What Good Is A Drytop?

-- Last Updated: Apr-10-06 1:38 PM EST --

Recent discussions of cold-water gear has got me thinking of my own paddling wear and skills set, and I am considering a drytop (or possibly a drysuit).

I should say at the outset that I live and paddle in Wisconsin, and inland lakes around here were ice-bound until a couple weeks ago. Water temps of 55F and higher typically only span from May thru October, so the two ends of the season require lots of polypro and neoprene. Over top of it all I've been wearing a spray jacket (waterproof nylon with snug, velcro-cinched neoprene cuffs all around), which lends a pretty dry ride, but in a full-immersion situation soon fills with water, mainly from the waist hem.

A full-blown drysuit, besides being a bloody expensive and cantankerous piece of equipment, would seem to be practical for only about a month at each end of my paddling season.

My question is, how is a high-end drytop–some of which go for over $300–any better than my current $60 spray jacket? Both offer very watertight neck and wrist seals, and both seem to admit that water will intrude from the waist during a swim. Besides secondary features like pockets, hoods, and breathability, what does a drytop offer over a splash jacket?

It seems to me that much of one's coldwater-gear selection hinges on the ability or inability to ROLL, which I do not yet have. If a capsize means a swim and a self-rescue, cold water would dictate a drysuit.

Am I mistaken in assuming that drytops indeed leak from the waist during a swim, or do some of the better models do a decent job of preventing water intrusion long enough to execute a self-rescue, thereby keeping the body core safely warm?

Should I just skip the drytop and spring for a complete drysuit (or forego those two extra months of paddling)? Are there any two-piece, jacket-and-pants drysuits that offer true waterproofness and flexibility?

They’re great if you can roll reliably. If you get a high end one, it will have a double tunnel that you can mate the top of your sprayskirt to, and create a fairly effective seal. At that point, if you don’t come out of the boat, it’s every bit as good as a drysuit.


If you come out of the boat, you’ll need to have more protection. A farmer john wetsuit coupled with a drytop is good down to the limits of the wetsuit, but I find it hotter and clammier than a good drysuit. Plus, I don’t like paddling with a wetsuit on — the neoprene adds resistance to good torso rotation. I wear the drysuit well into the warmer months. And on borderline days, I wear a drytop over neoprene rodeo shorts and a surf shirt. Works well in moderately chilly (55 F) swims, at least for me.

There’s no easy answer if you insist on always being comfortable.



A dry top is better
because it can mate with dry bibs and give you the same protection as a drysuit, if carefully mated.

yep, they leak
basically you make a compromise between the time you expect to be immersed, what is the risk of that occuring and paddling comfort.

Dry suits
"A full-blown drysuit, besides being a bloody expensive and cantankerous piece of equipment, would seem to be practical for only about a month at each end of my paddling season."

If a dry top costs $300, then a reasonable dry suit isn’t that much more money. Look at the Stolquist or NRS suits (~$500).

A dry suit isn’t much more difficult to put on than a dry top.

Best time to make this decision…

– Last Updated: Apr-11-06 7:21 AM EST –

honestly - is after you have gotten a roll and are comfy being over on your side. Life doesn't work out that conveniently for most of us - didn't for me. But I could have saved myself considerable agonizing over clothing if I had just not worried about getting it precisely right until after I had initially gotten my roll.

Reasons are:
Once you have a roll, and a good scull, you'll be comfortable spending more time into colder temps being other than upright. And even at middling temps in the high 50's and low 60's, a drysuit is a lot more comfy than a wetsuit for sustained immersion. Like when I got serious about getting a roll and sustained a whole lotta swimming.

Even if you are going to go out and do skills work in warm weather, a drysuit is still useful not so much because of the warmth but because it puts a layer between your bod and the late summer pond scum or weed growth. So you can peel it off and drive home smelling like yourself after a workout rather than everything that died in the water as well.

BUT - on the flip side - once you have a roll etc you'll find that in warmer weather and easy evening paddles on a lake or pond, you'll find that you want to start discarding layers that you needed before. That's because the likelihood of swimming is now so greatly reduced that that you'll only likely need to dress for a short dunk.

For big water, ocean or Great Lakes, and for real skills development, I don't personally think anything beats a drysuit. But I'd suggest that you hold off on any final decisions until you can say for sure where your paddling will be going.

$300 Dry top?
You can find much better prices.

Also a ~80 dollar semidry top will keep you a lot more comfortable than a splash jacket, I use one surfing with wetsuits and very little water gets inside when swimming.

My two favorite garments are…
…a dry suit and a short sleeve dry top. The former is for cold conditions and the latter is just the ticket on warmer days where I still need some protection from wind and water. I haven’t used my paddling jacket in years.