Cold Weather Gear

Hi all. A little early but I wanted to start looking now for the right clothing for cold water paddling. I’m not interested in a dry suit but was thinking about getting a wetsuit, dry top combo in case of an accidental dip. I’m not looking to roll or paddle when it’s 20 degrees out but something to stay dry and warm if anything happens. Is this a good combo for what I am looking for? I did some research and was leaning towards an NRS wetsuit and a kokatat helix dry top. Would wearing a bathing suit under the wetsuit prevent rash? Can I wear regular (cotton/polyester) clothes over the wetsuit or would that defeat the purpose of staying warm? Thank you for your help. Much appreciated!

Stay away from cotton
A farmer john wetsuit/drytop combo is common. I recommend the MEC’s wetsuit for the quality and price.

I’ve worn thermal long underwear bottoms (polyester) under a wetsuit. I wear a rashguard under my wetsuit in the summer, and in the winter layer thermal base-layer and merino wool shirt underneath, and a fleece layer over the wetsuit, under the jacket. There are fleece products that stretch (Mysterioso) if you’re willing to pay a bit more.


– Last Updated: Aug-17-11 4:31 PM EST –

The wetsuit/dry top combo is a good option and is especially popular for folks who have a roll. Plan A is don't flip over. Plan B is to roll up if Plan A fails. Plan C is to wet exit.

If you swim with that combo, you will get wet and you might get cooled off, but it buys you a lot of time and the dry top acts as a great shell for keeping the wind off your core.

Generally you don't wear much under a wetsuit, you definitely don't wear anything bulky, anything like fleece, and no cotton. A thin, form fitting layer is fine, be it a speedo or poly thermals. One fleece layer outside the wetsuit is about all I can stand when using the dry top.

A skull cap and pogies make a lot of difference too.

And to be clear, a wetsuit + dry top only keeps you dry if you don't swim. But wet and warm is pretty bearable compared to the alternative.

A dry top with a good, wicking, non-cotton underlayer. Hydroskin bottoms with nothing under 'em. Some wind pants over the Hydroskin if it’s really cold.

You’re from WI?
For me, a wetsuit and drytop are OK for spring and fall, but if you get serious about winter paddling, you’ll be looking for a drysuit. It’s just a whole lot warmer on those cold winter days. Start with the wetsuit and see how it works.

Wetsuits don’t leave a lot to the imagination, so some people do wear cloths over the top - its fine as long as you still have room to move.

GET interested in a dry suit
If you’re going to paddle under Wisconsin winter conditions, a wetsuit is not enough. “Dry and warm”? Not in a wetsuit. At best you’ll be damp and warm while you’re upright and if you capsize in cold water, you’ll be wet and cold, perhaps dangerously so, depending on the conditions. Cold water is unforgiving and not for the unprepared.

The bottom line is that if you’re not willing to invest in the proper clothing for winter paddling, stay off the water. You’ll be doing yourself and the rest of the paddling community a favor by not becoming another statistic.

cost, comfort and safety
If cost is what has you dismissing drysuits, consider this: a Helix top is $230 and NRS wetsuits run $100 to $200. I bought a used but well maintained Kokatat Goretex drysuit last year for $400. I also own and have used a full wetsuit and paddling jacket but vastly prefer the comfort and security of the drysuit with wicking undergarments.

Wetsuits are just that, wet. You are either damp with sweat or with cold and then tepid water. Some are also harder to vent if you get overheated.

Drysuit bargains can be found, in the classifieds, on eBay and at the Kayak Academy’s site used gear page. At this time of year I’ve even seen new ones for under $500.

Go straight to the drysuit

– Last Updated: Aug-17-11 10:25 AM EST –

I have tried the wetsuit plus drytop option going into winter in the northeast. It didn't work, at all, when the water temps got into the 40's and below. In fact I had an early stage hypothermia event after one set of swims while learning to roll in a 2.5 mm wetsuit and drytop with water and air temps both in the low 60's.

The only result of spending more money on additional layers of neoprene like vests and jackets for over the wetsuit is that I have a pile of neoprene that only gets used when there is a large class. The participants appreciate the extra stuff, but for 364 days a year it just takes up space. Meanwhile, I accumulated enough wet wear and separate tops that it came to nearly the cost of a good deal on one of the more accessibly priced drysuits, like NRS's or Level 6 if you get a good deal.

