3mm Farmer John: How low can you go????

What is the coldest water temperature that you would trust a 3mm farmer john combined with a hydroskin long sleeve shirt and dry top?

I know it is different for everyone…but just want to get an opinion. Immersion would be short in duration if it were to happen.

I am debating over whether to stay with a beefed up farmer john or to get a dry suit for cold weather / cold water paddling. I think I have pretty good tolerance for cold water so I am not sure I need a dry suit.



The problem with your question is that the immersion gear is for just that,immersion. Once you put the restrictions “only a short duration”, “I think I have a good tolerance” it sounds like you’re finding ways to not discover the answer from experience. Go ahead and do it.

Otherwise I’d say 50 degrees to 70 degrees depending on the air temperature your energy reserves, etc, etc.

For any duration immersion (rolling or wet-exit?) a BIG difference can be made with the quality of your head protection. A neoprene beanie may retain heat when you’re getting splashed but won’t help with cold water in the ear canal causing vertigo.

A fuzzy rubber or similar type hood rolled up and stuffed in your pfd can be vital back up for immersion protection.

I haven’t seen one around in catalogs but I found a 3mm neoprene short sleeve shirt/vest with lycra/1mm sleeves a very good addition to farmer johns. You can still have some heat loss through the arms but the extra insulation around your chest offsets the weakness of the farmer john.

I saw a big strong fellow who also had a good tolerance for cold water do 4 rolls for an instructors workshop in 50 degree water, he wasn’t wearing a hood. After three rolls that took all of 10 seconds immersion he tried to do a familiar hand roll, after failing two attempts he wet-exited and got out of the water,walking like a drunk for 15minutes from about 20seconds of immersion. If you are wearing a dry suit or wet suit it doesn’t do much good if you’re core/extremities are warm but you can’t find the horizon because of cold water in the ear canal messing with balance.

Maybe that is why I seem to get so uncharacteristially dizzy after doing long roll sessions in the ocean. I live in Monterey where the water is about 55 year round. The cold water really does not bother me but I have noticed getting super dizzy after doing roll sessions----much more so than after doing so in warmer waters. I never thought about cold water in the ears making a difference.


Before Every Paddle…
Swim around for about 5 mins with your wetsuit. At a certain point, you’ll find where your maximum tolerance is. As you said, everyone is different in how much they can tolerate.

Personally, I thought the winter temp of 50 out there was warm compared to 38 degrees in NE. But, if I got dumped into 50 right now, I would be freezing. There’s a bit of acclimation too, I think.


It was warm in March
The water was a lot warmer than usual in Santa Cruz during the contest this year.

ear plugs
might be a good idea. Sea Kayaker magazine had an article about a guy needing to be rescued after all his back ups didn’t work and vertigo screwed him up. He kept using excuses like “if only,” and one of the excuses was “if only my goretex rain hat stayed on…” as he was getting vertigo from cold water in the ears.

There’s a subtle version of this I was exposed to three years ago going over lessons with some other instructors, the water was around 55 and I was doing some bow rescue/hip snap practice. I’d pop up and continue the instruction. I had a neoprene beanie but water was going around my neck and ears. As I was holding onto the bow of the other persons boat they were giving me feedback. I thought I understood what they were saying but as I was sitting there listening I suddenly realized that I didn’t get what they were saying. As my head warmed up I could process the abstractions in our conversation while for 30 seconds I was going through the motions “uh huh,yeah” while interpreting what they were saying very literally.

It interesting to see that long before physical functioning becomes impaired the higher level brain functions like conversing about abstractions, understanding metaphors, etc. became impaired.

So it’s fun to be stimulated and being physical on the water but if you need those brain skills, planning, situational awareness, listening to someones cues,“I knew you were tired but I didn’t realize you were THAT tired” then it can’t hurt to use all the methods possible to keep cold water from taking one from a discomfort zone to a dysfunction zone.

Our water temps
can be as low as 49 degrees, and I have also seen the surface temps reach 62-64 degrees on a rare day. I also find I am more easily chilled when there’s any kind of breeze. I also feel colder, and have felt colder faster, during wet exit and re-entry practices, when it’s foggy and the air is cooler.

