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Wetsuit for warm weather, cold water?

-- Last Updated: Jul-08-11 10:58 AM EST --

Need some advice/recommendations on selecting a wetsuit. I've done a search and read much of info and opinions here, but there is almost too much to sort through to find what is best for our situation.

My wife and I are relatively experienced kayakers but don't own wetsuits. We will be taking a trip the Apostle Islands later this summer and thus will be out on Lake Superior - i.e. warm weather (possibly as warm as 90+) but cold water (water temps in the mid-50s).

I look at wetsuits as insurance - a good idea but hopefully will never need the benefit. We have taken lessons on kayak safety and rescue techniques but have never had to put them into practice. Neither of us have ever fallen out of our boats. However, that doesn't mean it can't happen obviously.

So we need wetsuits. However, since we rarely touch the water and will be paddling in the heat of the summer, I don't want to be roasting in a full-on 5/3 wetsuit designed for cold water.

NRS has its Farmer John and Jane, which seems like it would be adequate for our situation. However, they also offer the Little John which they describe as "combines warmth and mobility for those warm weather, cold water days."

Would the Little John be the way to go for our situation? Or do we need to move up to a Farmer John - or even up to full coverage? How do others handle the heat of summer paddling in a wetsuit? Not having wetsuit experience, I have no idea how much they hold in the heat when not in the water.




  • I have no experiece with wetsuits
    wear a drysuit in the summer and want to point out that a roll now and then will keep you cool.. Keeping your head damp really helps.

    If you dont have a roll at least attain a bow rescue..that will allow you both to get cool.

  • Options
    Little John
    NRS makes a "Little John" wetsuit in 3mm neoprene and hydroskin that would be just the thing.

    If you think you might have an extended swim, the 3mm will give you more protection from cold and some protections banging on rocks. If you have a good roll and feel a swim is pretty unlikely, the hydroskin is a little more comfortable.

    I use a 3mm Farmer John in really cool water and use the Hydroskin Little John in the summer on the Hiwassee and other rivers that stay cold all year long. They both work very well.

  • Options
    One last thing
    A snug fit is key. A loose wetsuit doesn't do much for ya.

    First time you put it on, it should feel a bit tight all over, but shouldn't be uncomfortable after a few minutes.
  • Go Farmer John
    Go Farmer John with hydroskin and a drytop if needed. You'll want the legs, because the inside of the boat will be cold. Especially if you get a rain day or colder temps. This year has been a cold year.
  • hydroskin
    I love my hydroskin. Some people deal with cold water differently. I can swim without anything in low 60 degree water for a long time if it is warm outside. My wife wouldn't last for five minutes. In hydro skin I have stayed in for about fifteen minutes with out issue in low 50's water with equal air temps.

    If your self rescues are sound then hydroskin would be fine, but if you have to swim for hours it might not go so well. A dry top and farmer john would probably be best but that can get hot.

    Ryan L.
  • Mid 50s water 90s air ...
    There are not a lot of comfortable solutions but whitewater kayakers and surfers do go the farmer john route. Be aware that water sluices through the arms and cools your core so these are not the most efficient at keeping you warm. Another option is to buy 2 mm trunks and top, Oneil makes excellent warm suits in that thickness that are reasonably priced. There are sleevless vests, that also work well for paddling. You can take off the top or unzip it and cool down. Also splash your self with the paddle and wet the suit a lot, pour water on your spray deck, the evaporation will cool you off, tip over and brace back up, or do full on rolls - you will get very hot - this is even true in a dry suit - which to me are even more uncomfortable when hot.
  • Very tough to figure
    We get that here with mountain lakes and heat spells. Also on early spring hot days before the lower reservoirs lose their wintry chill.

    90 degree air and 50-something cold water are an impossible match to dress for. All you can do is compromise.

    I've used a 3mm full wetsuit for those conditions, when rolling a lot. It's way too hot for just paddling in without rolling. A 2mm shorty wetsuit for rolling gets me chilled quickly, but it's better for paddling in--still very hot, though.

