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Wetsuit vs Drysuit For Kayaking

Mark Armstrong
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Kayaking in the summer is great but what about the colder months? You needn’t wait for the sun to head out on the water. You can enjoy a paddle in all kinds of temperature as long as you have the right equipment.

Most people have heard of wetsuits but you can also use a drysuit to keep you safe. But which is best for kayaking, wetsuits or drysuits?

Wetsuits vs Drysuits for KayakingPin

Why Would I Want To Wear A Wetsuit Or A Drysuit?

When kayaking in winter, you (and most other paddlers) will be keen to stay dry in the boat. But unfortunately, kayakers often come across elements they cannot control so you may well fall into the water regardless of your intentions.

In the event that you do fall in, you should be dressed warm enough to survive a swim for however long it takes to get back into your boat and still be able to function afterwards. In cold waters, this involves a wetsuit or drysuit.

Water Temperature vs Survivability ChartPin
Stats courtesy: ussartf.org

Cold Shock & Hypothermia

The shock your body can feel from being immersed i n extremely cold water is immense.

Cold shock can occur in waters as warm as 50-60 degrees fahrenheit. It can set in very quickly and most people experience a combination of three things:

-Breathing problems (gasping for air, swallowing water, hyperventilation)
-Heart and blood pressure problems
-Mental problems (panic, disorientation, inability to think or act rationally)

If exposed to extremely low temperatures for a long period of time, you could also develop hypothermia.

When kayaking in cold waters, you need to adequately protect yourself by wearing the correct suit.

What Is A Wetsuit, And How Do They Work?

Wetsuits are usually one piece suits made from neoprene. They are designed to allow a thin layer of water to get next to your skin. The snug fit along with the neoprene keeps this water there, allowing your body to heat it up and keep you warm.

Wetsuits tend to be used for cold weather surf sports because the material and fit allows flexible movement. They are designed to be snug. If your wetsuit is too loose – you will get cold.

Types Of Wetsuits

Full Wetsuits

ONeill Reactor 32mm Mens Full SuitPin

One piece suits that cover your torso, arms and legs up to your wrists and ankles.

Shorty Wetsuits / Springsuits

ONeill Reactor 2mm Mens Spring SuitPin

One piece suits that cover your torso, things and upper arms. Best used for warmer temperatures.

Short John Wetsuits

Quiksilver Mens Syncro 2MmPin

One piece suits that cover your torso and thighs. Ideal for warmer climates and waters.

Long John Wetsuits

Quiksilver Retro 3mm Longjohn

One piece suits that cover your torso and legs down to your ankles (no arm coverage). The preferred choice of triathletes and surfers.

Tops & Bottoms

ONeill Wetsuits Mens 21 mm ORiginal JacketPin

You don’t necessarily have to use a one piece. You can purchase neoprene tops (vests)  in both long and short sleeves as well as full and short length bottoms.


Neoprene is made with small cells filled with air. This allows it to trap heat to keep you warm. A thicker suit contains more neoprene and keeps you warmer by trapping more air. The thickness required depends on the water temperature you will be experiencing. The colder the water – the thicker your wetsuit should be.

Labels usually display thickness with three numbers separated by a slash. The numbers represent the thickness of the neoprene in millimeters around the torso, legs and arms (in that order). Sometimes, you will only see two numbers – these relate to the torso and legs.

Wetsuits are designed thicker around the torso to protect your core body heat, keep you warm and prevent hypothermia. The thinner neoprene is used on your limbs (arms and legs) to allow flexibility as they’re continuously used for movement.

If you’re going to be paddling in very cold water, you should consider using wetsuit boots, gloves and hoods to protect your extremities (fingers, toes, ears etc).

Advantages of Wetsuits

  • Wetsuits come in a variety of styles and thickness levels, allowing you to keep mobile and comfortable. Wetsuits are great for activities like surfing, kayaking, swimming and paddle boarding as they allow you to move freely.
  • The various styles also allow you to cover as much or as little of your body as you need depending on climate and water temperature.
  • Wetsuits also tend to have buoyancy (more so than drysuits).

Disadvantages of Wetsuits

  • This probably goes without saying, but if your desire is to keep dry, a wetsuit is definitely not for you. They are specifically designed to keep you warm by getting immersed in water.
  • Wetsuits are also tricky to get in and out of, especially if they are wet or damp (which they usually are).
  • You can get some great, thick wetsuits that protect you against cold water, but in extremely low water temperatures (below 45 degrees fahrenheit), even the thickest wetsuits won’t be enough to keep you warm and safe.
Video: Here’s a simple trick to get into a wetsuit easily…

What Is A Drysuit? Do They Work The Same As Wetsuits?

