How helpful are wet suits in cooler water

I am fairly new in kayaking and I want to take this moment in time to ask a relatively stupid but serious helpful are wet suits if a person takes a notion to go kayaking in cooler water temps

No question is stupid and yours especially not. What’s the water temperature? That matters.

The water temps I am gonna say around 40 to 50 degrees approx possibly a few degrees cooler but not by much

Thank you for reassuring me that my question is not stupid.i am in in virginia I’ll f that helps clarify water temp

Wet suit can make a huge difference.

First, in 40-50F water, if you go over and aren’t wearing any thermal protection, you will go through 3 stages (with time estimates):

  1. in first seconds/minute or so, you may have a gasp reflex. You need to control your breath, or you might swallow a lot of water and possibly drown outright.
  2. you will have something between 10 and 30 minutes of use of your arms and legs. The body’s response to cooling down is to keep the warm blood in the core, which means it doesn’t send it to arms and legs. This causes you to not be able to use arms and legs.
  3. you will have 1 to 4 hours before you will succumb to hypothermia (assuming you are wearing a PFD, if not you will likely drown after stage 2 kicks in)

Having any thermal protection extends times for 2 and 3 (not sure about for 1, the gasp reflex). A wet suit made for paddling could possibly nearly double these times.

The standard wet suits used by paddlers are farmer john style, usually 2 or 3 mm neoprene. Wet suits aren’t good at keeping one warm in wind, so adding a paddling jacket over it is common.

Note - at temps like you are talking, many prefer a dry suit over wet suit. But dry suits are rather expensive.

Here is a site that can give you some current and average coastal water temperatures in your area:


Thank you Peter for the advice and informative info knew diff stages of hypothermia but didnt know have wet suit can double times…and yes you are absolutely right drysuits cost a arm and leg…I purchased a 2 to 3 mm wetsuit today off amazon …now I am glad I have purchased it now I know it can double my survival rate time

Hi Jason. In addition to Peter’s good counsel, here’s a site that you might find helpful.

While it was created by ACA instructors who paddle the Great Lakes, it’s pretty much universal advice.

BTW, your question is actually quite an intelligent one. Many tragedies could be avoided if others took the time to think about possible consequences.


Hi Nepalese thank you as well for your very informative information…I purchased a 2 to 3 mm neopraine wetsuit today from amazon after reading Peter’s and your info I am glad and feel reassured that I made a wise purchase

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Actually, I’m Rookie. Software changes seem to be screwing names up.

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Rookie or not I appreciate your input .you know more than I do I’m sure…I purchased a wetsuit today from amazon at least because of yours and Peter’s advice I know now I made a wise purchase

Try it out yourself.

I mean it!

If you want to paddle in cold water, you should know personally how it feels to take a swim and rescue yourself in that water. That is the only way to know if you and your gear is suited for the conditions.

Of course, you should not endanger yourself when doing it, so you need to think carefully about setting up a realistic but safe scenario. If you know other paddlers with rescue experience, you can go out in a group of three or more, and only one of you should be in the water at any time. Or you can bring a non-kayaking friend and train really near to the coast at a shallow place where the friend can go into the water and drag you out if anything happens.

I have done this a lot, and it is usually an eye opener to everyone, including myself the first time. Some examples of what we experience when doing it:

  1. Fingers are just as important as the body.
    If you don’t use gloves, your fingers will almost immediately get so numb that you can’t feel what you are doing, and a rescue becomes multiple times harder than in warm conditions.
    If you do use gloves, you will find that they get in the way for the rescue too - releasing your spray skirt under water with gloves on is more difficult, grabbing a deck line with gloves on is more difficult, etc.
    This is something you have to experience yourself and find solutions, which works for you. You can’t get it from videos, books or friends - they can only give suggestions. Perhaps your solution will be a lot of rescue training with gloves on, so you are used to the sensation. Perhaps your solution will be open handed gloves, which you can quickly peel back for a few seconds while doing stuff, which require finger feel. Or perhaps you will just train your fingers to adapt to the cold. All three options will work - for some people.

  2. Wet suits work quite well in cold water, even near the freezing point, until the rescue is done. But you will want to get back home in a hurry afterwards. In a dry suit you will just continue the trip and paddle a bit harder to get warm again. So trips in a wet suit should have more exit options where you can get to shore, change to dry clothes and phone a friend.

  3. In cold water, a partner rescue is much easier than a self rescue. The person doing the rescue is still warm and have full control over their fingers. So paddling with partners in cold weather is a really good idea.