    If you don't roll, then maybe a tight-fitting thin neoprene vest would work OK. I have one that's 1.5mm thick that I use for rolling on very hot days (but not in 50-something water). My armpits are exposed to cool water but at least my torso stays warm, because the vest is tight enough to keep water out.

    Farmer Johns tend to let water flush through, in my experience. However, I recently paired a RipCurl 1mm neoprene long-sleeved top with an O'Neill's long-legged Farmer Jane, both made of ultra-stretchy neoprene. Not the stiff kind that many paddling garments are made of. This combo minimizes flush-through. Maybe you could pair a 1mm short-sleeved top with a thin Farmer John of the same ultrastretchy neoprene. If it gets unbearably hot, you could pull down the FJ top part.
  • Options
    No sleeves or drytop
    Paddling wetsuits don't have sleeves for obvious reasons. It adds warmth and a little resistance to every stroke.

    A drytop makes no sense, though you might want to have a splash top or windbreaker with you for after a swim.

    You also ought to consider learning self/assisted rescue techniques and practice them BEFORE you need them out on the lake. If it takes you 5 minutes to recover you don't need a beefy wetsuit, if it takes you 20 minutes, you might want a full length, 3mm Farmer John.
  • That's The Worse Dressing Scenario
    -- Last Updated: Jul-08-11 2:08 PM EST --

    Hot air and relatively cool water. If you have a roll you can readily cool off and gives you way more option on how you dress to adequately deal with immersion. If not, you should practice using each other's bow for a support hold that to allow a lean over into the water to cool off. A much less elegant route is to have a container readily available to cup some water to douse yourselves with.

    Having said the above, a 3 mm farmer john with the option of 1 mm short or longsleeve neo top underneath and/or drytop over the FJ, will give some range of protection. You can use the 1 mm neo underneath for a hotter day because you can unzip the top of the FJ. You can use the drytop over the FJ for colder air temp and slightly less flush through in the FJ arm and neck areas. But as stated somewhere above, the zips around the leg openings and the crotch area will still allow some flushing. So, 3 mm FJ wetsuit is not the equivilent of a 3/2 surfing wetsuit for in the water protection.


  • I would
    agree with Bryan...the only other way I would sugest for late in the summer . I would consider would be to pair a Hydroskin pant with a neo/nylon mysteriosa top. or something like a Hydroskin top or a rash guard and a neo vest. and always have a drytop or a paddling jacket like is made by Kokatat or Reed etc.(either on or with, just in case)

    with a rash guard and the pants, or the mysterosia top and the pants you get several temp variables....You should always have a wind/water over layer with you ...no matter what you dress like . Unless you are wearing a drysuit.

    Bryan and I always paddle Lake Superior. He is up the North shore (colder water most times of the year) and I am close to the Apostles.

    Be Prepared.....sometimes the nicest warm day has a way of turnning on you.

    If you were paddling Our Lake in the spring or after the wind has been mixing the water from down below the thermo-cline with the surface water , then 3 mm or a dry suit would be an excelent choice. Keep youself some choices for each day...it can be bathwater temp on the top 3 feet in and around the islands and low 40 degee temps below that. (always wear a skirt)+ as Bryan said, it's very rare that the lake doesn't keep you kayak cool to cold inside:)

    Best Wishes
  • Options
    Surf Shops...
    carry wetsuit shirts that may work for you. They are long sleeve and usually 2mm thick. They also have a waist loop on the bottom to attach to your shorts to keep the shirt from rising up. Billabong and O'Neill both make one but there may be more. This should not be too warm or thick and would give you added insurance if you needed it. I have two and cut the sleeves on one of them for mobility. Its just a thought!

  • NRS Hydroskin farmer john
    Have had one for at least 15 years, used often in cold Maine ocean water in summer.

    I also have a shortie wetsuit (knee length) in thicker neoprene, but I haven't used it since I got the Hydroskin farmer john. The full length leg makes more sense to me when stepping in and out of a boat, when kneeling in an open canoe, and when the air temp starts to go down.

