Wetsuit or drysuit or just tough it out?

I’m planning on doing flatwater kayaking but do people wear wetsuits or drysuits or just tough it out?

I hadn’t even thought about this until some folks I worked with asked me what I was planning on wearing.


Don’t know which Portland you are in
but right now both have cold water. Drysuits. I expect that OR would not warm up. Later. Drysuit.

ME you might get by in summer with a wetsuit if in a group that can fish you out fast but solo its still drysuit.

Another consideration is if you are flatwater paddling small creeks where getting separated from your boat and land is not an issue… Then if you can get out quick and have a spare change of clothes in a drybag that is another strategy for mid summer.

So the question is what sort of flatwater and how big?

Where? When? Fow how long?
If you plan to tough out a prolonged swim in a 35F water/45 F air you are going to end up on a slab in a morgue… If you plan to paddle in 68 F water/85 F air you are going to suffer a terminal heat stroke after wearing a drysuit for a day :slight_smile: :slight_smile: :slight_smile:

Then there is everything in between…

Exactly what you wear and when depends on 3 things: temperature and conditions, your preferences, your wallet.

Drysuit is very comfortable and safe option that can be easily adjusted to weather by adding/removing base layers, but is quite expensive (high-end ones especially)

Wetsuit is dirt-cheap and reasonably versatile paired with a cag, but you can get sweaty and somewhat uncomfortable when it is “warm”. Decent for most conditions though, as there are many different options available - thickness, lining options, etc. Not very usable in really cold conditions.

Toughing it out is just silly and possibly quite dangerous. Being cold and miserable adds nothing to the experience.

It depends on where you are paddling
If you are paddling flat calm freshwater with no crossings and always right next to shore, or on small rivers always close to shore then you MIGHT be ok with nothing but poly or wool. Other than that - wet suit minimum or dry suit. You have to imagine and plan for the worst. It you are 100 yards off shore in very cold water with no one around and you exit for some reason that 100 yards could be your last.

Toughing it out?
Hypothermia is not toughing it out. It’s rolling the dice with your life. Either Portland - easy or west coast one - means that you reserve your paddling to a couple of quite warm months or spend bucks for one of the above.

If you want to paddle year round, dry suit, especially assuming some inland waters that can get to temps in the high 30’s. If you just want to stretch your season at each end of the warm weather, you can get away with wet suit and good splash top. But as cautioned above, that isn’t always the most comfortable combo unless you spring for a higher quality wet suit like surfers use rather than the basic paddling wey suit.

Tough “what” out?

– Last Updated: Apr-12-12 8:17 PM EST –

"or just tough it out?"

I'm not sure what you mean by "tough it out". What's so "tough" about it?

Paddling is going to generate a lot of heat. So if you don't fall in, I suspect you'll be damn hot!

If there's any chance of you falling into the water, you'll need to dress for the water temperature. Whatever that is at where you are.

That's not something you can "tough out". You're either getting out of it real fast and change into dry clothes (when that's possible, like in a creek). Or you're going to die.

So there's nothing to "tough out", really. It's not like you're going to sit in the boat feeling cold while paddling along normally...

A good drysuit…
…will provide comfort over the largest temperature ranges (besides keeping you from becoming a frozen meat stick in the winter). They ain’t cheap but they are worth the price.

Cold water will mess you up fast. Even not-so-cold water will do a number on you in a surprising short time.’

BTW, if you do decide to go with a drysuit, you might want to check out the kayak academy website. Sometimes drysuits are on sale and the website has plenty of good info.


Depends on water temps
If you are in Oregon, river water is fairly cold and you will want to at least get a decent farmer John wetsuit, use with a paddling jacket. If you paddle in cold weather you might want a drysuit. The crowd here is a little drysuit crazy. Look at the NRS (national river service) online catalog for affordable farmer johns. In summer you might just need hydroskin.


Try a Swim…
…in safe conditions in whatever you choose to wear. Good rule of thumb - if it’s too cold for comfortable swimming, it’s too cold to paddle without thermal protection of some kind.

Here, with North Atlantic water temps, it’s drysuit for me, period.

new question
For most places, the question is just “wetsuit or drysuit”.

