Fall kayaking - wetsuit? Alternatives?

-- Last Updated: Sep-15-13 5:01 PM EST --


I've done lots of summer kayaking, and I'd like to do some fall runs now. These will be short ~2-3 hour trips on local rivers, where each run is mostly flat and calm with minimal whitewater: just a handful of rapids over the course of say 5 miles, and the rapids are mostly class I, with a few small class IIs.

I've read about kayakers wearing wetsuits, and I wonder if that's the way to go. For the times I'm looking at, the air temperature averages ~65F and the water ~55F, so while the water is pretty cold, the air isn't too bad, and on these runs, the risk of immersion is small. More likely I'll just get splashed, and having never worn a wetsuit before, I wonder: how warm are they *out* of the water? Particularly when I'm sitting in my kayak, getting splashed a bit, maybe in a bit of wind, maybe sitting in a bit of water? And I know there are different thicknesses for wetsuits -- the ones I'm looking at are "3/2" mm, so thicker torso, thinner arms/legs.

Do you wear anything under a wetsuit? Underwear? T-Shirt? And given that I'm looking at fall, not winter, would I want to wear anything over the wetsuit? I've read about an insulating layer and then an outer layer, but that seems like maybe too warm when the air temp is in the 60s.

Finally, if I didn't wear a wetsuit, then what should I wear? In terms of materials, I know cotton is out. And I'm pretty sure a spray skirt and booties (I'm looking at "NRS Paddle Water Shoes") are a good idea. But in terms of pants and shirts, it seems like the possibilities are endless. Maybe "splash pants" and "splash top" would be best?

Thanks for any advice, and especially any specific recommendations for fall clothes that you've used.

[Edited to add: I've read about dry suits and I'm not interested in going that route at this time.]

Anthony DiSante

There was a similar question below.
But anyway, I don’t use a wetsuit in the temps you’re talking about, just a wicking poly top and sometimes a poly sweater, nylon pants and neoprene booties, water shoes. If that would be too cold for you, then see below.

You could consider a “shorty” wetsuit too, which has short sleeves and short legs.

If you’re cold in the air, that’s already not good! You can get hypothermia without a dunking, you know. And the usual advice - dress for immersion - is still always the safest.

As it gets colder I use a 3/2 Farmer John wetsuit and a paddling jacket. FJ has no arms or neck. A wicking poly bike shirt under the top. In winter (that’s milder here in the SF Bay Area), I’ll layer up the tops and use a semi-dry top (seals on neck, waist and wrists), plus Sealz gloves, which is an outfit that has worked down to literally freezing air and 45 degree water.

Dress for Immersion

How deep is the river? You indicate the rapids are short in length, which makes it unlikely you will be forced to make a long swim.

Are you paddling alone or with a group? Do you have a roll or any other means of self-rescue? Do you carry spare clothes in a dry bag?

Based on your description, I would likely be wearing nylon shorts and a long sleeve poly pro shirt for the conditions you describe. I would have spare clothes in a dry bag. But, as you see from my questions above, there are other considerations present that might lead you to consider a farmer john wetsuit.

You’d be fine. Typical 3/2 conditions
65 degree air and 55 water you will be fine with a 3/2 full surfing wetsuit. If you buy a surfing suit the arms have plenty of flexibility so easy to paddle. Wear a rash guard on top under the suit. On the bottom most folks go commando. If you over heat just splash some water on your upper body, do a roll or slam down body brace or go for a little swim.

Add the paddling jacket.If you do
get wet, the suit will be chilly.


With the conditions you describe, no need for a drysuit. Until you get so addicted you go out in January…then you may have to expand your wardrobe.

And carry dry clothes with you. You will appreciate them at the end of the trip right away. Don’t neglect good cool weather gloves for your hands and a hat for your head.

Thanks. I’ve seen the Farmer Johns and was considering that too, but hadn’t seen the shortys. So many options.

Poly here means polyester, right? I think I’ve seen polypropylene mentioned elsewhere, but I guess that’d be an outer layer.