    If you get too hot, take a dip.
  • Options
    party pooper
    You say you have practiced rescues, but have you practiced in rough cold water, with one or both of you in that water? Since you dont have wetsuits I'm sure you havent, so you aren't prepared, and your wetsuit will only buy you some time. Very cold wet time, as you fumble around trying to rescue yourselves in cold waves. Are you fit and athletic enough to pull that off? Its obvious from your post that neither of you can roll. Be prepared for immersion for sure, but Invest more time in the skills first. Lake Superior will still be there next year.

  • MEC.ca
    has the best deals on farmer john/jane wetsuits, imo. They have the best quality cut and neoprene that I've seen, at a very good price. If you call them, they may have some of last year's models on clearance for around $60.
  • timing is everything
    How fast can you get each other back in the boat? Can you get back in if both of you are.out of your boats? How long would that take?

    If you can't answer under 2 minutes per person, suggest you resolve to get warmer clothing and do bow bunks to stay cool. Like more than shortest. Your.hands and mental function get affected by colder water fairly quickly, especially if not used to it.

    Also, typical paddling wet suits still need a wind blocking layer on top to stop heat loss once they are wet. Wet wetsuits are cold up in the breeze.
  • Quick Rescues are NOT an Excuse for Less
    -- Last Updated: Jul-09-11 12:01 PM EST --

    A couple of comments in this thread have suggested that you can dress with less clothing if you can perform a rescue faster.

    That's just bunk. Shit happens, and a swim might end up being longer than your typical rescue time. The only responsible thing to do is dress for a swim of any length even if you can typically rescue someone quickly.

    Cooling off is easy. Getting warm on cold water isn't. Don't skimp. Once you have more experience paddling on cold water, then you'll be able to make better decisions. On your first trip, don't skimp.

  • Following Your Direction...
    -- Last Updated: Jul-09-11 12:11 PM EST --

    when craps happen, it sometimes does so at such a scale that it doesn't matter whether you are geared to nines, think you are prepared physically/mentally or not... In other words, your time is up.

    As soon as you go out, you are making the best judgement of what to compromise (skills, gear, knowledge, etc) 'cause there ain't no guarantees. And, some wouldn't have it any other way.

    The only way to avoid crap happening out there is to not go out there. But, crap can find you at home as well.


  • More...
    Bryan is not incorrect - I personally dress more warmly than anyone I ever paddle with, because of one paddle where everything that could screw up with a rescue did. But I also think that getting wet, and a lot, is the best way for people to sort this out for themselves.

    To the OPer, you said you had learned rescues. That is usually quite different from having practiced them to get that time down. The practice part tends to show up things that weren't of note in a more deliberative environment. For example, you may find that for the all-in exercise, the suggested timing is very difficult unless one or both of you have have at least a wet re-entry and roll. That's usually not available unless you have started to learn a roll.

    But I also think that getting wet, and a lot, is the best way for people to sort this out for themselves.

    Serious question to the OPer - have you checked out whether you can rent dry suits for this trip? You still should have something for the risk of a catastrophic failure, but the nice thing is that you can just wear regular wicking layers that you probably already own for underneath.
  • well . . .
    To make clear, I definitely agree with dressing on the conservative end of the spectrum, but it's simply not practical to dress for a swim of ANY length (except perhaps where the air is colder than the water).

    If we dressed for very long immersion times, we would be dressing just like divers in our areas. Around here, divers wear 7mm wetsuits in summer time (55-60 degree water). We simply can't dress that way as kayakers so we ALL make compromises. When it's 70 here, and the water is 55, as it is now, I wear a farmer john, and a hydroskin t-shirt. I'd probably get pretty chilled after 15 minutes in the water. Part of my equation is that I carry gear to warm up if I swim (even without landing) and I DO consider how quickly I can rescue myself - and then I dress to survive much longer than that.

    Yes, shit happens, but every endeavor that has any risk involves making some judgements about what is acceptable risk. There are no guarantees, but you do need to give yourself a margin of error.

