So what do you wear under your drysuit?

Assuming air and water temps of 32 to 40 degrees, what should a sea kayaker wear, starting with the innermost layer against the skin, outward to the drysuit? How many layers, what are the recommended thicknesses, etc.? I realize answers will vary, just trying to get handle on what I’d need to buy to get started on cold water paddling. Thanks.

What have you got?
Layering is the key to any cold water cold weather activity…and experience is the key.

My husband wears just jeans and a light fleece under his drysuit with normal underwear. He floated around a freezing lake for five minutes about ten days ago just for kicks. The air temperature was 19.

I wear merino wool underwear a thin fleece pant and top (they are combined in a union suit)and another thicker fleece if the weather is really rough.

Its important to avoid the dreaded waist gaposis. Plumbers crack is really uncomfortable with the cold against your drysuit.

A neoprene skull cap is important too. Its ugly but useful.

Layers - Yup…
…several of 'em - polypropylene underwear top and bottoms, then a mid-weight fleece top and bottom, and heavier fleece or merino wool on top when its really cold. Heavy merino wool socks. Never, never any cotton - if it damps out with sweat, it chills like a blast freezer. I also carry a dry bag, with full change - again, poly and/or merino layers, and a windproof shell. I truly hate being cold…

And remember the old saior’s adage - keep your head, hands and feet warm, and everything else will be OK…

not too many layers. When kayaking in the cold, even down to 25 degrees or so, I will sweat my but off very quickly. Then you become soaked with sweat. A dry suit is pretty warm with just minimal layers on if you are paddling hard.

For canoeing I find it to be a little different because I generally don’t work up as much as a sweat.

Experiment but avoid over heating.

Also be aware that lots of thick layers on your legs will actually change teh fit of your kayak. I try not to wear thick bottoms as a result.


below the splash skirt
Don’t forget that from the waist down you are sealed below a splash skirt within the kayak. The bottom part of your body is out of the wind. Other than cold toes, I seldom notice being cold below deck. My torso tends to stay warm because that is what is doing most of the work. When I am cold it is hands, face, head, and toes.


Merino Wool
I have experimented with a wide variety of insulating materials. I now prefer Merino wool exclusively. Although it doesn’t dry as fast as poly, the material is warm and doesn’t stink after days of use. Some of the synthetics stink so bad after a week that I can’t stand it (and that’s saying something on a solo trip)!

I prefer to use as few layers as possible (one layer top and one bottom), especially on very long trips. Extra fabric means more bunching under the suit and can cause chafing. Care must be taken that underlayers are smooth, waistbands flat, etc, or they will chafe.

I have a variety of weights of Merino wool, but the heavy weight is too much for me (YMMV), for most uses, I use the light and middle weight. I usually use a heavier weight on my torso than on my legs. I turn the garments inside-out so that any seams are on the outside.

On an “expedition” you will need a few sets to allow changing. Salt build-up will force that you wash them or they will chafe you badly.

It’s always a good idea to test your gear by swimming in a protected area to know how it performs.

Greg Stamer

Wool vs synthetics
Hi Greg,

I agree on the wool - I have become a big fan of it. It does have upside and downside.

Wool when wet is very fragile. As evidenced by the holes I make when pulling my pants up through the drop seat. Of course they aren’t wet because I waited too long - shame on you for thinking that! Anyway - they get wet because they don’t wick like synthetics. Wool does continue to insulate though when damp from your perspiration so it doesn’t get uncomfortable.

New from Kokatat this year is a great new product that is a wool blend and called Wool Core. It is a Polartec product that is made in the US from Rocky Mt. wool and spun with synthetics. It is a wool/poly blend of 40/60. I have been using my prototype this winter and I am really liking it. The wool seems to prevent the stink and it does wick unlike wool alone.

It will be hard to get until more stores start stocking it. It isn’t yet up on the website.

And on a side note concerning wearing your undergarments inside out. That works for non technical materials - 100 % wool. Shouldn’t do it for the synthetics - so many of them are one directional as they are blended with a face fabric that spreads the moisture out and the inside is meant to pull it away from the skin.

Kokatat is now doing a complete line of undergarments that will address the needs of a paddler. There are synthetics for people that won’t wear wool - they are made with longer tails so your back doesn’t become uncovered. Sleeves tapered so it won’t stick out the gaskets and be bulky at the wrist. Of course, most importantly, strategically placed seaming to prevent chafing and will have flat seams so no need to wear inside out!

