Cold water immersion gear advice for July IRNP tour

My partner and I are planning a leisurely tour/exploration of the Five Fingers area of Isle Royale National park this July, getting dropped off at McCargoe Cove on a Monday and getting picked up from either Belle Isle or Rock Harbor on the following Monday. Our intent is to paddle around Blake Point if conditions are right to end our trip in Rock Harbor-- if they are not, we will have a lot of flex in the schedule to stay an extra night somewhere & delay our approach, or if it gets really bad we will plan to catch the boat at Belle Isle instead of finishing at Rock Harbor.

My experience level: I have done one multi-day sea kayak trip on Lake Huron, and several day paddles on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan (both guided and solo). I cannot do a barrel roll. I will be paddling with my experienced partner (who has a lot more time on the water than me, including lots of surf play day paddles in Lake Michigan, and whitewater river trips-- but also cannot barrel roll). We are both familiar & practiced with T-rescue and self-rescue methods.

We respect Lake Superior and don’t want to treat the risk of cold water immersion lightly. Neither of us owns any cold water immersion gear, and after extensive reading and research we are leaning toward Farmer John/Jane wetsuits with semi-dry tops or paddle jackets and appropriate layers underneath. Is that a safe choice given our experience level, or should we be thinking about full wetsuits or drysuits for this trip?

I know there are a lot of variables and obviously decisions are really personal, but I would appreciate people’s insights.

Thanks and happy paddling!

No direct experience but, it looks like average July water temp is about 55° with an average high of 59° in August.

I believe most advice from a number of sources will put you in drysuit territory and at best, a full 4/3 wetsuit. I tended to think that a capsize would be a one and done affair. However, reading the experiences of others, in bad conditions it may often be that one may repeatedly end up in the water and have to re-enter or attempt to re-entry, each time sapping energy and heat.


A dry suit… I have spent a total of three months paddling on Lake Superior but not going around Isle Royale… Big concern with lengthy stretches of steep drops to the water. These engender reflecting waves and clapotis. For that reason we have always stayed a good quarter mile offshore to seek smoother seas.


If you haven’t already done so, check out the Cold Water Safety Organization’s website. They have a Gear Guide page that discusses the different types of thermal protection wear that is very helpful.


Yes, a drysuit would be the most appropriate. Even with that you will want to be extra careful as you are in a small group & the chances of an “All In” situtation are high if one goes in. Be aware that picking up a signal to get the NOAA forcasts can be tricky.

I was at Isle Royale last July (2022) and the offshore buoys were reading 39 - 40 degress F. We went south from Rock Harbor & stayed mostly close in to shore and were in more protected waters when conditions picked up.

Be careful, be safe and enjoy. Isle Royale is a magical place.

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Thank you for all the input so far, keep it coming.

One additional factor I meant to mention: I have a latex allergy. I have been looking at the Reed Chillcheater gear and curious whether anyone has comments or experience on that brand’s performance as a drysuit (or dry top)?

@raosborne I had spent some time on the Cold Water Safety Organization’s website, and I do think they mention a Farmer John/Jane suit paired with a drytop as an appropriate kit for cold weather. I realize I referenced semi-dry tops or paddle jackets in my original post… this was with the assumption that Chillcheater is not a “true” drytop, but perhaps that is incorrect.

Thanks for all the insights!

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Your level of experience should not impact your choice of immersion gear that much.
I believe a Farmer John in a good choice for paddling. Less chaff from paddling and better freedom of movement. Depending on the weather you can wear different layers under it and use a dry top. It will handier equipment to have for warmer weather paddling at home.

I did a sea kayak trip on Puget Sound in Sept. The water temps were right around 55 degrees F. We used Farmer Johns and dry tops. We made some open water crossings with a stiff wind and plenty of power boat traffic wakes. Make sure you have a quality skirt to keep water out of your cockpit.

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Dry suit is best, but if you are just buying for this trip, probably cost prohibitive. And the latex allergy probably means you couldn’t anyway…

A 3 mm farmer john/jane wet suit with a paddle jacket likely would do you fine. Early on, I did a 5 night San Juan Islands (Washington) trip with this combo, and we even did practice rescues with it. May not be as preferable as dry suit, but will give you a lot of additional time before cold incapacitates you if you swim.