  • hopefully
    Typical northern Michigan weather will take hold. Which means who knows. Maybe it will be 60 and raining. That would help the hotness. I also remember a few years back when the water in lake Michigan was I'm upper seventies as far north as traverse city. And folks there told me that people were swimming for fun on superior. This seems like you are in a situation of bad chooces, so just pick one and live with it, or not.

    Ryan L.
  • Slippery Slope
    Sing, you're taking the argument to the extreme along a slippery slope. When, in fact, you know what I'm saying. Stop being internety.
  • Yep
    I agree with you, but this thread is addressing someone who lacks the judgment to make those decisions. If they had the judgment, they wouldn't have asked.
  • I paddle Lake Superior
    All summer long and when it gets to the warmest part of the summer I wear Hydroskin long sleeve top and shorts when I'm going out for an afternoon paddle. As soon as I get on the water I roll and the cool water flushes through the top and keeps me nice and cool. This isn't something I would want to swim in for a long period of time but it gives me some thermal protection from the cooler water, keeps me cool from the heat and most importantly it keeps me from being eaten alive by the flies. Like others have said, if you can't roll you can dunk yourself by holding on to the bow of the other persons boat. If your taking a trip on Lake Superior you'll definitely want immersion clothes that will protect you if conditions go bad.
  • Actually, I Do Know...
    -- Last Updated: Jul-09-11 8:15 PM EST --

    I have interacted with folks with similar (very cautious) approach like yours earlier on who would tell me I "shouldn't do this, shouldn't do that..." I followed that approach earlier on but found increasingly that it felt overly cautious and stifling. It's not that they are wrong, it's just that it doesn't fit how I approach things, how I learn, how I develop my own skills and judgment.

    If I had followed their judgement/approach, I would be home all winter and not be surf paddling 'cause I don't use a drysuit (I preferred wetsuits based on my experience after using drysuits) or have two partners to go out with me at each session. I certainly would not have never tried and succeeded in learning to roll on my own in the fall while testing my own immersion gear in chilly lake water. According to them, I should have waited to get pool lessions under someone coach's watchful eye and expert advice. I certainly would/should not have tried to improve my roll and bracing skills by surfing increasingly more challenging ocean waves/conditions whenever possible, even when no-one else wanted to go.

    Sure. I am taking a risk at a level I am comfortable with. Just like the well known, higly skilled expeditioners and/or white water folks who feel comfortable at much harder conditions/venues who succeed or die by their choices. With the latter, it's often a case of shit happens for them as can for anyone who chooses to step out the door.

    Not saying you are wrong. The OP should certainly consider your position. And, if they have any doubts whatsoever (and haven't done their homework and practices, aren't in great physical/mental shape), then I would encourage to them to do as exactly as you recommend (even though I know I personally would not have).


  • I agree
    I agree with what you're saying. You have the experience as do I with cold water paddling, so we make our choices based on our experience and the risks we're willing to take. Someone that doesn't have the experience has a much harder time judging the actual risks of cold water, so they should dress conservatively until they gain experience.

    I don't think recommending a farmer-john-style wetsuit worn with a hydroskin top and having a drytop as backup is a stifling choice. That's exactly what I recommended early in the thread that they take for paddling on Lake Superior in the Apostles. That'll have them covered for long swims during the time of year that they're going.
  • I understand; all valid points.
    Nope, we haven't practiced rescues in cold water, nor do we know how to roll. However we are both comfortable in open water, strong swimmers, and have taken a couple of week-long trips in our kayaks (Isle Royale last summer) and have never had any issues with safety. As such, we are looking to improve our skills and venture into some more advanced areas. We live a block from Lake Michigan and paddle there at least weekly. We have owned our kayaks for a few years and are ready to add to our investment in gear for our next adventure.

    I started this post because I want to be prepared, and I guarantee we will be more prepared than many of the paddlers who venture out on Lake Superior. I've got a few weeks before our trip, and once we have our wetsuits we'll head out to practice our rescues on Lake Michigan (which is still pretty damn cold). Might even try to figure out how to roll.
  • Exactly
    Looking for people with more experience than me to help me make and informed decision. Very much appreciate the knowledge and comments in this thread.
  • Have not thought about dry suits
    but will look into it... Thanks.
  • Cold Water and Conditions
    The big issue is, really, the cold water and the paddling conditions you will experience.

