Wetsuit for warm weather, cold water?

-- Last Updated: Jul-08-11 10:58 AM EST --

Need some advice/recommendations on selecting a wetsuit. I've done a search and read much of info and opinions here, but there is almost too much to sort through to find what is best for our situation.

My wife and I are relatively experienced kayakers but don't own wetsuits. We will be taking a trip the Apostle Islands later this summer and thus will be out on Lake Superior - i.e. warm weather (possibly as warm as 90+) but cold water (water temps in the mid-50s).

I look at wetsuits as insurance - a good idea but hopefully will never need the benefit. We have taken lessons on kayak safety and rescue techniques but have never had to put them into practice. Neither of us have ever fallen out of our boats. However, that doesn't mean it can't happen obviously.

So we need wetsuits. However, since we rarely touch the water and will be paddling in the heat of the summer, I don't want to be roasting in a full-on 5/3 wetsuit designed for cold water.

NRS has its Farmer John and Jane, which seems like it would be adequate for our situation. However, they also offer the Little John which they describe as "combines warmth and mobility for those warm weather, cold water days."

Would the Little John be the way to go for our situation? Or do we need to move up to a Farmer John - or even up to full coverage? How do others handle the heat of summer paddling in a wetsuit? Not having wetsuit experience, I have no idea how much they hold in the heat when not in the water.


I have no experiece with wetsuits
wear a drysuit in the summer and want to point out that a roll now and then will keep you cool… Keeping your head damp really helps.

If you dont have a roll at least attain a bow rescue…that will allow you both to get cool.


Little John
NRS makes a “Little John” wetsuit in 3mm neoprene and hydroskin that would be just the thing.

If you think you might have an extended swim, the 3mm will give you more protection from cold and some protections banging on rocks. If you have a good roll and feel a swim is pretty unlikely, the hydroskin is a little more comfortable.

I use a 3mm Farmer John in really cool water and use the Hydroskin Little John in the summer on the Hiwassee and other rivers that stay cold all year long. They both work very well.


One last thing
A snug fit is key. A loose wetsuit doesn’t do much for ya.

First time you put it on, it should feel a bit tight all over, but shouldn’t be uncomfortable after a few minutes.

Go Farmer John
Go Farmer John with hydroskin and a drytop if needed. You’ll want the legs, because the inside of the boat will be cold. Especially if you get a rain day or colder temps. This year has been a cold year.

I love my hydroskin. Some people deal with cold water differently. I can swim without anything in low 60 degree water for a long time if it is warm outside. My wife wouldn’t last for five minutes. In hydro skin I have stayed in for about fifteen minutes with out issue in low 50’s water with equal air temps.

If your self rescues are sound then hydroskin would be fine, but if you have to swim for hours it might not go so well. A dry top and farmer john would probably be best but that can get hot.

Ryan L.

Mid 50s water 90s air …
There are not a lot of comfortable solutions but whitewater kayakers and surfers do go the farmer john route. Be aware that water sluices through the arms and cools your core so these are not the most efficient at keeping you warm. Another option is to buy 2 mm trunks and top, Oneil makes excellent warm suits in that thickness that are reasonably priced. There are sleevless vests, that also work well for paddling. You can take off the top or unzip it and cool down. Also splash your self with the paddle and wet the suit a lot, pour water on your spray deck, the evaporation will cool you off, tip over and brace back up, or do full on rolls - you will get very hot - this is even true in a dry suit - which to me are even more uncomfortable when hot.

Very tough to figure
We get that here with mountain lakes and heat spells. Also on early spring hot days before the lower reservoirs lose their wintry chill.

90 degree air and 50-something cold water are an impossible match to dress for. All you can do is compromise.

I’ve used a 3mm full wetsuit for those conditions, when rolling a lot. It’s way too hot for just paddling in without rolling. A 2mm shorty wetsuit for rolling gets me chilled quickly, but it’s better for paddling in–still very hot, though.

