Is a full wetsuit and drytop enough?

Well funds are just too low for a dry suit, but I want to safely continue paddling. I have a 3/2mm full full suit (I grew up surfing so I’m used to paddling in long wet suit sleeves) and I just won a cheap drytop on ebay. Its a patagonia brand - maybe the breathable Nemo from the picture I still haven’t received it, but it looks like the waist would form a pretty good seal with a neoprene skirt and wetsuit.

I still haven’t learn to roll, but comfortable getting out of the water fast and doing the cowboy scramble. I’m paddling calm water in an old perception Shadow, but I’m usually in my new Chatham 17, which is pretty freakin stable for it’s width. My fear is that if I were to wet exit the water temp here in Portland Or is getting cold enough that I might get shocked as it initially penetrates my wetsuit. I’m hoping the dry top would keep my core dry or at least only let water seep slowly. Does this sound plausible? Crap - it’s gonna be hard to relieve myself in this setup…

dry tops
no matter what advice you get from this post nothing beats putting on your togs and heading down to the beach and doing your own test. Leave your kayak on shore and wade out into the cold water up to your chest and see what happens. Chances are the dry top will let water in at the waist at some point but only you can judge what is working and what is not. And as I learned the hard way-your tolerance to cold might be better or worse than you suspected. Mine was WAY lower than I thought and while others in our group were comfy in the lake I was almost numb.

In Oregon, it could be iffy. Depends on the wetsuit, I’d say.

I used to wear that combination all winter with splash pants over the bottom until I capsized a canoe in Rhode Island in March. River had just iced out a week before, so you can guess how cold the water was – air was 80 degrees (One of those freak days we get every late winter/early spring). I got nailed with cold shock when the suit filled, but I was able to function and self rescue after the cold shock passed.

I still wear a drytop over a neoprene surf shirt and rodeo shorts in the fall and late spring, but once the water drops below 50 F, I’m in a drysuit. YMMV.

If you swim…

– Last Updated: Dec-10-08 7:45 AM EST –

You will be soaking wet all the way up. Once in the water all you get out of a wetsuit/drytop combo is the wetsuit part. The drytop starts helping once you are back in the boat and upright, by being a wind-blocking layer over the wetsuit. A typical wetsuit, once wet in wind, is a fast run to hypothermia without that layer. Been there myself.

Inversely, while in the water I found that the drytop was pretty useless in terms of keeping me warm once water temps get into the 40's. There, what mattered is what I have in the way of neoprene base layers or vests in addition to the wetsuit. I should note I am talking about a typical paddling wetsuit, no arms.

I take it the 3/2 is 3 mills core and 2 mills arms and legs? All I can say here is that, for me, 3 mills is not enough on any body part once the water gets into the 40's. But some do better with it. As suggested above, the only way to really tell is to put the stuff on and take a swim near shore, see how well your hands and mind work. You may also find that you need to upgrade your gloves to something like a diving dry glove. Not much use having a warm body if your fingers can't grab the boat rigging to get back in or tow to shore.

Just a quick note on the gasp thing - what you have on your body has pretty limited effect on stopping that at a certain water temp. Once it gets cold enough, what will matter first is what you have on your head and the degree to which you have acclimated yourself to the water. As temps drop, it is not a bad idea to fully immerse your head before starting the paddle. Also, consider ear plugs in the winter.

Why take chances
The risk is so high it would seem best to do the most you can. You already know about the gasp reflex so you understand the danger.

Works down to about 50 F water temp .

– Last Updated: Dec-10-08 9:09 AM EST –

You are wearing what I wear surfing in the winter here on cold mornings. That means air temps down to about 38 F and water temps down just below 55 F. I've worn it to surf in 50 F water and was OK, but would not want to do it for hours. I would look at a thicker wetsuit for Portland. As you know board surfers surf in much colder water than Portland in wetsuits and are just fine. Just match the thickness of the wetsuit to the water temps. How cold is the water? How cold is the air. Sing who posts here a lot surfs in New England winters... which means much colder air and water than where you are ... he can give you a better idea of what wetsuit thickness to buy but you need to know the lowest water temps you'll be facing. A good 4/3 suit from Oneil will cost a bout $160 bucks. You might want thicker.

So I wear a wetsuit and dry top to be totally immersed while surfing. In a 3/2 and dry top You are going to be pretty warm if you are not getting wet all the time. If you do dunk it will probably give you enough protection to scramble back into the kayak. If you are paddling flat water ... just give it a try and see what you think.. I could handle being dunked in 45 degree water and rescuing myself in a 3/2 but I play in the water a lot and go visit places to surf where the water is cold. One trick is to stick your head in when you start paddling... really reduces the chance of cold shock.

I’ll second just about everything that’s already been said, especially the excellent advice from Celia.

I’ll also add the option of a pair of dry-bibs such as these from Kokatat:

Most have an extra skirt to match that found on the waist of a drytop, which can be carefully mated together to form a watertight seal. In theory, anyway. When done wrong, leaks will occur during a cold-water swim, and I have found that even when done right, those multiple layers can form a rather bulky ‘spare tire’ of fabric around your waist. Clearly, the former is unacceptable, but if you can live with the latter, the bibs can be an affordable and flexible component of your paddling ensemble.

