Drysuit Layering System???

What is your drysuit layering system? I have been using a drysuit for years, but still have not settled on the best layering system. It seems that regardless of the temperature (down to the mid 20s) I end up sweating. The challenge is finding the right layers that will not cause me to overheat too much, and wick sweat, yet not become fully saturated make you chilled when they do get soaked with sweat.

The last several years I have been using Mysterioso and IR layers of Powerdry fleece which has been fairly good, but I am experimenting with merino wool again. I tried it a few years back, but want to give it another shot because I want to experiment a bit more with different thicknesses.

What do you like to use and at what temperatures?

Full immersion is not something I am super concerned about.



Polypropylene base layer. Depending on how cold it is, polypro long-johns and a fleece union suit. Good pair of wool socks on my feet and neoprene gloves. Always a hat, maybe a helmet liner if I need my helmet and it is really cold/windy. I spent a couple of hours on Sunday sloshing around in knee to waist deep 33° water cutting out stainers. Air temp’s were in the 40’s. I was fine - no sweating and never got a chill.

Crossing the left side over to the island

We then went out to do some paddling, and I definitely worked up a sweat - took several attempts to get to this.
I don’t know that you can have it both ways - if you are dressing for the water, you are going to work up a sweat when vigorously paddling. I wouldn’t say my inside layers get saturated, but they definitely get wet. With the polypro, it does tend to wick away from me. The only time I get a chill is when I stop, so when it is cold I try to limit the breaks - keep moving and stay warm. :wink:

Wonderful as dry suits are, it is kind of a PIA that, for the most part, you decide how to dress ahead of time and then are pretty much stuck with your choices for the day. Dress for comfort while resting, and you’ll be hot while paddling. I usually try to layer up to be tolerably cool to begin with and hope to get comfortable as I begin to crank up the motor while paddling.

Yesterday was just above freezing to start off and went to a high about 37, with low wind. I wore poly pro long johns under Polartec fleece. I think the pants were 200 weight and the top was 300 polartec. I was comfortable paddling and cold when we stopped for breaks. Many say goretex is chilly when you stop because of the evaporative cooling that goes on. I find moisture accumulates under my PFD, and I’m colder when I remove the PFD during lunch.

Polypropylene is a fabric that does not absorb water. It gets wet when water infiltrates the spaces between the threads, but the threads are waterproof. Moisture easily passes through. I don’t really know if polartec is different than other fleece, but I’ve had good experience with it so I look for it when buying fleece. When I used to do lots of cycling, I found rain wear useless. Even with a goretex rain suit, my sweat overcame the breathability of the material, and I’d end up wetter inside the suit than outside. I got better results with polartec. In heavy rain, I’d get wet through, but the polartec still did a decent job at keeping heat in. I read that polartec threads are actually hollow, which is supposed to provide insulation even when the garment is wet. And somehow, most of the water stays on the outer surface. Maybe all fleece works like that, but polartec is the material that won my confidence.

Under the dry suit, the polypro and polartec should wick moisture from your skin to the outer layer of fleece. Pulling off the dry suit after paddles, I’ve been surprised how much moisture is on the fleece, even though I didn’t feel wet. I’m pretty sure your level of paddling exertion exceeds mine, and I imagine it gets pretty wet inside the suit, so I don’t know it will work the same for you. As Eric says, maybe we can’t have it both ways. Could just be sweat is part of winter paddling.


Look at it this way…You can always cool off when it’s cold and you’re on the water. But you ain’t going to ever stay warm without that insulation. And full immersion should always be a consideration.

I use wool.

If I sweat too much, I use more wool, so it can absorb more sweat…

Yes. I agree that sweating may be unavoidable. I can always wring sweat out of my paddling layers after paddling. I paddled this weekend and I think it was 37. I wore a single lightweight Smartwool PhD top. By the end of my 2 hour paddle it was totally soaked–almost dripping wet. I did not really get chilled though. That is the irony is that if you dress in light layers to keep from overheating, their inability to absorb more water to be wicked to the outer surface and tendency to become completely saturated can make you cold.

My normal powerdry fleece which is a bit warmer than I prefer makes me sweat quite a bit, but it seems to soak water up like a sponge and has enough holding capacity to keep the majority of the water on the outside vice inside. Given its thickness and warmth I wear only a single layer with no base layer under.

My current experimenting is focused on wearing two lighter layers to try to keep the base layer drier and having the sweat soak into the outer layer. Also experimenting more with the Merino wool based on the premise that it is going to get pretty wet, but supposedly still is a good insulator when wet.

I started out this weekend on my 37 degree paddle with two layers of lightweight merino but it became just way, way too warm very quickly and I shed one of them. Merino does seem very warm for its thickness / weight.

Dressing for immersion…well I have mixed feelings on that one. I like Derrick Hutchinson’s theory that you don’t necessarily dress for immersion, but to roll. And then if I so end up being fully immersed I am usually close enough to shore to where I would not worry about it. If I were in a situation where prolonged immersion might be a consequence then I might think differently, but in 15 years of paddling I have only wet exited maybe 3 times and that was in strong currents where I felt like I could not get my paddle up above the surface. Can it happen that you must wet exit…yes. But you need to weigh the likelihood and consequences. If the probability is super low (like %5 or less) and the consequences are reasonably low…then I don’t worry about it much.