A drysuit (as you might have guessed by the name) is designed to keep you completely dry. Made from waterproof materials, it is a suit that is sealed by gaskets around the neck and wrists. Unlike a wetsuit, a drysuit is only intended to be used as an outer layer so you still need to wear a base and mid layer inside the suit to stay warm.

Drysuits come in various types for different sports and water temperatures. Scuba divers use a different type of drysuit to surfers and kayakers. They can also come in one piece or two piece varieties. Kayakers tend to use ‘baggy drysuits’ made for paddlers (allowing you to move freely whilst paddling) and the one piece variety is generally the most popular.

> Drysuits for kayaks


Wrist GasketPin
Wrist Gasket

Gaskets are snug fitting seals placed around your neck and wrists to keep water out of your dry suit. You can get them in a variety of materials, the most popular of which is natural latex.

Silicone rubber gaskets are far more durable and less likely to tear than latex or neoprene but they are a lot more expensive and often require special installation.

Neoprene is more durable than latex but may feel a little less flexible. This makes it harder to get the right fit.

You can get ankle gaskets which will seal the suit at your ankles. If you do this, you can wear whatever you want (such as wetsuit socks or boots) to protect your feet from the cold but they will not stay dry.

Peeing in a Drysuit

Though it may not be pretty, relieving yourself is a fact of life. If you’re out kayaking all day, needing to use the bathroom is inevitable. Investing in a relief zipper (whether you’re in a wetsuit or a drysuit) is therefore well worth considering.

Need to peePin

Relief zippers look exactly like a zip on a pair of pants but on drysuits they are watertight. This makes going to the bathroom easy for men and possible for women if they use a “she-wee” or similar device.

Women can also opt for the ‘drop seat’. This is a longer zipper which curves in a way that allows women to squat to pee. It’s worth noting that whilst this might be more comfortable for the act itself, it will mean that the rest of the time you will be sitting on a bulky zipper.

> Guide to dry tops

Advantages of Drysuits

  • In extreme cold, in or out of the water, a drysuit will often be your best option. Because of the loose fit you can wear several other layers of clothing underneath for extra warmth.
  • Designed to keep you completely dry, wearing a drysuit means you won’t need a hot shower or have to dry off before getting back in the car to go home after a day of paddling.
  • Easier to get in and out of (compared to a wetsuit).

Disadvantages of Drysuits

  • Drysuits on their own aren’t designed to insulate like wetsuits do. Their primary purpose is to keep you dry so in order to keep warm, you will need to invest in appropriate clothing to wear with it.
  • Depending on whether your suit is made of breathable fabric or non-breathable waterproof fabric, you might find yourself getting wet inside your drysuit from your own perspiration (so you may end up needing a shower anyway).
  • If your suit doesn’t have a relief zipper, going to the toilet can become a laborious routine.

Wetsuit vs Drysuit: Which Is Best?

Choosing between a wetsuit and a drysuit is entirely dependent on the activities and temperatures you will be encountering.

Wetsuits come in various thickness levels and generally provide more freedom for movement so may therefore be your best option for paddling, swimming, surfing and other activities in waters between 45 and 70 degrees.

When kayaking in air temperature under 50 degrees or water temperature under 45 degrees, you should opt for a dry suit. Drysuits alone however will not keep you warm – you must invest in appropriate base and mid layers to wear underneath.

Both wetsuits and drysuits come in a variety of styles and types so you can look great, be comfortable and stay safe out on the water.

> Best kayaks for scuba diving

4 thoughts on “Wetsuit vs Drysuit For Kayaking”

  1. I will be kayaking on Lake Superior this summer. If the air temp is around 80F, will a wet suit for 45F water be too hot?

  2. I think if the water is 45 you need a DRY SUIT. Otherwise if you fall in you can drown right away from the shock of such cold water. Please read more about this and consult an expert before kayaking in such cold water.

    • Depends, a decent 5/4 mm wetsuit will be OK in 45 degree water for a long time (I surf in this for hours), you certainly will not get cold shock!!! But that thickness of wetsuit will be a bit more restrictive on your paddling than a drysuit, and 85f air temp in a 5/4 wetsuit will be sweaty without a few deliberate rolls!


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