The river is mostly shallow, like 4-5 feet. There are some deeper holes but they’re brief. Self-rescue is usually just standing up and walking over to the side. We usually go in pairs, and I’ll bring dry clothes.

Speaking of dry clothes: I have a small Sea To Summit brand “dry bag”, the kind that you roll/fold over and then clip. But my stuff always gets soaking wet inside it; I read the fine print and it says not to submerge it – but in the bottom of my kayak, it’s usually sitting in an inch or two of water. I’ve resorted to putting my stuff in zip-locks inside the “dry” bag. To sell this as a “dry bag” seems like blatant false advertising to me. Are there any dry bags that actually keep stuff dry, even when the outside of the bag is wet?

I wouldn’t use a wet or dry suit . . .
. . . on an easy river in the conditions you describe. I would carry my usual towel and change of clothes.

However, if I were paddling far out in the ocean or a big lake in the same air/water temps – where it would take a long time to swim to shore – I probably would wear my thin farmer john.

I never thought shorties made much sense, at least for an open canoeist. The protection rubberized protection from the knees to ankles is helpful when kneeling and wading.

Wetsuits offer some thermal protection, but if they are wet in a cold wind you will get chilled. You should have a windproof paddle jacket to wear over it.

windproof outer layer
The windproof paddle jacket seems like a good idea, but what happens in the case of immersion? Is the jacket so thin/non-insulated that it dries off right away, and still provides some benefit after you get out of the water and back into the kayak?

Would windproof paddle pants also be worthwhile, or less so, since your legs are already pretty well protected from the wind inside the kayak?

Paddle Jacket
I put a paddle jacket over a wetsuit when the air temps are down in the 40s to 30s. You will be plenty warm in a wetsuit.

Dress for Immersion
Several years ago, when I got into kayaking with a stable rec boat, paddling calm rivers, I subscribed to the “just carry a change of clothes” philosophy.

Until…18 months ago, paddling a sea kayak on an unusually warm March day, I tried to thread the needle going downstream between an island and a log jam. Just as the bow of the kayak entered the flume at the end of the log jam, the current grabbed the stern and turned the kayak 90 degrees against the log, trapping me in a strainer. I leaned over and grabbed the log, and for a moment thought I could move the kayak hand over hand towards the end of the log, to the flume. But I could feel the kayak sinking and glanced back to see the stern getting sucked underwater beneath the log. At that point, I realized I was literally in a bail out or die situation, and I don’t think I’ve ever popped a skirt and exited an ocean cockpit faster. I landed barefoot, in swim trunks and a T-shirt in belly deep, icy current. All of this happened in well under 10 seconds.

It took everything I had to pull the kayak out from under the strainer. The innocuous looking current was so strong that I honestly thought my skin on frame kayak would snap in half. Thankfully it didn’t, and I was able to walk upstream and pull it straight out, then I moved 25 feet to shallow water where the vertical clay island face made it impossible to exit the water. I dumped the kayak out in shin deep water, my feet and body freezing.

Given the day as so warm, I had decided to forgo the change of clothes in a drybag. Truthfully, it would have done little good with the sheer river face. I had to paddle a mile back to my vehicle in sheer pain from the cold. I took a long hot bath upon returning home, but my legs and feet ached for days later. It was quite a sobering experience. Things could have gone much worse if I hadn’t successfully bailed out, or if I had become completely immersed. (Google Moulton Avery and gasp reflex.)

Before fall rolled around, I bought a drysuit. That was the best piece of paddling gear I’ve bought. Better than the wood for my SOF’s, better than my fiberglass sea kayak, better than my carbon fiber paddle. It’s certainly not exciting like the rest, but it will keep me from dying in cold water. In fact, I can practice rolls now, as long as the water isn’t frozen.

That’s my story, anyway, but my suggestion would be to decide what the coldest air and water temperatures you plan to paddle, then to jump in the water that day wearing whatever you like, and see how it works for you.

