Wetsuit vs. Drysuit for Kayaking

Kayaking in cold water and ice.

When it’s cold out and the water temperature starts dropping, dressing for immersion might mean the difference between surviving a swim and succumbing to cold shock, cold incapacitation and eventually hypothermia. At a base level, paddlers should dress to survive a swim of any length and still function in the canoe or kayak afterward. This means dressing in a wetsuit or drysuit when the water gets cold. The ultimate question: what’s the difference between a wetsuit vs. drysuit for kayaking.

Defining Cold Water Paddling

According to the American Canoe Association, a cold water situation occurs anytime the water temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) or if the water temperature is above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it occurs when the combined air and water temperature is less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius). In temperatures such as these paddlers need to dress for the water temperature, because an accidental swim could quickly kill.

Dr Gordon Giesbrecht of the Cold Water Boot Camp came up with something he calls the 1-10-1 rule. The 1-10-1 rule is a given as a guideline as to how an average body might respond to cold water immersion. Sometimes, immersion can and does kill more quickly. The rule says, an unprotected swimmer will suffer cold shock for about one minute, then have about 10 minutes until he can no longer function until finally succumbing to hypothermia an hour later assuming he doesn’t drown before then.

Lifesaving Society Facts

According to the Cold Water Boot Camp, in 2004, of the 130 people who died during boating in Canada, a nation that has cold water almost year round:

94 percent died in cold water.

  • 60% drowned in water under 50 degree Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius)
  • 34% drowned in water between 50 to 68 degree Fahrenheit (10 to 20 degrees Celsius)

86 percent didn’t wear a lifevest.

  • Only 12% were properly wearing a lifejacket
  • 2% were improperly wearing a lifejacket

Most were within swimming distance from the shore or safety.

  • 43% were less than 7 feet from safety*
  • 66% were less than 50 feet from safety*

*shore, boat, dock, etc.

74 percent ended up in the water when thrown over or when the boat capsized.

  • 26% fell or were thrown overboard
  • 48% were in a boat that capsized or was swamped

Of those identified more swimmers died than non-swimmers.

  • Non-swimmer = 29%
  • Weak = 15%
  • Average = 12%
  • Strong = 10%
  • Not identified = 34%

It’s clear that swimming ability and proximity to the shore  doesn’t guarantee survival, but dressing for immersion and wearing a lifevest can increase the odds of survival. Always wear a lifevest.

Layering for Cold Water

Like in other outdoor sports, paddling utilizes clothing layering to regulate body temperatures. Layering is thinking of clothing as a system that works to transport moisture away from the skin (neoprene works differently), to keep warmth near the body and to protect from the elements. Layers are added or subtracted as needed to account for varied temperatures. There are three different types of layers.

Base layer: A synthetic or wool layer that moves sweat away from the skin and keeps the body dry. Think long underwear. When using a wetsuit, this layer is skipped, because a wetsuit works best when directly against the skin.

Mid layer: A warm garment that doesn’t retain water, such as fleece. Vary the thickness or number of garments based on conditions.

Outer layer: A layer designed to keep wind and water away from the other layers. Think a paddling jacket. A drysuit is an outer layer.

Dress For Immersion

Dressing for immersion is the practice of wearing clothing designed to handle the water temperature over the air temperature. The water temperature is more risky, because it saps warmth away from the body quicker than air, so the paddler manages the greater risk by dressing for it. For example, if the water is 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the air is 80, a paddler would wear a drysuit and enough insulation to handle a long swim in the cold water.

Wetsuit Description

A wetsuit uses neoprene to trap and hold a thin layer of water near the body. The body heats up this layer, which keeps the paddler warm. The thicker the neoprene the warmer and less flexible it is. Full-body wetsuits are rated by two numbers, which looks like 4/3 or 3/2. The first number represents how thick the wetsuit’s torso is, and the second shows the thickness of the neoprene on the extremities.

