Drysuit 101 – Everything You Need Know About Buying & Owning a Kayak Dry Suit

A kayak drysuit is a wonderful – and potentially life-saving – invention. I mean, staying warm and dry in ice-cold water? 

Sign me up! 

Still, buying one is no small investment. You want to take the time to learn more about this piece of specialized clothing before adding it to your list of kayaking equipment.

That’s where this drysuit guide comes in to answer all your questions, from recommended uses to maintenance – and more! 

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Kayaking Drysuits 101: What Is A Dry Suit & How Does It Work?

man holding paddle wearing blue and white kayak dry suit

Drysuits are protective garments designed to remain completely watertight, trapping a layer of air between the paddler’s body and the suit that, in turn, provides thermal protection.

Drysuits keep you dry – that would be the simplest way to put it.

Granted, that layer of air won’t be incredibly insulating on its own; you’ll typically have to wear additional layers of insulating undergarments to stay warm. But again, the primary purpose of a drysuit is to keep you dry – and that they do very well.

As for when to use a dry suit, the rule of thumb would be – well, whenever you’re paddling in severe weather conditions. To be more specific:

When the water’s temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit – or the combined water and air temperature dips below 120 degrees Fahrenheit – you’ll want to wear a kayaking dry suit.

Remember that water can conduct heat away from your body up to 25 times faster than air. So, if you capsize in cold water, it won’t take long for hypothermia to kick in – unless you’re dressed for the occasion, that is.

Scuba divers have been using dry suits for years when cold water diving for this very reason. 

Staying dry means staying alive. If you were wondering, “Why use a dry suit?” there’s your answer. 

Wetsuits Vs. Drysuits: What’s The Difference Between A Wetsuit And A Drysuit?

Both wetsuits and drysuits are specialized full-body suits for kayaking and other watersports, designed to provide thermal insulation and slow down the heat loss in the water.

However, they do so in different ways.

Wetsuits aren’t supposed to keep you dry; quite the contrary. The idea is that the layer of water between the neoprene suit and your skin acts as insulation. Your own body’s temperature heats the water, slowing down heat loss in the process.

Drysuits don’t keep you warm by design – but they’re waterproof, meaning they can keep you dry. Watertight zippers and cuffs, along with waterproof materials, keep the water out, while the loose-fitting design allows you to add insulating layers underneath. 

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Besides the noticeable difference in how they provide insulation, there are a few more things that set them apart, including:

  • Water Temperature – Temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit are strictly drysuit territory.
  • Fit – Dry suits have a looser, baggy fit, which allows you to wear one or more insulating layers underneath.
  • Mobility – Wetsuits are more form-fitting, meaning they generally allow you to move quicker.
  • Materials – Wetsuits are typically made of thicker, closed-cell neoprene; dry suits offer a bit more variety, featuring breathable fabrics and latex or silicone rubber for the seals.
  • Versatility – Changing the undergarments allows you to wear a drysuit year-round and in various environments.
  • Maintenance – Dry suits require a bit more care, especially around the more delicate parts, like seals and zippers. 

Buying A Dry Suit 101: Everything You Need To Know Before You Get One 

Man in yellow kayak dry suit paddling green kayak in cold water

Given that it will be among the more expensive pieces of paddling gear you’ll invest in, there is a lot you want to consider before buying a kayaking drysuit.

And when I say “a lot,” I mean it. 

One of these might save your life if you capsize in ice-cold waters; you have to make sure you choose the best drysuit for the job. 

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Types Of Drysuits For Kayaking: Know Your Options 

Front-Entry Vs. Rear-Entry Drysuits 

It comes down to the zipper’s placement – but the name already says it all, huh?

Front-zip drysuits feature an entry zipper that runs across the chest, starting at the upper right shoulder, and goes down toward the left side of your waist. The main advantage of front entry suits is the kayaker will have a much easier time donning and zipping up the dry suit themselves. 

Rear-zip drysuits place the entry zipper from the chest to the back, between the shoulders. It’s a popular choice among whitewater kayaking enthusiasts as it doesn’t run through the spray skirt tunnel.thsiant 

A rear-zip suit is a great idea until it’s time to reach back and close it – which, depending on how flexible you are, might not always be possible.

Two-Piece Drysuits

When the first two-piece dry suits entered the market – mind you, this was in 2015 – they made quite a bang. Up until then, your only option was this awkward, hard-to-seal, two-piece suit that – best-case scenario – still experienced minor leakage.

As it turns out, the solution is in the waterproof zipper that joins the top and bottom halves into a full-body drysuit. And you get to wear the top part as a stand-alone dry top when needed, too.