If you like to paddle hard for fitness, or just to cover more distance, you may want to consider a drysuit, or some kind of combo, so you don’t overheat when paddling. I saved this from a Jan. post by TsunamiChuck, as I may giving some thought to changing what I wear when paddling in our local waters:

" Kokatat dry bibs and an IR semi dry top ( neoprene neck gasket) and did just fine and stayed as dry as in my drysuit. The bibs ($165) and a drytop may be a cheaper way to go. "

I am finding that when I paddle with my friend in her rowing scull, I get a workout, but my immersion gear is way too hot! (BTW, she has a open water scull, and doesn’t row all out, or I would never catch her:)


Combine air/water
My rule of thumb as a warm-weather kayak fan is the combined air/water temp rule. I was also told that if you add the air and water temps together they should equal 100 degrees for safety from hypothermia. Just a thought from a rookie.

Ya better try swimming in it yourself
There’s a mental aspect, too.

I sat in icy Alaskan streams almost every day on a trip last summer, naked or nearly so. I even put my head under the water to test for gasp reflex (none) and ice cream headache (only in the 2 farthest northern streams). No matter how cold it got, there was never a hint of panic, because I was sitting or standing in shallow water, and I knew when I was done bathing, I really was done.

Not so with paddling.

What if that quick immersion turns out to be longer than you expected? What if conditions change (something that happens frequently here, and dramatically so)? For me, when the clouds blow over the sun or the breeze picks up, I get goosebumps even with air temp over 80 and water temp a mild 70 degrees. And that’s with successfully executed rolls, no wet exits.

It takes so little for some of us to get chilled. You need to find out for sure, in a real paddling context, whether your cold tolerance is as good as you think it is. Mine is less than I thought it was.

Today, I comfortably did 35 rolls in cool but not cold water, air temp in the 80s. A few days ago I struggled and gritted my teeth to do 10 in warmer air and water. The difference: today I wore a drysuit instead of fuzzy rubber.

When you get chilled, you find a mental reluctance kicking in.

Friday, I went surfing on my waveski (constantly wet) with a 2 mm, once piece wetsuit with sleeves. The water was around 61 and the air was 65 with a 10 knot breeze. I surfed from 3:30 PM to 7:30 PM. Towards the last hour, I knew I was feeling the onset of hypothermia. I didn’t seem to have the same energy and I was wincing whenever a wave hit me straight on. When I got back to my car, changing in the oncoming twilight, I started shaking a bit. I don’t think I felt warmed up until I was home for several hours.

Yesterday, I surfed dawn patrol in NH, from just before 7 AM to about 11 AM. Air temps were around 50 and water temp around 58. I had on a 3/2 mm full wet suit. I was very comfortable the whole time. I suspect once the combined temps drop much below 100, my sessions will have to be shorter, or I will need to switch back into my kayak and drysuit.


Look at SEMI Dry Suit!
Just as a thought,…

I have a 3mm farmer john, that I wore with a semi dry top. I found in situations where the water was cool, and the air was warm, I would sweat my butt off in the wetsuit/s-dry top combo. I felt “safe”, but very uncomfortable.

I switched to a Kokatat, “Super Nova” SEMI Dry Suit. This looks just like a dry suit, but is only about 1/2 the price. It has dry socks sewn to the legs, and Latex gaskets on the wrists, It has the waterproof entry zipper, and relief zipper too.

Where a true Dry suit has latex around the neck, this has neoprene around the neck (Far more comfortable), and you can tighten it pretty tight. If you make it snug, it is almost perfectly dry.

The semi dry suit breathes when it is warm outside, and that makes a BIG difference. Staying dry when you spill, and having a breathable suit when you are in the kayak, makes it a super deal.

Kokatat makes two versions. The Lower priced semi dry suit is a little over $300.00. It has latex ankle gaskets and wrist gaskets, with the neoprene neck seal. But no relief zipper.

The “Super Nova” Semi Dry suit has the sewn in waterproof socks, (so no latex at the ankles to pinch off circulation), and it has the relief zipper for when “you gotta go”.

With the sewn in socks, you don’t need to buy waterproof boots either, so you can save some money there.

Check them out!

Length of Immersion

– Last Updated: Sep-12-05 10:10 AM EST –

As above, this gets to personal tolerance. I needed a heavier weight top, like the NRS Mystery Top, as the water temps got to 50 and the air cooled, with dry top. (latter is needed to block heat loss from wind)

A lot comes down to how much you can/want to control the length of your immersion. A year ago this last spring I'd have only needed to consider the rare unplanned swim on a regular paddle, by last fall this time I had to account for a good 15 minutes of rolling practice per paddle, and with the sculling and moving brace skills we are working on now I can figure that I'll be wet a good half of the time. So from a year ago spring to now I've progressed from layers of neo being Ok to really needing a full dry or at least semi-dry suit.