  4. Those who have run their deck lines through plastic hoses (around 3/8" to 1/2" in diameter) will have a much easier job grabbing their deck lines with cold fingers, with or without gloves. This can really be recommended for paddling in cold weather.

(Edit: Wow, the new forum has automatic indentation of numbered lists, without using any codes or pressing buttons. Cool.)

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There’s one extremely critical factor about wetsuits that hasn’t been touched on - a correct fit is critical to keeping warm. The fact that you just “purchased a wetsuit today from amazon” is a major concern, as you probably have no idea how it’s going to fit. To work well, a wetsuit must fit snug and minimize water intrusion. A loose fit will allow water to flush through the suit, effectively eliminating the its insulating properties. Farmer Johns are especially useless if they don’t fit tight, as water easily flushes through the arm openings.

A 2-3mm wetsuit, even if it fits properly, is inadequate for the water temps you mentioned. Having spent a considerable amount of time doing rescue training IN water that cold, I won’t paddle in those temps in anything but a dry suit. My life is worth the cost. Isn’t yours?


Was it mentioned for paddling or diving? Either way test it before saddling up for a big paddle. You’ll find paddling is different. In borderline conditions you will sweat a lot. The first “dip” in the water will be initially COLD! I often find I need a size larger than normal. They fit tight. Gloves and booties will also be desired. Booties or socks especially.

I just took a swim while paddling about two weeks ago. Water was mid-high 40’s. It happened at the beginning of the paddle. I was wearing a 3/2 farmer john with a thin .05 top over it. Nothing on my feet other than water shoes.
It was a little chilly, but not too bad. I got back in the boat and paddled another 45 minutes without issue. Warmed up nicely.
There are a few things to consider beyond a quick immersion.

  1. How far will you be from land.
  2. Can you get back into your boat without a doubt if needed or at least get to land quickly.
  3. Are there any concerns about whether you would be able to make it to land-(wind, current, etc)
  4. Air and water temperature
  5. To me, this, is the big one. If you’re in a craft that has the capacity to capsize versus falling out, you may need to consider protection on your head as well. This is pretty important due to the gasp reflex. My understanding is that there have been plenty of reports of closed cockpit kayakers that were recovered drowned upside down in cold water still in their boats.

I’m rarely in a closed cockpit, and in winter, I’m usually close to shore, so unless the air temps are very cold, I usually stick with my wetsuit and it seems to work fine.
On exceptions when the wind is blowing hard enough to surf downwind and I go out further, I’ll wear my semi drysuit.
I guess what I’m saying is that a wetsuit is fine IMHO in those conditions if you are absolutely certain you won’t be immersed for long periods of time.

IMO this is really sound advice. Once the suit arrives be sure to try it out under safe circumstances.

Having once come extremely close to death due to hypothermia I may be the poster child for dressing for immersion.

When I got serious about sea kayaking I bought a proper-fitting Farmer John and tried it out on a nice Spring day. I jumped off the dock and was totally shocked at the jolt I got from the cold water. I never saw that coming but stayed in the water long enough to find that a 3/2 Farmer John was not what I wanted to trust my life to in Canadian coastal waters.

Also the sweating and wind chill make them unsuitable fussy for my purposes.

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Note to beginners…That’s because of the cold water gasp reflex . It’s NOT because they were “trapped” in the cockpit.

Good comments so far.

Depending on the quality level of suit, sealed seams make a very large difference as well. non-sealed seams will allow water in, which makes the suit much colder than a sealed seam suit. Another reason to field test whatever you got.

I have a 3/2 and an extended swim in sub 50° water is chilly. Hands and feet feel it first as others have said. Also a neoprene balaklava is extremely useful to prevent cold shock on the head. I would not want to go into 40° without one.

3/2 will buy you significant time in 40° water, but you’re still in trouble if you cannot self rescue quickly and get warmed up again. Your safety margin is nowhere near a full drysuit, or even a thick wetsuit (like 5/4 or 4/3) but a medium weight wetsuit is still a million times better than regular clothes. Just be sure to test it as recommended so you have a realistic understanding of how much protection it provides.


Truth, Overstreet–
I should have made that more clear.
Also should have clarified that they had drowned and did not die from hypothermia, indicating the probability of the gasp reflex…

I do appreciate everyone’s well put informative information it is truely great to find a group of paddlers/kayakers that are willing to share what they know through personal experiences.bare with me as I am still a novice as I only been kayaking for approx 8 months I am sure I will have alot more stupid but serious questions in the they say only stupid question is a question not asked


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