What works for me…
I consider it Wet-suit Season when the water temp hits 60, regardless of air temps. I use a 3 mm farmer john with a 2 mm neo jacket that I take off when I’m hot. If I’m still hot, I lower the zipper on the farmer john. When it’s even colder, I use neo booties and gloves. In snow or cold rain, I put on an ultra hood.

dry bag
A good dry bag may allow in a small amount of water (via the folded opening) if fully immersed. If the contents get wet when your dry bag is merely sitting in an inch or two of water, it’s time for a new dry bag. (Sorry about the old one. Talk to the dealer /manufacturer if it is less than a couple of years old).

The River?
Consider the river. How long would you be in the water? How much chance of the boat being pinned making anything in the boat inaccessible? How isolated is the river?

Wet or dry
suit is what I wear in those conditions. 3mm may be warmer than you may want, but that’s what I use.

That said, it seems that I have a different attitude than most. For me, the entire purpose of kayaking is to get wet. The only thing better than being on the water is to be in it or under it. I use the wetsuit and “overheating” to explain why I am out of the boat so often. The boat is just another way for me to play around in the water.

I guess some folks paddle without the intention being wet, but for me, 50% of the enjoyment of paddling is getting wet, so I always dress for immersion.


water lover
Haha, actually that’s exactly my attitude, too. I love being IN the water; kayaking is just one way to get to it. That said, I suspect that as the air and water get cooler, I’ll be abandoning ship less often, but I think a wetsuit is my best bet either way.

swim trunks and a t-shirt in icy water?
Thanks for sharing this. Clearly “dress for immersion” is the best advice, and your suggestion of going and jumping right into the water to make sure your outfit works in the current conditions makes sense.

But even without doing that, I wouldn’t go kayaking on icy water in swim trunks and a t-shirt, even if it were an unusually warm day :slight_smile:

Wetsuit probably fine
Your cold tolerance is YOUR cold tolerance, not mine, but if it were me in 65-deg air with 55-deg water, with little risk of capsizing, a good choice would be a surfer’s full wetsuit. Thickness would be either 2mm all over OR a 3/2mm configuration (3mm torso, 2mm arms and legs). Having said that, I often wear a 2mm long-legged Farmer Jane over a 1mm long-sleeved shirt (also neoprene), in water that’s a little colder. But I can roll my kayak.

Depends on lots of factors both having to do with your body as well as other things. For example, if it’s always windy where you go, you’re more likely to feel chilled from the splashed wet areas. Wetsuits other than swimmer or triathlete wetsuits have nylon fabric outer faces that wick heat away in wind faster than raw neoprene. Unfortunately, raw neoprene has little abrasion resistance, and it sticks to non-fabric boat seats.

Wet wetsuits are clammy when you’re not active. So figure on maybe feeling chilly if you take long lunches or whatever. If it’s sunny and dry, you might feel too warm instead–but that’s easy to fix with a dip.

I don’t wear anything under my wetsuit, except rarely a 2nd neoprene layer, a 1mm vest for added warmth.

If I didn’t wear a wetsuit in that water temp, I’d be wearing a drysuit with a thin set of wicking long underwear inside. Water that’s 55 degrees is too cold for non-immersion clothing, unless you are right next to shore and know you can get to land immediately.

Wind blocking layer OK wet

– Last Updated: Sep-16-13 7:55 AM EST –

A wet top that has good coatings to keep wind from getting at you will work wet or dry.

Don't take this too lightly - one of my more severe starts into hypothermia was on a day where the temps only dropped into the mid-60's, when a summer squall blew through. I was wearing a paddling full length wetsuit plus a neo vest, under a dry top. I was soaking wet because I had been practicing rolling - in 55 degree water on a sunny late afternoon. We had pulled out of the water, assuming the possibility of lightening.

My teeth were chattering within 4 minutes of standing in the wind, only my legs exposed. I ran for the car and started pulling stuff off.

You may have more cold tolerance than me - many do. But until you are in the situation, you simply have no way of knowing.

I would suggest that you don't go nuts with a variety of neo layers to start, just get a couple of good pieces of rashguard and the suit, in case you later decide to go dry. That way you won't pile up garments you may not use so much later on. I have known a lot of folks up this way who decided against dry at first, but changed their minds after seeing how it worked out for other paddlers.