Generally, paddling wetsuits come without arms, such as the NRS Ultra John. The advantage is that the neoprene doesn’t restrict arm movement. The disadvantage is that they’re not as warm and cold fresh water can easily penetrate the arm holes. A full wetsuit, such as XCEL’s Infinity Full Wetsuit, keeps more water out and stays warmer at the expense of more restricted arm movements. Read about Keith Wikle’s experience using a full wetsuit for paddling.

Drysuit Description

A drysuit combines a waterproof fabric with neck, wrist and sometime ankle gaskets to keep the water completely away from the body. The gaskets seal tightly against body and keep the water from coming in. Most gaskets are latex, so paddlers allergic to latex need to stay away, and latex gaskets can fail catastrophically in the field — I had it happen on two expeditions.

A drysuit acts as a outer layer. It isn’t warm by itself. To make it warm, wear a base and mid layer. Drysuits tend to cost much more than a wetsuit. A quality drysuit, such as Kokatat’s Meridian drysuit, runs from $600 to $1100 while a wetsuit runs $100 to $400. After getting used to the gaskets, most paddlers find drysuits more comfortable.

Dressing for 70 Degree Water

Above 70 degree water doesn’t require a wetsuit or a drysuit unless the air is under 50 degrees. Wear a rash guard and have a paddling jacket or drytop ready if it gets chilly.

Dressing for 50 Degree to 70 Degree Water

At this range, a Farmer John or Jane wetsuit, one without arms, will be the most comfortable. Near the lower temperatures, especially when combined with colder air temps use a full body wetsuit or a drysuit. Over the wetsuit wear a paddling jacket or drytop. Have several mid layers available in a drybag to put on when it starts to get cold. In warm air temperatures, a drysuit will feel hot, and because it requires layers to keep the paddler warm when in the water, it tends to get very hot. In lower air temperatures, the drysuit feels like heaven. Consider carrying extra clothing in preparation for weather changes.

Dressing for 45 Degree to 55 Degree Water

Things get a bit more complicated at this level. A full 4/3 wetsuit or a drysuit will both suffice. Combine a paddling jacket or drytop with mid layers to make the wetsuit warm enough. With a drysuit, add base and mid layers to keep warm. Once in the water, the coldness will easily penetrate to the bone when lighter mid layers are worn. Also, at this temp, the hands, feet and head need protection. Many of the same items used for winter kayaking work at this temp.

Below 45 Degree Water

Wear a drysuit with a base layer and multiple mid layers, plus protect the hands, feet and head with items listed in the above linked winter kayaking article. Additionally, take time to read this winter kayaking article. Even if it isn’t winter, water temperatures below 45 feels brutal. Cold shock is a distinct possibility. Protect against it by wearing a diving hood. On a personal level, I’ve taught and guided for years on 45 degree water (Lake Superior). I’ve seen lots of panic after a person hits the water. I’ve seen cold shock. I’ve seen people quickly shut down. I’ve even had to pull a person out of a boat after he panicked and forgot how to get out by pulling a sprayskirt. Even with a drysuit and multiple layers, the cold water saps energy quickly. It kills quickly. Dress warm and paddle with friends who know how to quickly react to a capsize.

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  • I edit the WrapAround, newsletter of the NH AMC Paddlers. I’d like to publish a link to this article in our Paddling the Web section of our April 2011 edition.

  • Hi, Denise,

    Please, feel free to link to it or any other article on PaddlingLight whenever you’d like.


  • Tried to ‘twitter’ your article. The button on this site wouldn’t open twitter.

    I have saved a copy of your article and the link. I would also like to publish it on my site – is this OK with you?

  • No, this is a copyrighted article and nobody has permission to republish this elsewhere. You’re welcome to link to it. Both Twitter buttons work for me. Sorry they don’t work for you.

  • “experienced and highly-skilled paddlers should dress to survive a swim of about 45 minutes and still function in the canoe or kayak afterward. Less skilled paddlers need to dress to handle longer swim times of several hours. The difference in time is an estimate of time required to reenter the boat or get to safety.”

