How to Choose a Dry Suit for Kayaking

kokatat dry suit ready to go

How do you choose a drysuit for kayaking on cold water? When do you use it? What brand – always Kokatat? How do you get one to fit right? Do you get used to the feeling of claustrophobia with the tight gasket around the neck? How do you care for it? How long can you expect the gaskets to last? These were all questions posed on Paddlinglight’s Facebook page when I recently asked for article ideas. These are all great questions to get answers for when you’re preparing to buy what might be the most expensive piece of kayaking gear that you buy after your kayak.

What are my options for cold water kayaking?

When the water drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, you should start dressing for immersion. Your choices are dry wear or wetsuits. We’ve covered drysuits vs. wetsuits for kayaking before, so we won’t cover it again, but you should wear one or the other in those temperatures, because cold shock,  cold incapacitation and hypothermia are possible. I prefer a drysuit.

When do you use a dry suit for kayaking?

It’s hard to define the exact water temperature and conditions when you need to wear a dry suit for safety, because often times in the overlap between 45 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit a wetsuit may work as well as a dry suit. The key is comfort in addition to safety. When you combine a dry suit with multiple layers that you can adjust based on the conditions, a dry suit, because it breaths, will often be more comfortable than getting soaked in sweat under a wetsuit. If you have the option, using a dry suit when the water temps drop below 50 degrees will make you more comfortable, and often when the water is above 50 and the air temperature is cold a dry suit will feel more comfortable.

As a kayaking guide, I’ve heard “I can’t believe I waited so long” and “I’ll never go back” from multiple other guides that made the switch from a wetsuit to a dry suit. Seriously, until you try one, you just don’t know how great they are. So here’s my personal guide to when I wear a drysuit:

  • On long distance trips on cold water.
  • Day trips when the water temp is below 60ish degrees.
  • When the air temp is cold (below 60 degrees).
  • If it’s really windy.
  • In the surf when the water is below 70 degrees.
  • When going rolling.

For day trips on calm water days, I personally may switch to a dry top and dry pants or a dry top and a wetsuit. On cold water, I’d guess that 90% of the time I wear a dry suit. The rest is some combination of dry tops and other gear.

How do you choose a drysuit for kayaking?

When you’re trying to choose a dry suit, I think it comes down to these criteria:

  • Fit
  • Material it’s made from/durability
  • Features
  • Warranty
  • Color

Fit: It has to fit right. Generally speaking, you’re probably going to select the same size of dry suit as the size shirts that you wear. So, if you wear a large shirt, you’re probably going to wear a large dry suit. If you wear chest hugging t-shirts that are one size too small, that’s probably not going to work out for you. Regardless, if you have the chance to try a drysuit on, then do it. If you don’t, make sure that the store you order from has a good return policy.

There are a few times when the shirt rule won’t work out for you. If you’re really tall or really short, you may need to go with a dry suit that’s a different size than your shirt size. Again, try it on.

When you’re trying a dry suit on, make sure that leave enough room in the suit to accommodate multiple layers, because without warm insulating layers dry suits won’t keep you warm, and with a roomy dry suit you can vary the number of layers based on temps to stay warm. I like to be able to wear a base layer and two mid layers with mine. One of the mid layers is usually fleece in colder temps. If the suit feels tight with your insulation on, it’s really going to feel tight when you’re in your kayak moving your torso from side-to-side.

There are also different cuts from different companies. I like a cut that allows me to easily move my arms around. I also like to have a suit that’s long enough that I don’t feel squished from shoulders to feet.

Material it’s made from/durability: Dry suits take a beating. The butt slides back and forth across your seat as you torso rotate, the fabric runs across deck lines and fittings, the knees are braced against the boat, socks rub around in your neoprene booties, your spray skirt rubs the waist area, your lifevest slides across the fabric, your boat sits on the shoulder and on and on. I’d venture that because you wear your dry suit everytime you paddle, especially on an expedition, that it takes more wear and tear than your kayak or your kayak paddle.

I’m all about saving weight, but because a dry suit helps protect me against the risks of cold water, I’m willing to go for one that has beefy and durable fabric. This is especially true because they’re so expensive and I want to get multiple years (7 to 10) out of one suit before I have to replace it. And because they take a beating, they need to be durable.

With that said, I recommend a durable fabric that’s breathable. I like Gore-tex, because in my experience it breaths better than anything else out there and it lasts longer. All my Gore-tex parkas have outlasted others, and it’s that durability that might mean the difference between buying two more dry suits in my life or three more. I also look for cordura seat and knee patches. The patches should be self-draining. The most fragile part of a dry suit is the latex gaskets, so I like dry suits that protect them. Because the waterproof zippers on dry suits are so expensive, I also like to have a flap over them that protects them.