I did start using the separates etc more in warmer weather (and warmer water) once I got a reliable roll on at least one side, but if I were to have only one specialized garment for paddling into even late fall in the Northeast it'd have to be a drysuit. Your temps are, if anything, colder.

People from other parts of the country often forget that the water temps in this northern half can be in the 40's by late October, upper 30's by late November on many smaller and shallower water bodies. The great lakes may change temp more slowly, but they don't heat up as much as either so are often starting out at lower temps.

Not interested in heavy winter paddling
I am looking for protection in the spring and fall more than anything else, something to keep my core dry and safe. I can roll reliably and know good safety skills. Would a dry top and pants combo work better? I want to stick with a two-piece or just a dry top if possible.

What water temps?

– Last Updated: Aug-17-11 10:57 AM EST –

Seasons can mean a lot of range in water temps.

Re the 2-piece option, I have a good NRS mostly-dry top (neo rather than latex neck but it is tight) and the goretex pants with booties from Kokatat. I find this to be a good combo for into-cold weather as long as I don't swim. I'll get some drips inside if I roll or scull but not enough to be an issue if the under layers are good.

The two piece system of bib and pants from I think Kokatat that roll together seems to be as close to dry as you can get without a drysuit, drier than the more typical one I have, and is a great alternative for many. It is also a bit of a job to get into it right by yourself - some trial and error to get that right. It is still almost as pricey as some dry suits.

Cost efficiency is a major factor. The cumulative cost of my 2 piece system, both purchased at discounts of 25 to 30 percent, is still the same as a good deal on one of the less expensive breathable dry suits. The bottom line is that good dry wear costs some bucks, whether you buy it in one or two pieces. Cheap dry wear, even separates, ends up hanging in the closet.

One more question - do you paddle solo or with others? That is, if the shit really hit the fan like you blew a shoulder and capsized, would you have some assistance to get back into your boat?

Controlled Experimentation

– Last Updated: Aug-17-11 11:23 AM EST –

Set up an ""experiment"" to test yourself.
Have blankets, warm car, food, hot drink at the ready.
Go to waters edge, get in, fully over your head, dunking.
Are you comfortable - could you hang out for 20 minutes ?
How about another 4 hours paddling back to start ?
Wind whipping over wet clothing violently rips heat away.

If the answer is no - make changes to your "systems"

The ONLY way you'll know for sure is trying it yourself.
Nothing wrong with having a buddy, friend, family on hand
while trying the experimentation process near the shore.

Eliminate doubt, eliminate guesswork, KNOW for sure !

Being comfortable and surviving are 2 different things
-- ice cold water rushing into a wetsuit SUCKS !!
You'll hyperventilate, muscles will clench/cramp,
it'll be damn hard to swim in a wet exit scene.
You will be wet for quite a while, shivering.
I've done it, and I bought a drysuit the next season.
Often overlooked - OS systems gear

Michigan has those Indian summer fall days where
it's beautiful sunny but the water is damn cold.
Air temps mean diddly squat - water temps matter !

Cold Weather Gear
I paddle all year in the Pacific NW and use full surfing wetsuits which are very warm, yet quite flexible. If the windchill gets below 30F, I layer over a gortex paddling jacket, and/or put a capeline long underwear top under the suit. another nice option is a neoprene hooded vest which can go over or under your suit.

I used to wear drysuits but find i get more flexibility from neoprene and stay just as warm, and they’re far more affordable. my roll improved with neoprene. A good surfing wetsuit is $250-600. I’d suggest brands such as Patagonia, Excel, O’Neil, Hotline, and Mateuse.

Ya, wearing cotton over your wetsuit isn’t a good idea. there’s no thermal properties in cotton, they’ll just get wet and heavy.

combo ideas as you’ve mentioned are great. there’s several companies that make Farmer Johns/Janes and then add a paddling jacket over. some wear a rain coat if that’s your thing. wear a fleece under for warmth. don’t get too bulky, not good for flexbiility especially if you swim.