All these theorectical talk about water temperature and length of immersion. Fact being I saw few kayakers on the water off Monterey wearing drysuit! The few I’ve seen wearing drysuits are heading out in storms and/or doing 20+ mile trips up and down the coast. Most people do wear wetsuit in the winter, some even do in summer. Well, the water temperature doesn’t change all that much after all! Personally, I found a dry TOP adds a lot of comfort with little danger of over-heating.

I’d put it the OTHER way around. Unless you’re particularly suseptable to cold water, or plan on paddling far out on less than perfect days, dry suit are probably not NEEDED. On the other hand, I don’t see anything wrong with getting a dry suit if you can spring the cost. I see in your profile you do white water. You can use the dry suit for running rivers in the spring time.

not a good rule
the 100 rule isn’t related to anything real. 70 degree air and 50 degree water is cold enough to incapacitate a person who isn’t dressed for immmersion. Try it sometime, float around in 50 degree water and see how long you can tolerate it.

what’s needed
given the consequences of not wearing what’s needed there’s nothing like actually floating around in the water to see what works. I went paddling with a big fellow off the Marin coast who was relatively new to kayaking but did lots of scuba diving. He wore a full wet-suit and didn’t care about the chafing, “I know what it’s like to be out in the water for an hour,farmer john doesn’t cut it.”

My Experience
I live in New England. The water here is cold in the Fall, Winter, and Spring. Even the summer ocean temperture never gets above 68 deg F. RIght now it is 60 deg F.

I don’t own a drysuit. I own and use a NRS Ultra John (3 mm Neoprene w/fuzz). I use a Semi-Dry top with the wetsuit for my cold weather paddles. Underneath the wetsuit, I put on a very thin pair of spandex/lycra cycling bib tights (no pad) and a synthetic LS synthetic/rashguard top. I wear neoprene socks and booties and thick neoprene gloves.

Early in the season, I took my clothing ensemble and swam with it in water that was 45 to 50 deg F. I was comfortable for about 15 minutes with full immersion (up to my neck). After about 10 minutes, my arms started to get cold, but the rest of my body where the neoprene covered was warm. With hydroskin or thin neoprene top, My immersion time would probably have been 5 minutes longer.

If I did go over in water that cold, I would be able to self rescue or swim to shore within 15 minutes, but I personally would end my paddle and get back to shore to warm up and change into dry clothes.

For water colder than 45 deg F, I’d go with a full wetsuit or better yet, a drysuit.


This works down to low 50s
Go see Dennis Judson at Adventure Sports or Dave Johnston at their stores in Santa Cruz, they can give you the strait scoop on what to wear for the area you are going to be paddling. If you wear a hood it will keep you a lot warmer too in the winter.

Depends On You, And
You need to try swimming in your wetsuit to really know. Individual tolerance to cold water varies greatly. You can build up a tolerance.

Also, water temps in Monterrey Bay may seem to be very constant, but a few degrees can make a big difference. And it actually varies from location to location more than you might think.

In September I can boogie board for hours in just the Farmer John and no top. I have been very chilled in February with the Mysterioso top. That exposure was fairly long and rough as I was trying to remount a surf kayak in the impact zone.

Frankly, I think a lot of folks go to light in winter around here

By adding neophrene hood/gloves/boots…
you can get much more out of a 3mm wetsuit. As others have posted, the individual is a big factor, so get out there in chest deep water and test it out first.


The reason I ask…
I have a pretty good tolerance for cold water. Paddling in Monterey Bay, I have pretty well decided that I will stick with Hydroskin most of the time. The cold water does not bother me too much. I do a lot of rolling practice and practice of re-entry and I don’t find the water too cold most of the time.

I do like whitewater paddling and want to contine to paddle the rivers in cooler weather where the air and water could be colder than what I would see in Monterey Bay.

Furthermore, being in the Army I may end up somewhere much colder (like the northeast) where water temps / air temps could get pretty cold. I am debating over whether to keep my 3mm farmer john or sell on ebay and eventually get a dry suit.

I am starting to like the idea of a semi-dry suit as someone mentioned above. It seems that most of the time you could get away with Hydroskin and when it is really cold you could use the dry suit. Seems like there may not be a need for the 3mm…or could keep the 3mm and beef it up a bit for really cold conditions instead of a dry suit…not sure.