If you don’t roll, then maybe a tight-fitting thin neoprene vest would work OK. I have one that’s 1.5mm thick that I use for rolling on very hot days (but not in 50-something water). My armpits are exposed to cool water but at least my torso stays warm, because the vest is tight enough to keep water out.

Farmer Johns tend to let water flush through, in my experience. However, I recently paired a RipCurl 1mm neoprene long-sleeved top with an O’Neill’s long-legged Farmer Jane, both made of ultra-stretchy neoprene. Not the stiff kind that many paddling garments are made of. This combo minimizes flush-through. Maybe you could pair a 1mm short-sleeved top with a thin Farmer John of the same ultrastretchy neoprene. If it gets unbearably hot, you could pull down the FJ top part.

No sleeves or drytop
Paddling wetsuits don’t have sleeves for obvious reasons. It adds warmth and a little resistance to every stroke.

A drytop makes no sense, though you might want to have a splash top or windbreaker with you for after a swim.

You also ought to consider learning self/assisted rescue techniques and practice them BEFORE you need them out on the lake. If it takes you 5 minutes to recover you don’t need a beefy wetsuit, if it takes you 20 minutes, you might want a full length, 3mm Farmer John.

That’s The Worse Dressing Scenario

– Last Updated: Jul-08-11 2:08 PM EST –

Hot air and relatively cool water. If you have a roll you can readily cool off and gives you way more option on how you dress to adequately deal with immersion. If not, you should practice using each other's bow for a support hold that to allow a lean over into the water to cool off. A much less elegant route is to have a container readily available to cup some water to douse yourselves with.

Having said the above, a 3 mm farmer john with the option of 1 mm short or longsleeve neo top underneath and/or drytop over the FJ, will give some range of protection. You can use the 1 mm neo underneath for a hotter day because you can unzip the top of the FJ. You can use the drytop over the FJ for colder air temp and slightly less flush through in the FJ arm and neck areas. But as stated somewhere above, the zips around the leg openings and the crotch area will still allow some flushing. So, 3 mm FJ wetsuit is not the equivilent of a 3/2 surfing wetsuit for in the water protection.


I would
agree with Bryan…the only other way I would sugest for late in the summer . I would consider would be to pair a Hydroskin pant with a neo/nylon mysteriosa top. or something like a Hydroskin top or a rash guard and a neo vest. and always have a drytop or a paddling jacket like is made by Kokatat or Reed etc.(either on or with, just in case)

with a rash guard and the pants, or the mysterosia top and the pants you get several temp variables…You should always have a wind/water over layer with you …no matter what you dress like . Unless you are wearing a drysuit.

Bryan and I always paddle Lake Superior. He is up the North shore (colder water most times of the year) and I am close to the Apostles.

Be Prepared…sometimes the nicest warm day has a way of turnning on you.

If you were paddling Our Lake in the spring or after the wind has been mixing the water from down below the thermo-cline with the surface water , then 3 mm or a dry suit would be an excelent choice. Keep youself some choices for each day…it can be bathwater temp on the top 3 feet in and around the islands and low 40 degee temps below that. (always wear a skirt)+ as Bryan said, it’s very rare that the lake doesn’t keep you kayak cool to cold inside:)

Best Wishes


Surf Shops…
carry wetsuit shirts that may work for you. They are long sleeve and usually 2mm thick. They also have a waist loop on the bottom to attach to your shorts to keep the shirt from rising up. Billabong and O’Neill both make one but there may be more. This should not be too warm or thick and would give you added insurance if you needed it. I have two and cut the sleeves on one of them for mobility. Its just a thought!


NRS Hydroskin farmer john
Have had one for at least 15 years, used often in cold Maine ocean water in summer.

I also have a shortie wetsuit (knee length) in thicker neoprene, but I haven’t used it since I got the Hydroskin farmer john. The full length leg makes more sense to me when stepping in and out of a boat, when kneeling in an open canoe, and when the air temp starts to go down.