    California paddling is all cold water despite the fact that the outdoor temperature is, if not hot, quite warm. If you are going to spend any appreciable time in the water, a wet or drysuit is a must.

    I've done multi-day canoe/kayak river trips with boy scouts where I fully expected to spend a certain amount of time in 50-55F water each day rescuing gear, boats, and boys. The wetsuit made it possible for me to stay in the water when others were already back in their boats or waiting on shore.

    If these are the conditions in which you'll be paddling a 3mm farmer john is probably a necessity (any thicker than this and your mobility will be affected). Shorties don't cut it, sadly, if you are going to spend any significant time in the water because you will lose too much heat through the legs. One has to do a lot of practice rolling to keep cool enough in these conditions, by the way.

    I've also paddled the coast, mostly Monterey Bay, where the waters are 52-55, depending upon location and been with groups which were unlikely to spend any time in the water and found myself sweltering in the wetsuit (which I wear anyway, so more roll practice for me, yay).

    Lakes here (summer-october) may have warm surface water (top 5 feet or so that may reach the low 80's) and very cold water below the thermocline. Wetsuits are generally not needed unless you wish to dive below that thermocline, which is unlikely for boat rescues. I generally were a swimsuit/shorts and a shirt for sun protection and still get too hot and have to roll. I'm not all that fond of lakes, but most Ca. lakes are man-made and are quite sterile and unattractive.

  • If you live on Lake Michigan anyway,,,
    really worth it to consider going to dry suits earlier rather than later. It really does extend your season. If you can rent a couple for this trip, it'd give you a chance to see how you like them. Just remember to burp them before launching, lest you end up looking like the Michelin Man.
  • Options
    MEC Fusion
    I am really liking the two piece fusion wetsuits that MEC is offering now. Instead of the one piece farmer john I bought a seperate neoprene vest and long neo shorts. Much more versatile for those warm weather days.
  • FJ w/hydroskin top
    And a drytop makes perfect sense in this combo. The only other approach is a drysuit. You may want to start with a drysuit and add the other stuff as budget allows. By then you may have a better grasp with which to make these decisions. Until then I'd err on the side of caution otherwise - heed the weather reports and local knowledge. The apostles can get hairy very quickly.
  • Options
    Thats good

    I'm glad you are both comfortable in the water and good swimmers. I have a friend pushing 60 who regularly kayaks to the Apostles, and she lacks most of the kayak safety skills I think people should have for that kind of paddling. But she is extremely fit and capable, a strong paddler who would leave most men of any age eating her dust, and an experienced navigator and whitewater canoeist. Most importantly she has good judgment, and will not paddle when waves kick up more than a couple feet. If you have good judgment and know your limitations and abilities, you can compensate for other shortcomings. Plan for at least one or two weather days per week, so you dont have to rush into something over your head. And learning to roll is an excellent idea! As is the drysuit.
  • Options
    try 'em out
    I'll add (at the risk of being pedantic)--try out your rescues with your new gear before your trip! Buy Farmer Johns, head for a safe spot with a lee shore, and practice all your different rescues--solo, assisted, etc. You might be amazed at what you've forgotten since you last taken a course or practiced rescues with someone.
  • Options
    Going to a drysuit early on?
    Bouncing off of Celia's advice to Lake Michiganers (below), what do you (and anyone else who wishes to chime in) think about going to a drysuit sooner rather than later for the California coast? I'm new to the sport, and considering my options.

    As you say, the coastal waters here are quite cold, yet the air temperatures are often mild or warm.

    As a heavier person who gets hot easily (5'10", 230 lbs), I have to wonder if neoprene wetsuits are even that much of an option for me. =[

    Do those fancy Gore-Tex dry suits 'breathe' much at all, or is it just a different Circle of Hell, sweltering-wise?

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