The best thing about kayaking is that it's a sport you can enjoy all year round. Just because the winter months are here does not mean you have to hang up your ‘yak. That being said, no one likes being cold, and getting wet is very much part of the kayaking experience. Avoiding the cold is as simple as making sure you have dressed appropriately, and, if you're out on cold water, that means either a wetsuit or a drysuit.

On the surface, wetsuit and drysuit are very similar, and this can be a touch confusing for newer paddlers who often aren't sure which one they should be wearing to tackle different environments. To help clear things up, we've put together this guide to wet and dry suits. We'll highlight the different types, their pros and cons, and what conditions they are best used in.

Why Do I Need One?

The main dangers of cold weather kayaking are cold shock, swim failure, and hypothermia. Proper planning and appropriate clothing, such as having a wetsuit or drysuit, can help to mitigate those risks and keep you safe, even in the most frigid waters. The key to cold weather kayaking is staying warm, even after you've been immersed. You need to keep your core body temperature stable and protect your hands and feet.

How Wetsuits Work and When to Use One

A standard wetsuit is composed of a layer of a fabric called neoprene. Neoprene is a stretchy, hard wearing, semi-permeable material that allows a thin layer of water to sit between it and your skin. Your skin then heats this water to your normal body temperature, and the warm water and the neoprene act together to form a thermal barrier that prevents loss of body heat. Because neoprene is flexible and doesn't restrict movement, wetsuits are used in a wide range of paddle sports from surfing and kayaking to diving.

Wetsuits are best used in conditions where the water is cold enough to potentially drop your core body temperature by a dangerous amount, but the air temperature is warm enough that the use of a sealed drysuit would become uncomfortably hot.

A good example examples of this would be when kayaking on a large body of water, such as a lake. The volume and depth of the lake might keep the water temperature low even during the hottest summer months. A wetsuit will protect your core temperature if you become immersed, but is comfortable enough to wear when not in the water.

Buying a Wetsuit

There are a considerable number of different types of wetsuit on the market in a number of different styles. To make it easier to find the one that's right for you, we've put together a buying guide that covers the essential wetsuit features.

  • Fit: Because it needs to maintain a thin layer of water next to the skin, a wetsuit needs to fit snugly. If your wetsuit is too large then the layer of water becomes too big, and your body is not able to heat it properly thus rendering the wetsuit useless. When buying a wetsuit make sure it fits snugly, without restricting movement or cutting off blood flow in your extremities.
  • Thickness: Wetsuits come in a number of different thicknesses; the thicker the neoprene, the warmer the wetsuit. The thickness of a wetsuit is represented by three numbers separated by a slash. These numbers represent the thickness of the material in millimeters around the chest, legs, and arms (in that order). Occasionally, you'll only see two numbers, representing the torso and legs.

Wetsuits are designed to be thicker around the torso to keep your core temperature up, and thinner around the arms and legs to increase your maneuverability. If you are unsure about what thickness you'll need, then find out what the average temperature of the water is in the area you plan to kayak and compare it to this chart.

  • Accessories: When immersed in cold water, it is just as important to protect your extremities as it is to keep your core body temperature up. Thankfully, wetsuits come with a range of accessories such as hats, gloves, and boots that can be used to keep vulnerable areas, such as fingers, toes, and ears safe from the cold.

Wetsuit Types

Full Body

The full body wetsuit covers the arms, legs, and torso. This type of wetsuit is best used in colder areas where both air and water temperature will be low. It can also be combined with boots, cap, and gloves for full coverage of your extremities.

Examples

Springsuit

The springsuit covers the torso and thighs but leaves the rest of the extremities bare. This style of wetsuit is best used in environments where the standard temperature may be quite warm, but the water temperature remains cold.

Examples

The Long John

The Long John wetsuit is sleeveless but covers the full length of the leg. As with the springsuit, it is best used in warmer climates and is popular with surfers and surf kayakers.

Examples

The Vest

Wetsuits can be purchased in two separate pieces to cover either the torso and arms or legs. The vest style wetsuit is popular amongst kayakers who find wetsuit bottoms to be uncomfortable on longer journeys and use a spray skirt to keep their lower body dry.

Examples

Wetsuit Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Flexible and non-restrictive, wetsuits come in a range of thicknesses that allows you to tailor their thermal abilities to your chosen environment.
  • A number of styles of wetsuit allow you to cover as much or as little of your body as you need.
  • Unlike a drysuit, a damaged wetsuit with a split or a hole in it will still keep you warm.

Cons

  • Wetsuits, particularly wet ones, are infamously hard to put on and take off. For the easiest way to get into one, check out this video below of someone explaining the “plastic bag trick” 
  • If the water temperature is below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, a wetsuit ceases to function as a thermally protective layer.

How Drysuits Work and When to Use One

Drysuits, unsurprisingly, work by keeping you dry. The most common types have gaskets at the neck and wrists and built-in boots that keep the entire suit sealed and watertight. Unlike neoprene wetsuits, drysuits are not an insulating layer, meaning warm clothing must be worn underneath to keep your core temperature stable.  

Drysuits are best used in cold regions where water temperature regularly drops below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. While they are more restrictive and less comfortable than a wetsuit, they are the only practical way of keeping warm and dry in that kind of temperature.

Buying a Drysuit

Drysuits come in far fewer combinations than wetsuits, but there are a few factors to bear in mind when purchasing one.

  • Get a kayaker’s drysuit: Designed for a looser fit and greater freedom of movement; these drysuits are specifically designed for paddlesports. Diving drysuits tend to be heavier, more expensive, and come with gaskets for air-linkages that kayakers may find uncomfortable. You can find more detailed information on the different types of drysuits here.  
  • You will need base-layers: Drysuits themselves will not keep you warm. In order to stay both warm and dry, you will need to purchase thermal clothing to wear underneath. As kayaking in a physical sport, it is best to invest in high-wicking base-layers that wick sweat away to keep you dry, even when you are paddling hard.

Drysuit Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Drysuits are capable of keeping you warm even in extremes of cold in which wetsuits would cease to function.
  • The thermal properties of a drysuit are dictated by the clothes you wear under it, allowing you to choose the level of protection you need based on the weather and water conditions.
  • Once you’ve finished kayaking, you can simply remove the drysuit to travel home, no need for showering or a change of clothes.

Cons

  • Compared to wetsuits, drysuits can be bulky and restrictive.
  • If a drysuit sustains damage, such as a faulty gasket or a rip, it becomes functionally useless and can be expensive to repair.
  • Depending on the weather and the clothing worn, perspiration can build up inside a drysuit.
  • Unless they are fitted with a relief zipper, answering the call of nature in a drysuit can be quite a challenge.

The Right Suit at the Right Time

Being able to kayak in cold weather and cold waters opens up a whole vista of new paddling opportunities. You can take advantage of those opportunities by making sure that you have the correct clothing to keep you warm. While on the surface wetsuits and drysuits seem like basically the same thing, they serve very different purposes.

Wetsuits are primarily used in conditions where the water temperature is cold, but the air temperature is not. Deep water will often have a low temperature even in the sunniest parts of the year, so wearing a wetsuit will keep you warm in the water without you overheating under the sun. If the weather is particularly hot, you can always invest in a Springsuit or Long John style wetsuit for added temperature control.

If you’re headed out to places where cold shock and hypothermia are real dangers, then it's best to use a drysuit. They may not be as flexible or comfortable a wetsuit, but combined with thermal clothing they are your best and only option for staying dry and warm, even in the coldest conditions.