All of this assumes you can self rescue. The “barrel” roll isn’t required, but knowing how to get yourself back into your boat should you swim (using things like paddlefloat rescue, cowboy scramble, t-rescue, etc.). If you can’t do these, then even the best thermal insulation clothing may not be enough. The clothing is meant to keep you warm enough to give you enough time to rescue yourself or be rescued.

If your rescue skills are limited, let me throw out another option - go for the wet suits/paddle jackets and hire a local guide who both knows the area/weather patterns/etc and is well trained in rescues to provide safety.

I’m far from an expert in any of this and also a fairly new to paddling I grew up on the Great Lakes and have a lot of water time in larger powerboats and respect the water temps and follow them closely. The surface temp can change rapidly with wave action.

For myself if I were thinking of such a trip and during the process of selecting gear I would do a good test with backup safety nearby of the worst-case scenario. Pick a windy day and paddle out a quarter mile with a powerboat close by as backup and water temp say 55. Dump out of both boats and see how it all works with reentry and clearing the boats of water and then how your cold gear warms you back up. The time to find the limitations is well ahead of the actual trip.

Find the methods of rescue where you both are out of your boats but working together.


I tend to feel that for those water temperatures a dry suit works better in keeping you warm enough in the water while reducing overheating when paddling vigorously. If you often paddle in northern areas spending the extra money will be worth it in the long run. Some manufacturers have neoprene gaskets as an option.

Be sure to practice rescues, including “all-in” rescues. Be sure to practice these in both calm waters and later in rough waters with a suitable safety plan. A rough water rescue is nothing like a calm water rescue. With water in the cockpit the boat will be less stabile potentially leading to multiple capsizes.

Study a chart for bailout points.

Definitely have a waterproof VHF radio on your person at all times. Everyone on a trip such as yours should have one. If VHF reception is unreliable consider a satellite based locator beacon. I would not count on continuous cell phone coverage.

I’ve used a Reed paddle suit for years, including on a couple of Lake Superior trips and in the San Juan Islands. There are many pros to the Reed and a few cons.


  1. Much cheaper than most drysuits by almost half. The cheapest NRS is $900 vs. $500 for a Reed. They used to do bespoke suits as well if you are hard to fit.

  2. I love the waist zipper. You can zip in and out easily without assistance.

  3. You don’t get choked to death by the neck seal. I’ve only ever gotten a couple tablespoons of water down my neck after falling in. However, I think they have changed the neck seals recently.

  4. The suit stretches a bit, unlike Gore-Tex, which I find useful when bending my aging knees to get out of the kayak.

  5. Field repairs couldn’t be easier. Bring a tube of Aquaseal to patch any holes or seam issues.

  6. No concerns about a fussy latex gasket. You aren’t supposed to get sunscreen or bug spray on them, you have to keep them conditioned, they degrade in sunlight. Latex gaskets require far more maintenance than the Reed neck and wrist seals. My Kokatat suit needs a new neck gasket after 3 years. My Reed, which is 2 years older (and has had harder use), has never needed seals replaced.


  1. The suit is a human basting bag. While I have my doubts about how much Gore-Tex suits breathe (its a rudder vs. skeg argument, I know), this suit doesn’t breath at all. That’s actually where the adjustable neck can be put to good use. Loosen it up and pump your arms a couple of times. Out goes the hot and humid air, in comes cooler, fresh air. It is super easy to unzip at the waist during off water breaks to air out.

  2. Ordering from Reed can require some patience. Not the fastest or the best in returning emails. To be fair, they said they were having some personnel problems when I ordered my suit a number of years ago so maybe things are better now.

  3. A common complaint is that the booties are tight, which I find true on my suit. I only wear boot liner type socks inside but then I wear tall neo paddle boots over so my feet don’t tend to get cold.

