I love to winter kayak especially when Lake Superior starts to freeze over in late February and early March. It’s a time of the year when other paddlers stay home bundled up in front of the fireplace, and it’s a time of the year that the shoreline changes almost everyday due to the varied ice patterns. When the water and air temperature starts to drop, it’s important to have the right winter kayaking gear, and I covered that in my winter kayaking checklist. One item that I left off the list is a Tuilik.
Note: Featured photo by photographer Paul Sundberg.
What is a Tuilik?
A tuilik (too-e-leek) is a combination of a hooded jacket and a sprayskirt. It originated in the Inuit culture and was designed to seal a kayak’s cockpit opening as well as to keep the kayaker warm and dry. The modern day equivalant is wearing a drytop and a sprayskirt. The Inuit made the first tuiliks out of seal skin, but modern tuiliks come in Gore-Tex and neoprene. For winter, you want a neoprene version.
Paddlers coming from a neoprene sprayskirt to a tuilik often note how much more free they feel in a tuilik. You’re able to twist, rotate and turn your body much more easily than with a sprayskirt. Tuiliks make torso rotation easier and can help you set up rolls more easily. Neoprene tuiliks are also extremely warm, which makes it a good piece of gear for winter kayaking.
Commercial versions of neoprene tuiliks, such as Brooks tuilik, often run around $400, but you can make your own for the price of a sheet of neoprene, a pattern, glue and a few odds and ends. Homemade tuiliks run around $150, but if you get a group together to buy neoprene, you might be able to get a sheet of neoprene for less than $40, which would drop the cost to somewhere around $60 per tuilik.
Commercial waterproof/breathable tuiliks offer some of the warmth of neoprene tuiliks, but much more breathability. Comfort Paddling’s waterproof/breathable tuilik starts at $399. It’s custom designed for your body shape and kayak’s cockpit coaming. It can also be ordered with a tunnel which will mate with bibs/dry pants to give you a two-piece drysuit-style tuilik. The tunnel runs $50 and the bibs start at $249.
Wearing a Tuilik
Getting into a neoprene tuilik is never a pleasant experience to me. Unless you align the seams of the arms correctly, they’ll feel twisted the entire time you wear it, so as you put it on make sure that the seams run correctly up the side of your arms. Once on pull the hood over your head, the opening should extend down around your chin so that your chin, mouth, nose and eyebrows show. Your tuilik may have a string that’s designed to wrap around the top of your head to tighten the hood opening. On a Brooks’ tuilik, the string works best for me by not wrapping it around my forehead like shown on Brooks’ website. I just pull it tight and then adjust the neoprene down to my eyebrows and pull the opening a bit forward around my cheeks. That usually keeps most of the water out during a roll. Experiment to get the best fit.
Tuiliks for Kayak Kayaking
Although tuiliks are warm, they don’t protect you during a swim, so when the water is cold you should wear a drysuit or wetsuit underneath. During winter, I wear a drysuit with plenty of insulation and then the tuilik with a lifevest over top. This combo keeps me more than warm enough to roll even when the temperature hovers around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. On longer winter paddles, a neoprene tuilik may feel too hot, but it’s easy to do a roll and cool off.
Wearing a tuilik with a drysuit underneath feels a little bulky, but it’s not bad, and you’ll be happy for the extra warmth and hood in the cold. If you do any significant winter paddling or rolling in cold water, I highly recommend getting a tuilik.