    I disagree with the whole 45 minutes -experienced vs. inexperienced. Who came up with the 45 minute thing? I can re-enter a boat in 3 seconds but that doesn’t mean it’s always going to happen that way. What if you swim longer than 45 minutes? Just seems like a totally random number based on nothing.

    Everyone thinks they’re an expert. Telling someone they shouldn’t dress for the worst because they’re “experienced” is setting people up for disaster. I can talk to 50 people from novice to pro and they’ll all tell me they’re experts. I personally would say you dress for the swim, always, no matter how good a paddler you think you are.

    That’s like saying you don’t need a PFD or helmet if you’re good……I think I’m an expert at driving my car, but I still put on my seat belt. It would be foolish not to.

  • Hey, Jason, I heard it from a BCU coach. I agree with you, dress for the swim. Despite the introduction, I think the article addresses that theory. If you have other recommendations for the listed temps, let me know.

    I think you’re right about everyone thinking that they’re an expert. I try to steer away from that type of rating system and concentrate on skills. I never ask someone what level of paddler they are, because it’s a worthless measure, and I think a rating like that impedes learning by introducing desire and fear. Instead I ask, “Can you do x? How do you do it? Do you know this? Tell me about it,” etc… And figure it out from there.

  • I think every other bit of info is spot on, I don’t think assigning a time limit to an experience level is beneficial though. I’ve experienced a few well trained kayakers swim for an hour + before. Tide rips & races, seperation from the kayak and high winds were all factors preventing a quick and easy re-entry.

    I typically find it’s always easier to cool off than to warm up, so I dress for the swim even though I might get hot with heavy paddling. To cool off in cold weather I simply stop paddling for a minute or two or roll the kayak. I generally believe it’s better to be to hot than to cold.

  • The best part about publishing on the Internet is revision is easy. I changed the intro paragraph. I’m with you on dressing hot. It’s one part in the complicated equation of managing risks.

  • […] below 60 degree Fahrenheit (15.5 Celsius), you run into the risks of cold water paddling and need a wetsuit or a drysuit. And anytime you paddle beyond swimming distance from shore, you risk not making it back if you […]

  • Good article, but there’s one thing that really puzzles me, and that’s the alleged ‘5-50-50’ Rules:

    “In the first rule, a paddler has about five minutes to swim 50 yards in 50 degree water, and he has 50/50 chance of surviving.

    I have to say… really?

    Not to minimizes the risks at ALL, I fully understand that hypothermia and cold water are the demons that prey on many an unsuspecting kayaker… but to overstate the risks misinforms.

    First off, I assume you mean an *unprotected* swimmer. Check.

    Secondly… who can’t swim 50 yards in five minutes? That’s a 0.35 mph pace, i.e. so slow you’re in danger of going backwards in time.

    Third… such an ‘epic’ 50-yard swim, done at a pace so slow as to probably be insulting to the elderly, has a 50% chance of killing you? Hmm. Does not compute.

    To wit, last time I was at Yosemite, some friends and I on a whim doffed all but our underwear, and small across a large pond to find a nice spot to sun ourselves.

    The water in the pond was runoff, and even though it was a sunny day, I strongly doubt it was significantly above 50 degrees, even in the top 5 feet of the pond (i.e. the warmest part). We swam roughly a couple hundred yards to cross it, and didn’t take 20 minutes to do it, either (your Rules’ pace).

    No one suffered hypothermia. We sunned ourselves on the rocks on the other side and dried off quite nicely. The only slightly bad part was the initial cold shock when first jumping in… I agree that that was something one couldn’t just laugh off. But at no time did anyone look like they’re were going to drown or even be in moderate trouble.

    Yet, according to your Rule, we all should’ve perished. It makes one wonder about the value of such hard and fast ‘Rules’.