Features: I covered a few features in the fabric section above. For kayaking, a dry suit must have a spray skirt tunnel. This helps keep water from pouring into the boat during rolls and such. I don’t personally use pockets in a dry suit because I put stuff in my lifevest, but if you’re the kind of person that digs pockets, you may. The other features that you’ll debate when you’re purchasing a suit are Gore-tex socks and relief zippers. Just get them. Here’s why:

  • Socks: The number of latex gaskets that you go through during the life of the dry suit and the PITA to replace them will more than equal the price for socks. Socks are more comfortable, they’re warmer, because you can wear wool socks, and your feet don’t end up looking like prunes after a day of paddling in neoprene booties. On long trips, keeping your feet dry is a high priority, because you don’t want to get trench foot or something like that. P.s. latex socks get holes easily.
  • Relief zippers: Without them this is the routine that you have to go through when taking a piss: Remove your lifevest, remove your spray skirt, unzip the suit, pull your right arm out of the suit, pull your head out of the suit, pull your left arm out of the suit, pull the suit down, take a piss. Reverse. Try that on the water! For women, use a Lady J or similar device for urinating without having to take of the suit. Just do yourself a favor and get a relief zipper.

Okay, one more:

  • Hoods: Ask this question: Are you getting this simply for an expedition where you’ll have lots of rain and cold wind? If yes, get a hood. If no, use a neoprene diver’s hood instead.

Warranty: Because this is probably the most expensive piece of kayaking gear you buy after your boat, buy from a company that stands behind its products. Look for a lifetime guarantee. This is also another reason to buy Gore-tex.

Color: It should be bright so that you are highly visible on the water. That said, I really like the look of Kokatat’s newer suits that have different color legs than the rest of the suit. Personally, I go with yellow or mango because it’s bright and stands out.

What brand – always Kokatat?

Short answer: You can’t go wrong with Kokatat. Long answer: Every company has a slightly different fit, and one brand may fit you better. My first dry suit was a Bomber Gear suit and it held up well. Many of my friends use NRS suits and I have friends that use Palm suits. All seem to hold up well. There are other brands out there, but I don’t have experience with them.

Currently, I use this suit:

  • Kokatat Gore-tex Meridian with a relief zipper and socks: It fits me perfectly. It’s durable. It has held up better than I expected; since I got it in 2009 I’ve put it through over 1,200 miles of kayak camping trips, and many more miles of day trips. If I had to guess, I’d guess that it sees at least 100 days on the water a year. I’ve replaced the neck gasket twice and will replace the wrist gaskets soon. I got it in mango. A few threads on the neoprene protectors around the wrist and neck are fraying a bit because the neoprene tape that was covering them came up a little and the seam sealing tape in the heel started to come slightly detached. I fixed it. Those are the only real signs of wear and tear that I see on it, other than it’s really dirty. The only real fault I can find with it is that the zipper’s end aligns almost perfectly with a rib that I have that sort of sticks out, so sometime when I put my lifevest on, it compresses the zipper into that rib. I have to pull the suit down to fix it. Not everyone will have that. If you’re an average kayaker and not an obsessive one that runs his own kayak guiding company like me, then I’d guess that you’d see even less wear and tear. There’s a woman’s version, too! It features a drop seat.
What friends have used:
  • The NRS Inversion is the drysuit that people often buy when the can’t afford the Kokatat suit. Everyone I know have been happy with them.
  • Palm Stikine Dry Suit. I have friends that are sponsored by Palm and use Palm drysuits. They are happy with them. The only issue that I noticed is that the rear closure while easier to get into than a front zipper is much harder to close. When I guided with a person who used a Palm suit, I was often asked to help zip it up.

Do you get used to the feeling of claustrophobia with the tight gasket around the neck?

Do I personally get that feeling? No, but when you first get the suit or first replace a neck gasket, you may get that feeling. Here’s the deal, when you first get the suit, try the neck on. If it’s too tight, stretch it around the bottom of a pan overnight. Then try it on. If it feels good, you’re set to go. If not, you can try stretching it for another night, but you’ll probably need to trim it (Note: do NOT trim wrist gaskets). On a neck gasket, you’ll notice a set of rings that run around the gasket. You trim these one at a time until you get the right fit. Here’s what Kokatat says about trimming:

The neck gasket on your Kokatat dry suit is designed to be trimmed (Kokatat wrist gaskets are not designed this way). The neck gasket should fit tightly without being too constricting. If stretching the gasket over a form does not increase the comfort, trim the gasket one ring at a time until it is comfortable but does not allow water in when you are swimming (see gasket trimming instructions). Consult your dealer or Kokatat customer service if you have any questions, and remember, cut once and test before cutting again!

The key is to trim one at a time. The latex will stretch out as it’s used, so I leave it a little tight. I usually need to trim one ring away to get a good fit.

How do you care for a drysuit?