If water temp is below 60F, I always have some form of thermal protection on (wetsuit or dry suit). The colder it is, the more I lean towards a dry suit.

If water temp is above 70, I rarely wear a wetsuit.

Between 60 and 70 other factors come into play (air temp, likelyhood of swimming or even getting wet, etc.).

NRS Little John 2mm Wetsuit
Thanks for the great advice. I’m leaning towards a NRS Little John 2mm Wetsuit.


If you have confidence in your self, and
if you have confidence in your boat, and if you have confidence in the wind and weather conditions just wear a bathing suit and poly pro top.

If you answer no to any of the above, wear a one piece dry suit

Jack L

Farmer John not enough
The problem is that a basic paddling wetsuit like the Farmer John is a fast trip to hypothermia should you take a swim and be up in the air without a good wind blocking layer. You can take the term literally - wetsuits keep you warm when you are immersed, worthy a whole lot less up in the air if you take a swim. Been there done that - if you plan on paddling in anything resembling chilly temps you need a decent splash or dry top as swell (I am assuming a skirt - if not add a wind blocking layer for pants).

This is not to say you shouldn’t do it, but if you are going to have to spend the bucks for a Farmer John plus a paddling top anyway, you may want to simplify things and look at a 3 season really good wetsuit like the surfers wear that has more technical stuff built in. Different thicknesses for core than arms, some better layering, features that tend to be lacking in the basic paddling wetsuit because they assume you’ll be buying other layers.

Better yet, wait til weather and water are warm and start out getting get some basic coaching in self-rescues and the basics of rolling lessons so you have a concrete sense of what wet is about in a kayak. Then get the clothing.

Boot Camp

Watch the video of Coast Guard men and women “toughing it out”


I can’t tell you whta you can handle, but most folks don’t realize how quickly things can go bad in really cold water – or what temperature is even considered cold.

Ultimately you gotta figure it out and use what makes sense to you for various conditions. That means you gotta guess what you need and then try it out in cold water in a safe way. You need to do this before you are faced with a dangerous situation.

Your skills also matter – if you can self rescue and get back in your boat in a hurry, your exposure is greatly reduced and you don’t need quite as much protection. If you have to swim 45 minutes to get to shore you might need a lot more insulation and a drysuit may be required in the northern regions.


here’s a quick clothing test
We did this as a bit of kayaker’s polar plunge on new years day. Water and air were around 42F in the Seattle area.

Put on your paddling clothing and wade out into chest deep water and curl up and float. Start with a couple of somersaults to get your head wet. Time yourself. Extra points for trying to operate a VHF or tie knots after floating for 20 mins.

We did this in our local lake which varies from 40F in the winter to 70 in the summer. Every year a few kayakers and now SUP paddlers die from falling in under dressed.

coastal water temps

– Last Updated: Apr-13-12 8:01 PM EST –

Here is a site that gives you current and monthly average coastal water temps:

Coastal waters only (so not lakes or rivers).

judgement, not gear
The OP didn’t specify where (Maine or Oregon) he is. Nor what sort of water (coastal vs pond) he’s paddling. So whatever “gear” suggested will be wrong!

What’s much more important is choosing when and where to go out (or not go out at all till it gets warmer, as suggested by one poster). Lacking that, not even the most expensive dry suit will save him on a long swim to Japan (or England)!

If he wants confirmation of his random choice (2mm farmer john) without context, just go ahead and toss a coin. But perhaps posting a one liner on the internet is easier than tossing a coin?

I agree the lack of feedback

– Last Updated: Apr-13-12 11:01 PM EST –

makes pertinent responses impossible. Actually POes me off a little. Lots of experienced people really trying to help and have spent their time giving tips.

OTOH..its unrealistic to expect people to be glued to a computer. Ten years ago probably few of us were very connected.


– Last Updated: Apr-14-12 12:13 AM EST –

The OP came back and dropped a one liner that he likes the 2mm farmer john. Wants the board to say that's a good choice. ;-)

Shows a lack of understanding of what the issue is about, depsite the extensive experience shared by the board.

If that's how he choose when and where he goes paddling, no suit, dry or wet, will keep him safe.