Hmm…food for thought
How are drysuits when the air temperature is 70 degrees and the water is still cold? I also looked at the NRS extreme but I have doubts about its breathability or others the same price on days when its fine to wear a t-shirt

ah the wonder of being dry
I know you don’t intend to tackle the icy waters, but where you live I would still save every nickel and skimp on other gear just to get a dry suit. I only recently bought one since I live in So. California and only really needed one when heading further north. But once I got mine I loved using it even down south near home in the winter. By adjusting layers I can be comfortable from very cold to mid 60s water temps and some warmer air temps. What I really liked though was how great it was when DONE paddling when cold and rainy since I just quickly take off the dry suit and put on my street clothes staying warm the whole time. The other plus is you will happily push yourself to try things that might get you wet helping you to have more fun and become a better paddler.

There is a certain amount of regulation
… that you have to do when the air temps are warm and the sun is out. Some will poo-poo this but I moderate my activity level when it’s warm out so that I don’t sweat too much. But I like to do WW so that kind of moderation isn’t hard to do. The other option is to roll or get wet to cool off. In a kayak it’s not hard to roll.

Like others here have said, if you reasonably can, go straight to a dry suit. You won’t be sorry.

That’s Maine…
Not uncommon to have a 30 degree diff between air and water temps.

You can manage this if you have a roll to cool off, or if with others take a dunk off their bow, and get really wicking base layers. I like combos like capilene or CoolMax for the base layer and some level of performance fleece that can be sweaty but stays warm on top as temps get colder, others find that different materials work. You will be sweaty some days - can’t stop that - but you can layer appropriately so being sweaty underneath doesn’t leave you chilled. The wind blocking factor for any dry wear makes a huge diff, especially in a full suit.

At worst, I bring along a change of base layers and strip into dry at lunch break on a long paddle. It’s not like these boats don’t have room for it.

compared to wetsuit?
Above 70F a dry suit will feel warm at times but I don’t find it worse than a wetsuit with jacket or dry top since that gets pretty warm too. If you wear a very thin wicking layer, unzip the top at rests and sometimes get wet you’ll be good. Then as a bonus you’ll find yourself happily throwing yourself into the water to practice valuable skills.

reasonable option

– Last Updated: Aug-17-11 12:37 PM EST –

I have paddled both kayaks and open boats in water that was down to 35 degrees F and less and have used both a dry suit and a dry top/wetsuit combo.

I personally find dry suits a PITA to put on and vastly prefer a dry top. Paddling frigid whitewater in a kayak I usually wore a dry top with a wet suit bottom, sometimes only a short wet suit bottom covered with nylon paddling pants. I have a pretty good roll but I'm not going to claim I never swim.

I found that even if I did swim wearing the dry top/wet suit combo once the initial cold shock was over I was tolerably warm enough, especially when I got back in the boat. I was, of course, wet under the dry top but the damp fleece warmed up reasonably well within a fairly short time.

Unless the water was really frigid, I often preferred going with the wet suit/dry top even when paddling an open boat for reasons of comfort. But different folks have different tolerance to cold. And some folks are more likely to swim than others.

Dry suit is really great
I went along for 3-4 years using a farmer john wetsuit or drytop with neoprene pants. Finally tried a dry suit and would never go back. Kokatat Goretex dry suits are truly breathable and very comfortable. Yes, they are expensive, but 4 yrs later it is by far the best investment in kayaking I have made. As you know, when it is 70 degrees and the water is cold, you need to dress for the water, not the air. The drysuit is the best way to do that. You will get warm and you will sweat, but with the breathability, it is not nearly as uncomfortably warm as with a wetsuit in the same conditions.I find it very tolerable, especially if you dunk yourself every hour or so.

My only regret is not having tried a drysuit much earlier.

Any fabric has limits - regardless of the brand.

You can, and will, overload, breathable fabric,

by going all out in training in a kayak.

They will dry much, much quicker, - high comfort level.

Breathable fabrics are wonderful to have paddling.

Cotton is horrible on the water and most places.

Cotton can absorb up to 27 times its weight in water.

Perhaps it’s great for the arid sand environments

but I only wear it to the mall or around town.