Cold Weather Gear

I’m getting ready for a sea kayaking course. There will be a lot of rescues - so in and out of the water - interspersed with some longer paddles. The water temperature will be about 40F. The air temperature will likely be below freezing at times (early mornings), with high temperatures of maybe 50F. It will be windy with rain/snow/sleet.

So, what is the absolute warmest clothing that I can fit under a dry suit?


I bought my wife some nice stuff made
out of musk ox hair. Expensive, though.

I suggest you look at “Lifa” or polypropylene weave. It absorbs zero moisture into the fibers, and they hold loft very well. Lifa is, I believe, a Helly Hansen copyrighted name.

Of course, cotton is terrible. Nylon isn’t so good. It absorbs moisture and will get sodden. Polyester absorbs much less. Some pile garments are polyester.

So called wicking garments aren’t as helpful under a drysuit as they are in open air. My wicking garments get rather sodden under my drytop. Thing is, wicking doesn’t help much, working against a semi-permeable membrane and unfavorable temperature and moisture gradients.

Wicking fabrics in layers
Not a sea kayaker, but if it is really cold I’ll wear a thin base layer, a set of long underwear, and my fleece liner. I usually go with a light-weight set of long underwear, but for extended time in the water, you might want to go for one of the heavier-weight versions. I agree that even water-wicking fabrics are going to get soggy eventually, but they keep me warm and comfortable, so I wear them. For the feet, same idea - liner socks, wool socks and neoprene boots.

Personally, I rarely get cold in the boat or even in the water (not that I would be in the water for an extended period of time). It’s when we stop for lunch that I get cold.

Our club used to run spring training…
…every season in similar conditions. We spent a lot of time doing rescues under various scenarios and I was often a volunteer “tea bag” (got dunked a lot) for these exercises. The key is how long you spend in the water. For a typical rescue where you’re in the water for only a handful of minutes. I found that long underwear and a fleece layer (200-300 weight Polar Fleece or equivalent) was enough and I didn’t overheat when paddling. Neoprene boot and a thick hood are mandatory and I preferred dry gloves for this type of work.

For longer “injured paddler” scenarios, I found that I started to get uncomfortable in around 15 minutes and I needed to get out of the water after 20 or so. If I was more active, rather than playing helpless or unconscious, I could extend my time in the water somewhat. Also, being prone on the surface was warmer than being vertical, where the water compresses your insulation on your lower body and chills you faster.

many layers
When I wear a dry suit I usually just wear a single layer of thick synthetic fleece with perhaps a thin Capilene shirt and underwear beneath it.

But if I anticipated prolonged exposure to really cold conditions, I would wear as many thin layers of wool and synthetic as I could without restricting mobility.

For a couple of years when I lived in Minneapolis I rode a bike daily in temperatures as low as a wind chill of 98 below zero. I used around 5-6 thin layers of Merino wool and Helly Hanson Lifa polypro under leather.

I have not found one particular synthetic to be vastly superior to another. In fact, in terms of absolute warmth, I rather suspect wool to be somewhat superior to synthetics, although the difference is not great. But each thin garment traps a thin layer of air between it and the next.

Do you do other winter stuff?
Like skiing? The reason I ask is that different individuals find different things work better, though they all work decently as long as they are good quality.

For ex my husband does very well with stuff containing a bit of silk, which is useless and chilly for me because I sweat into it so fast. Wool blends can be really nice for many unless you have the same issue wth wool against your skin that I do. Itch.

If you know what works for your other aerobic activities in winter, you should have a start.

Remember that the moment you jump into the water whatever body heat you have developed will become condensation in the suit. So as above the most important factor for the base layer is its wicking ability.

talk to instructor
I would also talk to the instructor, as they likely have plans that may impact your clothing choices. When I teach classes (though not in temps that you are seeing), I hold the rescues until after lunch. So if the instructor does this and you go in expecting to be swimming from the first moment, you could be boiling during the non-rescue parts.


– Last Updated: Apr-08-14 4:10 PM EST –

I agree with Peter. If you are actually going to be doing rescues in 40 degree water then you need lots of loft. (As much insulation from the suit skin as possible) If you are going to do paddling then you will get hot. It's one of the dilemmas of dry suit use and cold water protection. Hopefully the instructor will understand that and do the swimming at the end of the course. If I dress for paddling, I will be protected for an immersion and reentry but not really protected enough for long immersion practice sessions. It comes with experience and I'm a thinner build person. Most paddlers in drysuits are really not dressed for long periods in the water. If you're going to error, over dress. I've rolled in 40 degree with a hood, drysuit and my normal paddling layers and believe me, you can feel that cold water.

Cold weather helps.
I think its far easier to dress for 40 degree water when its that cold or colder out, clouds are great, and a little rain or snow doesn’t really change anything. When it is hard is when its 60 and sunny, but the water is 40. Since no one else paddles in this town I live in, I take it pretty mellow in the early season, and really have to watch the cold water (of course ideally, I’d never go solo, but I love paddling in the cold, and cant even get people to go in July). I like to swim every time I go out at first- I think acclimating to sub 40 degree water helps alot. In the early season, I like to spend a bunch of time dunking clear under in my gear, but out of my boat. Get to the point where I can hold my head under, and think clearly for a good 10 count. Good hood and ear plugs are critical. I always wear nose plugs when playboating anyway, but absolutely when I could be upside down in sub 40 degree water.

Why not good quality neoprene?
Been paddling/rolling all winter in Whittier, Seward and Homer. Find the neoprene tuilik warmer and I am in dryer than I am in the drysuit. The boardies in Seward are all in neoprene

I agree …
Spring is a killer in the drysuit when the air temp spikes up to 70. and the water is still in the 40s. I just splash my suit or scull on the water.