The materials are less for neoprene rubber than they are for Gore-tex. There is also less material because it is stretchy. You can certainly pay more for a wetsuit, Rip Curl and Xcel both have suits that are closer to $600-$800 dollars.
So the question is: how did we get to where we are now if wet suits are less expensive than drysuits?
Wetsuits work on roughly the same principle as a drysuit. Keep the water out, but what little water is let in is warmed next to the skin. (edited with help from Brian Nystrom) Neoprene rubber is stretchy and flexible to a point, but a full suit of any materials does have certain limitations.
When kayaking first became popular people used what they had for keeping warm on the water. Diving and surfing suits were used by paddlers and were quickly deemed too restrictive to be used for paddling. However that was almost 30 years ago. Surfing wetsuits specifically have been getting better and better in terms of the material and flexibility. Surfers need a similar range of motion for paddling out that kayakers do. As a result they demanded warmer, lighter, and less restrictive designs. So over the last 30 years surfing wetsuits have become much more flexible and use less material overall to give a better range of motion.
So they are less expensive and don’t restrict your motion too much? So why haven’t they become widespread.
Here we come to the crux of the issue, or our second major factor, heat management.
A wetsuit is a giant non-breathable suit that is meant to keep you warm by only allowing in a tiny layer of water. So there is no ideally very little evaporative cooling, otherwise it doesn’t work. So if you are in the water you can stay warm. However kayakers aren’t really in the water per se, they are on it, and therefore get wet only as a result of being so close to the surface. However by preparing for incidents and accidents we dress for immersion. So a wetsuit worn while exercising and not getting wet, or not very wet results in a lot of non-evaporative heat.
Here we come to the emprical test. I have been testing a 4/3 Xcel infinity fullsuit by sea kayaking in it. I can say that it is very warm and when coupled with a kokatat fuzzy rubber bomber’s cap, I am toasty to the core in even 30-40 degree air and water temps. I tested by paddling hard in cold air and cold water and cold water and warm air. I quickly grew pretty warm in the suit on both days to the point where I had to roll to cool off. However, once I rolled it was really just a mild temperature fluctuation, it wasn’t drastic. I even did a rescue yesterday in the suit to see how cold I was going to get. My body stayed really warm, head, face, feet and hands were colder than my body. So I was warm enough and then cool enough as long as I stayed wet. My suit was flexible enough to perform any maneuver I would normally make in my kayak. Also the additional flotation on the arms and legs makes you float better doing static braces, hand rolls etc, (just like a tuiliq).
The last minor issue is a matter of keeping water out of your kayak if you paddle a decked kayak. Most drysuits offer a tunnel for a spraydeck to allow you to have a good seal to keep water out. However I found If you pair the full wetsuit with a light paddle jacket you can essentially keep all the water out.
So really the question comes down to whether you are going to get wet, or stay dry. If you are doing a rough water excercise where you may be in and out of the water, is a drysuit better than a wetsuit?
Based on the input I have had from Jon Turk and Jeff Allen, the answer is probably not. A direct quote from Jeff Allen is that we are amphibious creatures. While we do spend most of our time on the water while kayaking, when we come on land we come in contact with a lot of harsh variables such as shells, rocks, and other sharp scrapey things that tend to puncture gore-tex suits, which causes them to catastrophically fail. Ask me about my ACA Assessment sometime where this happened to me. Wetsuits tend not to fail so catastrophically in these incidents. The other area is that when in the water, a fullwetsuit has a lot of flotation and is much easier to swim in than a drysuit. I have often said that swimming in a drysuit is like swimming in a giant garbage bag. Doable but not fun.
The main advantage to a drysuit is the ability to layer up or down underneath for whatever conditions come your way. However at a certain point you reach the same threshold for warmth to excercise that you do with a wetsuit. You have too much on to paddle effectively and once moving you’re too hot too paddle.
There are a lot of pros and cons to consider. I personally now have both a wetsuit and a drysuit. I think my wetsuit will become a fixture of my kayak surfing endeavours where I am in a cold wet environment, rather than sea kayaking where I tend to stay mostly dry unless subjected to serious conditions. But I look back at a few parts of my summer last year on Lake Superior, GLSKS for instance where we had 3 days of cold rainy wet surf. I probably would have been more comfortable in a wetsuit than a drysuit over those days based on how long I was out and how wet I was. Of course layering up under the suit would have helped to a point.
For my part I think I may start recommending full wetsuits to students on a budget. They are warm, safe and inexpensive. And if they get very serious about kayaking, a full drysuit can always be purchased later. But why not have them find a $200.00 solution to the eternal problem of kayaking, how to stay warm and have fun while paddling.