Wetsuit or Drysuit

I just bought a new sit on top surfski. I need to train through the winter in order to get ready for the races in the spring. I live in East Texas and will be training in a lake where the water tempature can drop to around freezing.

I don’t know which would be better to train in, a wetsuit or drysuit? Can anyone give some advice to help me out?

Both would work
Wet suits designed for surfing are warm and flexible, which makes one a viable alternative (full suit with arms and legs). A dry suit would also work very well. Dry suits are more expensive and require clothing underneath. So it probably doesn’t make much difference unless you are going to paddle around Antarctica.

Experience level?
Most people paddling surfskis and training hard to race don’t wear much immersion protection because you will sweat so much. In a dry suit this will be really unpleasant. In a wet suit you can throw some water onto your chest, arms and legs and cool down. But if you are not very experienced you will be capsizing a lot. In near freezing water you would need a pretty thick wetsuit. Are you sure about those water temps in texas? If the water is really that cold minimun would be a 4/3 wetsuit, and you are going to sweat to death racing in that. I would check with local surfski paddlers and see what they use.

Probably Drysuit
In water that is below 40F, a drysuit is probably the best solution. Considering that the air temperatures will likely be cold as well (guessing 32< on many days), I don’t even think you’ll have a huge problem with being overly warm.

A drysuit keeps your clothes dry and this is the ony thermal protection it provides. If you are dressed for the weather and put a drysuit over it, you may be too warm (no air penetrating the clothes, no way for sweat to evaporate), but if you dress so that you are just at the edge of feeling a chill, you should be okay. If you get too warm you can either float in the water, stop or unzip a bit to let some coolness in. A surf ski should allow for easy exit/entry to both the boat and the water, so getting on shore to do this should not be a problem.

Drysuits are expensive, but at these temperatures, they will offer the best immersion protection. A wetsuit sufficient to allow long term exposure to near freezing water will probably be too stiff for paddling.


Worst of both worlds

– Last Updated: Oct-21-13 12:47 AM EST –

If you're doing something at a competitive level, you're going to be working up a real sweat. If the water is in the 30s or 40s, the need to dress for immersion combined with the need to release heat while exercising makes your situation a nightmare. A breathable (Gore-tex) drysuit allows a lot of variation in layering, but you cannot change layering on the fly.

If I had to deal with such a situation, I'd wear a full wetsuit with a front zip that can be easily manipulated both above and under water, AND I would acclimate myself to the cold water by going for a swim in it every time I paddled. You can start with a brief immersion and work your way up to longer times.

This is what I did when paddling in AK and not wearing either a wetsuit or a drysuit, which went completely against most people's advice (and rightly so). I took dips in ice-cold streams that got colder as we headed farther north (the streams were colder than the sea water). Yes, my body adapted. It might not be enough, but every little bit helps.

I see people out rowing racing shells on 50-degree water wearing, basically, running clothes. Maybe you can start with warmer wear and use a thinner suit when you become less likely to capsize.

dress for the swim

– Last Updated: Oct-21-13 5:28 PM EST –

you may be uncomfortable sweating in a drysuit but water temps in the 30s need the ultimate respect. I'd look for drysuit or semi drysuit that is "breathable" and realize you're still going to sweat and stink like a pig when you're actively paddling. Also protect your head from cold shock immersion.

considerations of consequences
If it were me, I would consider the distance from shore that I’d be paddling at. You might be able to use lighter gear and just carry a dry bag of clothing and a towel in case you swim. If on open water, dress for a swim.

All the best, tOM

different boat
I would train in a stable boat and wait for warmer weather to bring out the ski.

Freezing water temps = drysuit
IMO anyway. You will be sweating if you are training hard. But at least with a dry suit you can sweat into easily washable layers.

either will work
The drysuit is only as good as the layer underneath. Many people get a drysuit and then wear too a thin layer under and get cold. We had a surfskier die in a underlayered drysuit a few years back in the NW.

Most everyone switches to a thicker wetsuit around here for winter training but a few older guys who don’t generate much heat use drysuits. Our water temp is 40 in the lakes and 50 in the ocean. A surfer style 4-3 or thicker suit will work better for ski paddling than a drysuit. We had too surfskiers rescued a month ago in thin wetsuits. One with a core temp in the high 80’s. He spent the night in hospital.

The common thread with all these rescues and accidents is people who could not remount their ski on their first try or stay in their ski in rough conditions.

PRACTICE REMOUNTING. If the water is too cold for remounting practice you are not dressed appropriately.

agree with Pikabike
I agree with Pikabike - you are in the worst of both worlds. Going hard you will be creating a lot of heat. But in the water, you will freeze fast. So you need a way to allow for both, which is hard. An unzipped wet suit that you could quickly zip back up when you are in the water seems like a good way, if you can make that work.

Most competitive surf skiers do not wear much, if anything. And there have been deaths of racers during practice sessions due to this. So I am glad to hear that you are considering options.

Staying close to shore has limited benefits. Water close to freezing only gives you a few minutes of swim time for an uninsulated person before your body stops sending blood to your arms and legs (instead keeping it in your core). A couple of failed tries at getting back on and you have used up your time, so swimming now isn’t an option. Thermal protection extends the time. A 3 mm wet suit probably stretches that to maybe an hour. Keep this in mind, as the suggestion below of staying close to shore may not be as good as it sounds.