Reed suits aren’t that popular in the US where Kokatat is king but in the UK, Reed is worn in the coldest and roughest of conditions. For the price, I think the protection is super-duper.

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Yup still a thing. I tried to buy a spray deck from them. Got tired of waiting on responses even though my boat was listed in their “catalog” of pre-measured patterns.

If you search the inter webs, there’s some concerns about quality control; that things show up labeled as “large,” for example, but are actually medium. I have spray deck that I bought locally here in the US from a dealer (for a different boat than in last paragraph) and I’m not confident it’s actually the model it is labeled as. The thing requires and enormous amount of force to get over the coaming (even after stretching and keeping it on the boat during storage) leading me to believe the label is incorrect.

Regarding latex allergy and drysuit: get a paddling suit a/k/a drysuit without the latex neck gasket. This may require some shopping around to see if there’s a model that doesn’t also have latex wrists. My Kokatat has a neoprene neck but latex wrists but I bet some company makes something without latex. Try NRS.

I have two drysuits that I have rarely used for different reasons. One partial reason is that the latex gasket gives me rashes when it interacts with saltwater. I do have semi drytops with neoprene gaskets that I favor and use quite a bit.

FWIW, I think a 3/2 (or 4/3) surfing wetsuit, combined with semi-drytop using neoprene neck and wrist gaskets (such as that by Immersion Research), will offer you protection through a 10 degree range of temperature variance. This is the combo I used when I went several time out to Santa Cruz, CA for a surf kayaking competition in March. The air temps were usually in the low 70s and the water temp at around 50 degrees. I don’t find a 3/2 wetsuit impacting by paddling motion and can go for hours in it. However, if air temps are high, I have and can cool off by rolling. Without a roll, you would have to splash yourself and/or use your partners bow as support as you tilt your kayak and lower yourself into the water.

The other factor is how well/fast can you and your partner do self and assisted rescues, since neither of you have a roll. This is something for you to test out and practice before going on the trip, maybe in a pool or a warmed up Pond in late May or early June. For me, a 3/2 can keep me warm and functional in 50 degree water for at least 15-20 minutes to get myself back into the boat and right side up. With a semi drytop, that time range extends a bit. If you can’t get back into the boat and right side up in 15 minutes or so, you can extend your immersion time window with a 4/3. But, you are going to encounter the need for more cooling maneuvers in warmer air temps.


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Sorry to hear about the QC and lack of communication at Reed. Kokatat is causing me heartburn for the same lack of communication right now, though.

I’m getting ready to leave for my solo circumnavigation of Lake Superior in May (finally!) and should have checked my dry suit sooner since it hasn’t been used for a year. But last Monday I pulled on the SwitchZip and the neck gasket shredded. I called Kokatat and scheduled a rush replacement service with the very nice and helpful lady in customer service. Four days later I’m still waiting for a confirmation email with my RA number. I don’t consider that very good customer service for the cost involved - $95 for the gasket, $45 for the rush service.

I know folks love those guys but I’ve never gotten particularly warm fuzzies from Kokatat. I only bought the SwitchZip because REI had it on sale for half off which made for a good deal. Love the idea that is comes completely apart but it can be fussy to get zipped without cross threading it and has too many flaps around the waist. Still being able to unzip for biobreaks on the Lake beats a relief zipper in many ways. Fingers crossed they can get the repair done. If not, my trusty Reed stands at the ready.

I think you’d be fine with a semi drysuit and appropriate undergarments.

I have actually been searching all over for dry suits/tops with non-latex gaskets and have not found many, so I’d appreciate recommendations if you have them! We will have a waterproof VHF radio and will practice rescuing before.

NRS does only latex as far as I can see. If anyone has specific recommendations I have actually had a hard time finding anything without latex on it that would be appropriate for this.

That is really good to know about the breathability (or lack thereof)… thanks for that intel. I guess I had been thinking that a Farmer John/Jane + drytop might actually be MORE comfortable temperature-wise than a full wetsuit, but maybe not.

Very helpful, thanks. So to be clear, you wear a full 3/2 wetsuit, not the farmer version, correct? And still top that with a drytop in addition?