I bought a drysuit this year. Not only did I buy a drysuit, but I bought a pretty high-end one. I got a good deal on it, as it was an older model, and also had some cosmetic blemishes that brought the price down close to the high end of my budget. I bought it not only to paddle in winter, but to comfortably extend the ends of the paddling season into periods when the water would be cold despite reasonable air temperatures.
While there are many manufacturers, most have a light layer and a heavy layer of materials to choose from; in my case, I went with the heavy-layer Kokatat Gore-Tex Expedition WFR (Women’s with Front Relief). It’s essentially a (wo)man-shaped Gore-Tex bag with latex gaskets at the wrist and neck, and a heavy zipper running diagonally from the right shoulder the left waist. “These zippers are the same kind they use in body bags,” said the man at the shop. He would know: He also works as an EMT.
Regardless of material, the idea of a drysuit is true across all models: to keep its wearer dry. A drysuit does not keep one warm; it only keeps one dry. Staying dry in cold weather is imperative; humans lose body heat in water at a rate about 25 times faster than in air. That is, if you stop functioning after thirty minutes standing on the street at twenty-eight degrees F, then in the water, you would would last just over a minute. Furthermore, layers of clothes don’t help in water much; you’re still wet and losing heat. On top of all that, God help you if the wind picks up while you’re wet. Wind chill can be deadly.
A drysuit’s waterproof materials and gaskets keep the interior of the suit dry. Within the suit, one wears whatever layers will fit for comfort; in my case, some Kokotat wool pants, a light rash guard, and a heavy wool military surplus sweater. Sometimes, I wear another sweater underneath that. My feet have wool socks, inside Gore-tex “socks” that are just footies built in to the suit. I wear paddling boots over those, and my regular paddling gloves on my hands. Every inch of my body is covered and water-sealed except my head and hands, and even those have something over them. Only my face is continuously exposed to the elements.
Donning the suit is no easy task. It’s easiest with a partner to help with the zippers, but I’ve managed to get in and out on my own. With this particular model, first you step into the legs, through the massive opening across the chest. Then, left arm, slipping hand through gasket. I’m not sure which is easier next: head or right hand. Both require poking through a gasket. With the right arm on first, the neck gasket is pulled tight across the back. With the head in first, the right shoulder is in close enough that some interesting bending is required to get the arm in. Either way, it helps to be physically flexible.
Next comes the zipper. As described, these are huge zippers, dragging across giant zipper teeth sewn onto Gore-Tex. To avoid damaging anything – including yourself as well as the suit, ideally the zipper will be lined up straight with the pull. This is no easy feet for something folded across your chest in an arc, using your off hand. I find that once below the shoulder it’s pretty straightforward. However, when donning and exiting the suit, getting over the shoulder is the hard part.
Finally, bilge. I didn’t know what this meant the first time I was told. Isn’t bilge a nautical term for crap? It’s also a pump. In this context, ir means becoming a bellows to press out as much trapped air as possible. Congratulations, you’ve just sealed yourself in a Ziploc bag. To disgorge the air, hold the neck gasket open and squat into as small a ball as possible. This squeezes out extraneous air, forming a tighter fit.
Once wrapped up, I feel like I’m in armor. Not invincible, but protected. I’ve waded into 40 degree water and back out, and not felt ill effect. Oh sure, while I was in the water, I was colder, but about the same as if I was wearing a winter raincoat in the same temperature air. I feel it, but it doesn’t suck away my strength.
Care of the drysuit is imperative. While the Gore-Tex is warranted for life, the gaskets can deteriorate over time. I have been advised to wash them with regular dish or hand soap after every use, to remove body oils that can destroy the rubber. I also rinse the drysuit throughly in the shower along with all of my other gear. Waterways in the New York City area are salty, brackish at a minimum, and should always be rinsed off with clean freshwater after use.
Paddling with the drysuit is comfortable, though different from more summery paddling experiences. It traps some body heat, and so while underway I find myself warming up. This has been great on the colder days, but earlier in the season, when our winter was unusually warm, I found myself almost too warm and wishing I’d worn fewer layers. There’s no good way to vent excess heat, other than opening the suit or pulling open the neck gasket. I have a better sense now of how to layer up for given air temperatures.
A few words about “Front Relief” – the horizontal zipper placed in front, just below the waist. On men’s drysuits this is the default, while for women, it’s an option; the default for women is a wider zipper in the rear. With very rare exception, my waste disposal requirements on long kayak trips are always liquid in nature, not solid. Last year, I bought a funnel designed for women to more efficiently tend to these sorts of requirements, and I bought the WFR version of this drysuit for the same reason. It’s been great, and there have been a couple of times when I’ve been out, no formal bathroom in sight, and made use of this arrangement. Your mileage may vary, but ladies, I for one recommend the WFR over the standard “rear door” model.
Paddling with a drysuit allows one to paddle dry. It’s great for cold water, or paddling where you’re going to get wet a lot. It extends the paddling season and allows for conditions that might otherwise deter paddling. I’m glad I bought it, and expect to get several more years of use out of it.