I know this goes against principles generally held by sea kayakers, but I prefer to think more practically. For instance, is it possible that you will sustain an injury requiring a tourniquet while paddling? Yes and not having one would be deadly. But the odds are so low I am not going to worry about it. Same for wearing a helmet driving to work every day. That probably would increase your safety, but I am not going to be wearing one due to the obvious inconvenience. However, I feel that the odds of my getting in an accident driving to work are greater than the odds of having to wet exit under all but extreme conditions. And I like to paddle is fairly extreme conditions.


There is definitely a balancing act between dressing for the water and being comfortable while paddling. And as Chip said, unlike hikers who can add and delete layers easily, we are kind of stuck. Being a river paddler, I find that it is more of an issue when I’m whitewater paddling since you tend to do a lot of starts and stops - take your turn on a wave, and then take a break while someone else has a turn; or run a rapid, and then wait for the rest of the crew to make it through. I don’t tend to sweat quite as much on a flatwater/quickwater run. With the polypro and fleece I don’t feel wet when paddling (although there is definitely moisture in the suit when I take it off off), and I rarely get cold on the water (unless we have an extended stop - often a swim or a pin). I’m also an open boater without a roll, so I have to plan for swims - it doesn’t happen often (couple of time a year), but I know it is going to happen, and even a short swim in that frigid water takes it out of me. It’s a balance.

Agree with Matt that you are MUCH more likely to get in an accident driving to the put-in than you are boating.

Dressing for winter paddling doesn’t have to be complicated. Under a Gore-tex drysuit, I wear synthetic long underwear topped with either 200 or 300 weight fleece, depending on the temperature. I find that I need less insulation on my legs, since they’re inside the boat. I don’t wear wool on my body, because it absorbs water and dries slowly. I do wear wool on my feet and hands (inside dry gloves) because it wears better than synthetics in those applications.

I always have a hat on, generally a shelled fleece cap with ear flaps and keep a neoprene hood on the deck in case I want to do any rolling. Speaking of which, rolling or sculling on your back is a great way to cool off it you get a bit overheated.

During breaks onshore, I have a Hilleberg Bivanorak pullover that covers me from head to toe and adds more warmth than you can imagine from a lightweight shell. If the temp isn’t too cold and I can get out of the wind, I’ll unzip my drysuit to let the fleece layers dry, which happens in a couple of minutes. With wool, you’re going to stay wet unless you have considerable time to let it dry.

Poly base top and bottom, Merino wool from kokatat, polar fleece kokatat bunny suit. Sometimes kokatat .5 mm top. If really windy kokatat gortex jacket on top of drysuit. Usually don’t go out below 25-30° F with some sun. Not sunny 32° F. Don’t want ton of water freezing on everything. Also kokatat gortex hat and kokatat balaclava. Wool socks Chota neo boots. Pogies neo and thinner type. Neo gloves in case I was in water a while.

I always bought lighter under layers and added/subtracted layers for the temp or type/intensity of paddle.

For ~32 air/water temps, I would always do 2 layers light polypro fleece pants, same 2 light layers on torso, double wool socks (keen to have toasty feet at all times), balaclava, 4mm glacier gloves. I’d sweat the suit out pretty darn well, but was cool when stopped or loading the boat, overall a decent compromise.

As others have said, there is no great middle ground. You’re going to be hot or cold either way you look at it. Given your limited risk paddling, I’d probably go a similar route and go light layers which leave me cool when still and about right when paddling.

Hopefully that northface fabric is as great as they claim and we get something new with 3x the water transmission capacity of goretex pro in the next couple years

I’m definitely a skeptic when it comes to new “miracle” fabrics, as there have been many that have come onto the market, but none that have lived up to their hype. They either under-perform or lack durability, or both. While it’s certainly possible that there will be some kind of breakthrough technology that will revolutionize waterproof-breathable fabrics, it seems more likely that it would come from a technology company with the resources and experience of Gore than from a clothing company. Unless and until there’s a proven new and better product, I’ll stick with Gore-Tex and their lifetime guarantee, since it does what it claims to do and they stand behind it 100%.

I’ve been using Reed Chillcheater transpire fleece tops and bottoms for years for colder kayaking and rolling. They wick moisture like crazy and still keep me toasty.

I use the single thick fleece under gore tex drysuit for temps down to about 60 degrees F. For temps from ~ 40-60 deg F, I wear a long sleeve polypro top under the single fleece top layer. For temps below 40 degrees F, I wear a long sleeve polypro top and the double thick Reed fleece tops and bottoms. Also, I wear a thin sock liner under a good pair of thick, warm wicking socks. Keeps me plenty warm when rolling in temps down near freezing.

This layering system has worked well for me for many years. The Reed folks say that you should wear the fleece next to your skin (no underlayer) for maximum wicking but I’ve found that the polypro helps keep the sweat away from my skin when rolling / paddling hard and sweating a lot. Also adds another layer of insulation, albeit thin.

I use the Reed fleece for all outdoor activities year round. It holds up well and I always have a spare dry fleece top in my dry bag. Note that the tops run a little on the small side so I order one size up on the top. Bottoms seems to fit ok. They’re a great company w/awesome customer service.