I’m not going to write a long paragraph for this section, because the instructions that help you care for a drysuit are better off as bullet points:

  • Washing: Follow the care labels. Usually, it’s wash in warm water, on delicate cycle, with gentle powdered soap. Rise twice and hang dry. I use Nikwax Tech Wash to wash all things Gore-tex or waterproof and breathable.
  • Restore the DWR: The DWR is the treatment on the outside of the fabric that causes water to bead up and bead off. It helps prevent the fabric from saturating. To restore it, get some Nikwax TX Direct, spray it on and then you need to heat it up to activate it. Don’t throw your drysuit into the dryer! Use an iron with a cotton cloth between it and the suit or use a hairdryer to activate the TX Direct.
  • Zippers: Keep them clean! Keep them clean! Keep them clean! When they’re clean, treat them with McNett Zip Tech. If a zipper feels sticky, like it won’t close, don’t yard on it. Clean it and lube it.
  • Gaskets: After use, clean the gaskets with mild soap and fresh water to get salt, sunscreen, etc… off of them. Sunscreen can eat Latex, so be careful when applying it. I think the reason I go through so many neck gaskets is simply because I’m not careful applying sunscreen. Every three or four weeks, spray them with 303. Let the gasket absorb the 303 for a few minutes before wiping it off.
  • Storage: Hang dry, store in a cool, clean area with the zippers open. Keep it out of the sun, away from gas fumes and if you must store it in a dirty area, store it with the zippers closed. To help the gaskets, pull back the neoprene covers, otherwise the gaskets can get creased, which causes wear in that area.

How long can you expect the gaskets to last?

You will replace the gaskets. There’s no doubt about it. How long they last depends on how well you treat them. Use the steps above to care for them, make sure the neck fits correctly. When you put on and take off the dry suit remove jewelry and watches or anything that could snag on them. If you have long finger nails be very careful as you put them through the gasket. Buy a suit with Gore-tex socks, so you don’t have to deal with ankle gaskets. Take care of them. But if and when they do rip be prepared to deal with the problem. I’ve used Tear Aid Repair tape to repair mine on a long distance trip. Aquaseal and bike tear repair material also work.

What’s the ideal drysuit gasket repair kit for long distance kayaking?

The ideal drysuit gasket repair kit for a long distance trip would be Tear Aid, a piece of latex, an unopened bottle of Aquaseal. With some luck, that should get you through the trip or to a place where you can replace the gasket.

How do you put on a drysuit?

I do it a little different than is recommended on Kokatat’s website, so I thought this might come in handy for someone. I get into the legs and then pull up the suit as high as it will go. Then I put on the left sleeve, do my head and follow it with the right sleeve. For the neck gasket, I grab each side with a hand, stretch it and pull it over my head. The reason that I do my right arm after my head is that it allows me to easily reach into the back and front of the suit to rearrange clothing as needed, because sometimes it bunches up when you put on the suit and bunched up clothing is really uncomfortable under a lifevest. It’s much easier to unbunch clothing when your right arm is free.

Do you have more questions?

And there you have it. Hopefully, these answers will help someone out there purchase the right dry suit. If you have other questions, please, ask below. I’ll add them to the article as needed.


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4 Comments

  1. Al Dunham
    Posted April 18, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    -neck gasket goes on easier if my hair is slightly damp
    -how do you take it off? is also an important question. I do right arm, neck, left arm.
    neck: i pull gasket partially off, pull the fabric covering off, then push the gasket the rest of the way

  2. Sheila Porteous
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Another great Kokatat bonus is the women specific suits!!

    Many manufacturers have a unisex option only which can leaves suits bulky on top and tight in the thighs. Kokatat is making the effort to have suits that fit properly AND in a wide range of standard sizes. The XL-short model is my size and a standard option. Thank you Kokatat for acknowledging that fit people and paddlers come in all sizes. MANY other retailers need to learn this!

    Also, custom fitting is always an option with Kokatat and a great value for a the best fit possible.

    And their customer service is incredible! Your suit can be sent in for inspection, modifications, and repairs – much cheaper than getting a new suit,

  3. Paul Page
    Posted April 22, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    “they’re so expensive and I want to get multiple years (7 to 10) out of one suit before I have to replace it”
    Did you really say 7 to 10 YEARS?!
    Wow! how do you take care of your suit? I have been lucky to get 3 years out of mine, I mean I’m an instructor and my suit (gore tex kokatat) takes a serious beating over the course of one summer. But 7-10 years seems like a long time, even my gore parka’s don’t last that long.
    I bow to you!! Well done!
    Paul

    • Posted April 23, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      I don’t think you need to “bow down to” me. I’d guess, you just need to learn how to take better care of your gear. If you’re going through your Gore-tex parkas that quickly, you’re doing something wrong. The Gore-tex parka I used to hike the Appalachian Trail and for a couple years after is still in usable shape. Use the advice I gave in this article, treat it right, repair it when needed, and it will last. I have a friend with a Gore-tex suit that’s older than 10 years, and it still works — although it’s the ugliest colors you can imagine. I don’t know how much you paddle a year, but I’d guess that he paddles more than both of us.