If you get too hot, take a dip.

party pooper
You say you have practiced rescues, but have you practiced in rough cold water, with one or both of you in that water? Since you dont have wetsuits I’m sure you havent, so you aren’t prepared, and your wetsuit will only buy you some time. Very cold wet time, as you fumble around trying to rescue yourselves in cold waves. Are you fit and athletic enough to pull that off? Its obvious from your post that neither of you can roll. Be prepared for immersion for sure, but Invest more time in the skills first. Lake Superior will still be there next year.

has the best deals on farmer john/jane wetsuits, imo. They have the best quality cut and neoprene that I’ve seen, at a very good price. If you call them, they may have some of last year’s models on clearance for around $60.

timing is everything
How fast can you get each other back in the boat? Can you get back in if both of you are.out of your boats? How long would that take?

If you can’t answer under 2 minutes per person, suggest you resolve to get warmer clothing and do bow bunks to stay cool. Like more than shortest. Your.hands and mental function get affected by colder water fairly quickly, especially if not used to it.

Also, typical paddling wet suits still need a wind blocking layer on top to stop heat loss once they are wet. Wet wetsuits are cold up in the breeze.

Quick Rescues are NOT an Excuse for Less

– Last Updated: Jul-09-11 12:01 PM EST –

A couple of comments in this thread have suggested that you can dress with less clothing if you can perform a rescue faster.

That's just bunk. Shit happens, and a swim might end up being longer than your typical rescue time. The only responsible thing to do is dress for a swim of any length even if you can typically rescue someone quickly.

Cooling off is easy. Getting warm on cold water isn't. Don't skimp. Once you have more experience paddling on cold water, then you'll be able to make better decisions. On your first trip, don't skimp.

Following Your Direction…

– Last Updated: Jul-09-11 12:11 PM EST –

when craps happen, it sometimes does so at such a scale that it doesn't matter whether you are geared to nines, think you are prepared physically/mentally or not... In other words, your time is up.

As soon as you go out, you are making the best judgement of what to compromise (skills, gear, knowledge, etc) 'cause there ain't no guarantees. And, some wouldn't have it any other way.

The only way to avoid crap happening out there is to not go out there. But, crap can find you at home as well.


Bryan is not incorrect - I personally dress more warmly than anyone I ever paddle with, because of one paddle where everything that could screw up with a rescue did. But I also think that getting wet, and a lot, is the best way for people to sort this out for themselves.

To the OPer, you said you had learned rescues. That is usually quite different from having practiced them to get that time down. The practice part tends to show up things that weren’t of note in a more deliberative environment. For example, you may find that for the all-in exercise, the suggested timing is very difficult unless one or both of you have have at least a wet re-entry and roll. That’s usually not available unless you have started to learn a roll.

But I also think that getting wet, and a lot, is the best way for people to sort this out for themselves.

Serious question to the OPer - have you checked out whether you can rent dry suits for this trip? You still should have something for the risk of a catastrophic failure, but the nice thing is that you can just wear regular wicking layers that you probably already own for underneath.

well . . .
To make clear, I definitely agree with dressing on the conservative end of the spectrum, but it’s simply not practical to dress for a swim of ANY length (except perhaps where the air is colder than the water).

If we dressed for very long immersion times, we would be dressing just like divers in our areas. Around here, divers wear 7mm wetsuits in summer time (55-60 degree water). We simply can’t dress that way as kayakers so we ALL make compromises. When it’s 70 here, and the water is 55, as it is now, I wear a farmer john, and a hydroskin t-shirt. I’d probably get pretty chilled after 15 minutes in the water. Part of my equation is that I carry gear to warm up if I swim (even without landing) and I DO consider how quickly I can rescue myself - and then I dress to survive much longer than that.

Yes, shit happens, but every endeavor that has any risk involves making some judgements about what is acceptable risk. There are no guarantees, but you do need to give yourself a margin of error.