– Last Updated: Oct-21-13 7:23 PM EST –

How many weeks of those conditions do you really have down there? Five? Six? In cold winter conditions you describe I wouldn't bother training on the water. Find a sports oriented strength/conditioning coach and discuss what you want to accomplish for your racing season. He or she can put you on a cardio-strength training program in a gym that will get you in better shape than paddling for a month or so in those conditions ever could.

But won’t you get chilled with a wetsuit
Question: if you wear a wetsuit, and you get wet, don’t you run the risk of hypothermia once you’re back in the boat if it’s cold and windy, and you can’t get dry? Cold as in winter cold, 40’s for air temps.

I always figured one advantage of a drysuit is once you get out of the water, you’re dry. So as long as you have sufficient layering, wouldn’t a dry suit be better?

With a wet suit, out of the water you’re still wet, and the suit offers little to no protection against the wind. I’ve heard that a wet wet suit out of the water in cold wind acts like a cooling layer that your body tries to heat up by releasing heat, leading to hypothermia.

Not so much …
A good wetsuit holds in the warmth pretty well, 40 degrees and a breeze is no problem. I know folks who surf near the arctic circle in wetsuits. Are they 100% warm and comfy, no, but they do keep you warm when wet.

A lot of people post crap about being cold in a cheap farmer john wet suit in wind, or freezing in wind in a wetsuit. It’s good to ask what the brand and model of the wetsuit was they were wearing. A decent wet suit can keep you plenty warm in cold water and wind.

It matters which suit

– Last Updated: Oct-22-13 12:16 AM EST –

Newer paddlers tend to go for the basic farmer John (or Jane) because they are inexpensive and obviously available from NRS. That is the suit that I got hypothermic in on a relatively warm day compared to winter, even with layers.

But - there are better suits used by surfers etc that have a more refined combination of layers and thicknesses and can have full length sleeves. These suits are a different story than the Farmer Johns/Janes of the world.

They also cost more, enough that depending on what the paddler will need long term it can be a close call on whether to go there or dry. Inland, and in the northeast, you are talking water temps that can be very slightly above freezing, which is warmer than most ocean bodies of water even in winter. Those who try and paddle thru the winter in that water and air temps easily in the teens can get a lot of use out of a dry suit - if you get chilled easily it can be 6 months out of the year. People who aren't going to get that extended of use out of a dry suit may find the cheaper cost of even a more expensive wetsuit to be the better alternative.

One thing that no one here has mentioned - hands that get into 38 degree water tend not to work very well unless you are wearing really decent gloves. Diving dry gloves are among the options, and are often cheaper than the fancy paddling gloves for cold water.

Decent 4/3 Wetsuit

I suspect a 4/3 wetsuit is going to be overkill in Texas, but if that is the route you end up going, look online for sales or in shops after Christmas for sales. You can usually pick up last year’s models for about $160. This year’s models will probably be more expensive. Xcel, O’Neil, Rip Curl make good quality suits that you can find on sale for reasonable cost.

Make sure about the water temperature being as low as you think it is. My sister lives on a lake in texas and the water temperature is never near freezing, (I know it’s a huge state, so YMMV.)

Thanks did not know that
I looked up dry suits and can see there are a lot more choices than I was aware of, and higher quality suits that are in the low end of a dry suit for cost.

Dry suit, for sure

– Last Updated: Oct-22-13 11:13 AM EST –

I would suggest you think how you train. In a wet suit you will be sweating like a pig even at moderate exertion levels AND will be cold if you do get in the water if the suit is thin. If the suit is thick, you will be miserable while paddling - too hot.

In a well breathable dry suit, at moderate effort, you will sweat a bit but will be comfortable. Should you fall in the water (assuming you do have layers enough for a brief immersion), once out, you will quickly dry and be comfortable again. In a dry suit, you can be hot or cold too, depending on layers, but you can be dry (if you don't sweat too much). I think being dry beats being wet...

Wet suits that would keep you warm in the water will be very uncomfortable to paddle in. They may be great for surfing but surf ski paddling at a brisk exercise pace is different than sitting and waiting for a wave to appear and occasionally catching it, then being in the water a lot while waiting or swimming out through the surf. On a ski you mostly stay out of the water and move a lot and constantly.

That said, I do paddle my ski in the winter in the DC area. With all the layers, it is not something that I want to do at high power. Layers are too restrictive and heavy to enjoy. You can work on technique and balance outdoors, work on power indoors - get a kayak trainer if you are serious (the machine, not the person) and paddle indoors for technique, endurance, and interval training. Go outdoors only to enjoy the air and chase bumps and boat wakes and to work on balance.

Unfortunately, near freezing waters are dangerous and every once in a while a competitive racer or fitness paddler/rower dies on the flat urban Potomac due to hypothermia, lack of a flotation device, and inability to swim out the few hundred yards to shore. So, think about it carefully.

My experience with breathable dry

I have used a dry suit paddling like made in high surf and very cold water, and my inner layers were soaked with sweat within an hour or so, I then started to get chilled because the wet inner layers were not insulating.

Breathable is not good enough for high exertion levels.


– Last Updated: Oct-22-13 4:36 PM EST –

Breathable is great for relaxed touring style paddling. Not breathable enough for a vigorous workout. I too soak wet from paddling hard.

One point I was trying to make is that if one is paddling hard, nothing that keeps them warm in the water will be comfortable. But, one could adjust their workout routine to emphasize low-effort training outside and keep the hard stuff for inside, and a dry suit will help in this situation if they want to be dry and reasonably warm.

If soaking wet is not an issue, I suppose a comfy wet suit or non-breathable Drysuit would work fine, the latter being probably cheaper than a good comfy wetsuit...

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