    My best guess? That ‘Rule’ comes averaging in data from victims who got ‘cold shocked’ in such a way that they drowned almost instantly when hitting the water, i.e. that unfortunate sub-set of folks to tend to have a strong ‘gasp’/open-mouth reflex when being subjected to cold shock.

    But that does not seem to be a typical experience.

    Again, don’t get me wrong… I both fear and respect cold water, and I DO dress to immerse when I go kayaking. But to dramatically overstate the dangers (for most folks, anyway) hurts one’s credibility, and may make ppl tune out the other important info you may have to share.

    Just sayin’. Keep writing, I love your blog otherwise.

    • Hi, Jamie,

      Thanks for the compliment.

      The 5/50/50 rule is a common one — it’s not something that I made up for the sake of making something up. Swimming half the length of a football field after a sudden and unexpected capsize in 50 degree or less water without any immersion gear isn’t an easy task, and to minimize the risk by suggesting that even the elderly could do it, I think, is brushing off the danger. If you look at the statistics, 66% of cold water drownings occurred within 50 feet of shore (and 43% within 7 feet), which is 100 feet less than the 50 yard distance. I urge you to watch the videos at Cold Water Bootcamp. You’ll see real people attempting to do something similar to swimming 50 yards in 50 degree water. Can you make it? Yep. Can you die? Yep, and people do according to the reported drownings.

      I hope that helps explain the rule.

    • jamie,

      you admit you don’t know the temp of the water you swam in, and intended to enter the water. your anecdote doesn’t relate directly to the rule/guideline.

      i’m a decent swimmer, but even intending to get into superior in august (~50 deg water temp) i notice muscular control issues after more than a minute or two in the water. (just dunking myself near shore to cool off, with friends quite close)

  • Hey Bryan, great essay on cold water and what to wear. I personally agree with Jamie that a determined person in 50F water could swim the 50 yards and be fine. Of course, if one looks at all the factors, then 50 yards seems almost an impossibility. I would bet that the average person did not plan on being in the water, can’t swim, is not in great shape, was not wearing any warm water clothing, and what he wore slowed him down tremendously (i.e., boots, a coat, etc.), and never practiced swimming in cold water so didn’t know how to counteract cold shock. Add these factors to the equation and 50/50 survival rating sounds optimistic!

    You should get together with Moulton Avery, an east coast paddler with a lot of cold water knowledge and good suggestions.

    • Thanks, Eric. Moulton and I have corresponded in the past and I’ve read a few of his articles, including his comments on your blog. Good stuff.

  • Some of the stats in your article are interesting.

    In the US most of the deaths in paddlesports occur between may-sept in 70+ degree water. Which makes sense. Does the stat for your cold water deaths make sense to canadians. Mine were obtained from a coast guard report from 2008. Not saying mine is right either, but it kind of made sense to me.

    • These stats are general boating drowning stats and come from the Lifesaving Society. You can download recent downing reports from its website, although the report they provide doesn’t have all the crosstabs. The stats differ from paddlesport deaths in the U.S., and my guess is it’s because the water is generally colder in the north. There are places in the U.S. where the water temps never drops much below 60F, that doesn’t happen in Canada. I don’t have the USCG report in front of me, but I’d guess based on past years that most of the U.S. victims weren’t wearing life vests.

      An interesting stat to me is that in Canada 41% of all drownings occur Sept to April. I’ve also noticed a trend in the U.S. that paddlers are pushing their trips further into the off season and times that have colder water. It’s important to get out ahead of this and educate paddlers about wetsuit vs. drysuit issues.

  • […] If you paddle in water colder than 60 degree Fahrenheit (15.5 Celsius), then you need a wetsuit or a drysuit. I’ve covered that before in this […]

  • […] a guide and instructor, I didn’t let him succeed. I’m a strong believer in wearing a wetsuit or drysuit when the water temps drop, and there are risks I’ll accept and some that I won’t. In […]

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