Good Luck!


did you get your Chatham
at that 15% off sale at Alder Creek last week? If so, what color? (I had my eye on one :wink: Nice boats, and yes, very stable, especially when the conditions pick up. I agree with the poster who said you should wade out and see what happens. That or do a wet exit somewhere shallow and close to shore like Clackamette Park. (Be sure to have warm clothes nearby in case you don’t like the results!) A drytop will keep the splash off but it won’t keep you dry in a swim, water will come through at the waist. But a wetsuit is supposed to be wet; heat up that layer of water and when you fall in you’re good to go. Enjoy that Chatham 17!

some additionals can help
What you talk about is about what I use down in the SF area. I think our ocean water is only a few degrees warmer than what you have there. Not sure what temps the Columbia River gets to, if that is where you paddle.

Some additions can really help:

  • polypro base layers help a lot, and keep some effectiveness even when they get wet. On cooler days, I wear one under the wet suit and a thicker one over it. Something fleece or “fuzzy rubbers” can also help a lot. Everything must still have heat retaining properties when wet (so none of Georgia Kayaker’s cotton).
  • some sort of heat retaining cap could help a lot. I think if you go over, the cold hitting your head may be a big part of the gasp reflex. The rest of your body has delays as water has to get in. So delay the head also. I use an NRS Mystery Hood.
  • don’t forget the hands. Gloves or poggies will make you much more comfortable.

already posted but…
Many people will ask the same question in different ways.

I will post it here too.

You are appropriately dressed for the conditions when you are comfortable swimming in whatever you are wearing. If you aren’t, then you need to dress differently until you are.

The length of time you need to dress for is dependent upon your ability to self rescue and the conditions you paddle in.

It is really very much up to the individual as to what their cold tolerance is and the weather/water temps where they are. I have friends who find the ocean in New England during summer too cold to handle with a bathing suit so for them, they need to dress more appropriately.

Wear what you are planning to wear and WALK out in the water and see how long you can stand it. When you are really, really cold and can stand being in the water no longer, THEN try to self rescue - re-enter and roll, cowboy, paddle float - whatever your flavor. If you can get back in and paddle again, you were dressed appropriately. If you can’t, walk to shore and know you were not and dress more appropriately next time and try it again.

Yesterday, the water temp in the Willy river was 46deg F. It will get colder than that, some years as low as 38.

As mentioned by others, no substitute for personal experience. Go swimming (or safer, just wading), and note how long you can stay in before your hands will become non-functional. This is an indication of your time margin for any self rescue. Such self rescue time (based on your experience) should not just be time back in the boat, but time by which you can recover body heat. That is, if necessary, back in the boat, then back to shore, and adding extra clothes/drinking hot drinks, etc.

Keeping such things in mind, you should be reasonably prepared.

Is it a true dry top, with a latex wrist and neck seals?


Suzanneh is absolutely right.

If you are paddling open water the need for proper dress becomes even greater. Stuff happens. What if you get separated from your boat and end up swimming for an hour? Dressing properly can mean the difference between life and death.

The main advantage
to the drytop would be the watertight gaskets and the seal with your sprayskirt tube. I like wetsuits for much of my paddling, but if there’s any place they leak it’s guaranteed to be the neck, in my case. Your body may differ, of course.

Really? I figured the drytop waist would leak if sitting in water long enough, but slow enough to not shock the core with cold water. The hood and waterproof gloves are a good idea though. I’m using a greenland paddle (not drip rings) and my soaked neoprene gloves don’t keep my hands too warm.

a bib?
I’ve not heard of this bib thing. It looks like dry pants with half the top. Is the top waterproof somehow? Does that rubber part around the waist seal better with a dry top?


– Last Updated: Dec-11-08 3:04 AM EST –

No, I got it from craigslist. It's that red/yellow blend. Kinda wish it was all yellow. Also wish it were lighter. I almost got barely used poly valley aquanaut from Alder Creek for just a little more $. Nicer plastic, famous boat and probably a tad faster, but I didn't like the feel as much and I love the lines and rock solid feel of the Chatham more. Here she is in my garage:

Yes, Im sure it’s a true dry top with seals. Got it cheap from ebay, but it hasn’t arrived yet. It’s supposed to be a Patagonia brand Yeah, I’ll try it out in shallow water to see how it all works out.

Thanks for all the advice everyone. Some say I’m fine, some say it’s a big risk. I’ll probably err on the side of caution and keep looking for an inexpensive dry suit. I’ll probably sell my other boat to afford it…

GEEZ! thank you - what wonderful advice

Linda M.

Camp Hill, Pa.

Dry Bibs
Yeah, dry bibs provide watertight coverage from the chest down to the feet. They typically have either ankle gaskets or attached waterproof ‘socks’ to go inside booties. You can wade into cold water up to your armpits and stay dry; a lot of trout fishermen use them. But as soon as water comes over the top of the bib, they WILL flood, hence the need for a sealed drytop for full immersion.

Attached around the waist is an additional exterior ‘skirt’, which is rolled together with the matching inner skirt of a drytop to create a watertight seal. The boat’s sprayskirt then goes over all this, and the drytop’s outermost skirt down over top of everything else. Sounds complicated, and can be bulky, but it’s pretty easy if you follow the mfr.s instructions:

The above ensemble is second in reliability to a full drysuit, but can be bought and used seperately, so could be less expensive, esp. if you win a free drytop. If you have a good roll, the drytop and wetsuit may be all you need in certain conditions, while the drybibs can be added for colder/more exposed conditions.

Good Luck!


correct me if I’m wrong
it’s not the core that’s being shocked but the acreage of bare skin, the wet-suit/drytop combo can slow it down but if your head isn’t covered, especially your ear canals from flushing of cold water you can risk a significant impairment of balance to such a degree that self-rescue is severely compromised.