Maybe I will see you at Sweetwater Symposium this year. Will you be there?


Wat ah’ waars…

– Last Updated: Jan-13-12 8:22 PM EST –

But watch dem neck gaskets!

Thanky kindly, Auntie Clara... :>0

Fat Elmo

union suit LU is great
Probably the best upgrade I made to my layering system, be it for the drysuit or for winter activities.

do a float test
The only reason you are going to be floating for an extended period of time is if you come out of your boat AND lose it in wind and waves. Otherwise a good self or assisted rescue takes a minute or two.

On new years day our club did a float test with everyone dressed as they would to go sea kayaking. Water and air were in the mid-40’s- Pacific NW in the winter. The consensus was: PFD+ drysuit+thin neoprene hood+gloves+ 1-2 layers of mid weight wool or pile under. Leave the COTTON sweatshirts and jeans for the pub after the paddle. A thin neoprene hood like an NRS mystery hood can be pulled back and left around the neck while paddling and pulled up if immersed or the wind and waves pick up. I’ve found they make a huge difference on a cold and windy day.We floated for 20-40 minutes before getting cold.

Going minimal under a drysuit because you are going to get hot defeats the purpose of a drysuit. If you get hot just roll to cool off or if you don’t have a roll grab someones bow and do and eskimo rescue.

The best way to figure it out is go out dressed for immersion and practice some rescues and/or rolls and see how you do.

good information
Hello Suz,

I’ll be teaching again at Sweetwater this year. I look forward to seeing you there.

Thanks for sharing the information on technical fabrics being one-dimensional.

Maybe it’s very old-school, but I’m accustomed to turning my garments inside out, once one side gets too badly encrusted with salt crystals (dried sweat) to get another day or two of use, to avoid chafing and irritation. Of course most sane people wash their insulation long before this becomes a problem, but on extreme trips – circumnavigations (going for speed), etc, you might paddle dawn to dusk for many days until you can do a wash.

I carry multiple garments, but there have been times when I was wearing the second side of my last layer, praying for a storm day to do a wash. …That probably explains why my last long trip was solo… :^)

That said, maybe the new fabrics handle salt better, and the vast majority of situations/trips don’t require double-sided use. I look forward to trying some of the new blends.

Greg Stamer

My preference is Silk for inner layer
Silk is the least bulky, yet incredibly warm inner layer I’ve found to date. It has good wicking properties and launders well. I even have a silk sleeping bag liner for camping which adds about 15 more degrees of comfort to my bag. Campmor has some reasonably priced tops and bottoms.

Ulfrotte wicks
pretty well in my experience. I love the stuff. Not the most durable perhaps - but comfortable and WARM. I guess the new name for Ullfrotte - or another name for the stuff - is “Woolpower”. It has a terry cloth type structure - only it is a merino wool product, not cotton. It comes in two or three weights. The rear tail on the top is extra long so it will stay tucked in to the pants and you don’t have a problem with an unprotected gap that you sometimes get with other two piece solutions.

How does it compare to wool

I like wool, but I’ve never worn silk. Does it wick well? Stay warm when wet?

Seconding Float test
I usually at least wade into the water and squat to burp my dry suit. It serves multiple purposes. It is a very efficient way to expel air. It tells me immediately if I haven’t fully closed a zipper. It lets me know if I am dressed warm enough should I end up in the water.

Stick head under water also
Even though you know you’re going to do it–so the shock factor is taken away–it reveals a lot about just how cold that water will feel! Instant ice cream headache means pack a neoprene cap with you, if you’re not already wearing one.

sometimes I wear this

but usually just some sweat pants/shirt; at least 50% polyester. When it’s warm or I’ll be paddling hard, then nylon shorts and t-shirt also nylon.

dagger something just tells me …
… life ain’t never gonna be the same after seeing that …

I wear high quality long underwear, and ski-type socks. With water temp that low, you need expedition weight, and maybe a layer of light weight underwear under that.

Don’t skimp on your hood, if you swim that is where you will lose most of your heat. There are dive hoods that are quite thick. I use thick kayaking gloves when it is that cold.

VERY Comfy
I just tried out my new Kokatat PowerDry Kayak Fleece Suit today. It is so comfortable and my arms felt incredibly free - no binding. It keep me remarkably warm (It was about 40 degrees today with wind gusting to 35 mph). I can normally get into medium clothing but I went with the large because my torso is a little longer than average - perfect fit. It was a little pricey at $135, but for me it’s worth it.