Semi-Dry Suits

How can a drysuit be – well, semi-dry? Well, the difference isn’t so much in the construction – instead, it’s in the neck gasket: 

Regular dry suits feature latex gaskets, which works fine for most paddlers – but for some, it may cause an allergic reaction.

That’s where semi-dry suits come in as an alternative.

Instead of latex gaskets, the semi-dry models come with comfortable neoprene wrist and neck closures – but at the cost of not being completely watertight.

You’re pretty much choosing between comfort and dryness here.

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Dry Suit Materials: What Are Drysuits Made Of, Anyway?

The choice of material determines the durability, performance, breathability, and overall feel of a dry suit. So, yeah, I’d say it’s a pretty big factor to consider when making your choice.

You have several options here, including:

  • Gore-Tex, high-end laminate fabrics made from expanded polytetrafluoroethylene – or ePTFE for short – that are both waterproof and exceptionally breathable
  • Proprietary laminate materials that are also layered, featuring a waterproof, breathable membrane sandwiched between an inner and outer layer of fabric
  • Coated materials, a combination of an exterior nylon shell with a waterproof coating – urethane-coated nylon fabrics, to be precise – that aren’t breathable
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A Word On Drysuit Fit: How Tight Should A Drysuit Be? 

Choosing the right size is notoriously tricky. You’ll have to factor in your height, arm length, shoe size, neck, chest, waist circumference, torso length, and inseam; a proper fit is crucial

When trying on a drysuit for the first time, check the following:

  • How well it accommodates your undergarments
  • How tight it feels around the thighs when you’re in a seated position
  • How tight it feels across the back when you bring the elbows together
  • How it fits around the waist 
  • How tight it feels in the crotch area
  • How tight the gaskets are around the neck, wrists, and ankles
  • The size of the suit’s built-in “boots” or “shoes”
  • Freedom of moment – perform a paddle motion to test

You don’t want the drysuit to be too loose – but it shouldn’t feel tight and restricting, either, as this could affect your range of motion and comfort level – after all, you still need to be able to paddle a kayak and perform safety rolls

Premium dry suit brands, such as Kokatat, offer products in an array of shapes and sizes to suit most kayakers – for example their best selling Hydrus 3l dry suit comes in 7 off the peg sizes.  

But if you can’t find an off-the-shelf drysuit that fits you correctly, you could always get a custom-fit one made to your exact measurements. But like with all things custom-made, it won’t come cheap. 

Top Tip – Whatever brand or manufacturer you settle on, ensure the suit has a warranty backed by proven customer service.  

Drysuit Accessories & Features: What Options Are Available On Dry Suits?

You’d be surprised by the number of additional items, features and “accessories” you can get on a dry suit – especially if you opt for a customized one. 

Here are a few examples:

  • Relief zippers – a front relief zipper – or a drop seat zipper on women’s suits – that runs horizontally across the suit’s front and saves you the hassle of having to take the whole thing off on every bathroom break
  • Reinforcement patches in high-wear areas, including the knees, elbows, and backside
  • Built-in dry socks instead of ankle gaskets
  • A Gore-Tex storm hood, either a built-in or a removable one, for added protection in rain and windy conditions 
  • An overskirt or tunnel 
  • Zippered pockets, usually found on the sleeves
  • Bright color detail and reflective tape for improved visibility, especially when kayaking at night
  • Optional dry gloves, which can be purchased separately – should you lose one or they become damaged

How To Keep Warm In A Drysuit & What To Wear Underneath

Man in red dry suit thermal protection base layers

Drysuits are designed to keep you – well, dry. It’s right there in the name. What about warmth, though?

Do drysuits keep you warm?

Well, the kayaking drysuit itself provides little to no thermal protection, meaning it won’t do much to keep you warm. It merely keeps the water out, acting as a waterproof outer layer. You have to add a few insulating layers underneath to stay warm, though. 

What Do You Wear Under A Dry Suit? 

One of the critical advantages of drysuits for kayaking is that you can adjust the insulation level

Depending on your needs and the water and air temperature, you can choose to wear more or fewer layers – and, in turn, achieve the desired level of “protection.” But again, a dry suit alone isn’t enough. 

So, if you’re not sure what to wear under a dry suit for kayaking, here’s how to layer up for kayaking in cold weather:

  • Base Layer – Go with moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics, such as non-cotton long underwear and a form-fitting synthetic t-shirts, or a drysuit liner
  • Mid Layer – This layer provides insulation and should consist of one or two thin layers of non-absorbing, insulating materials, such as fleece and even Merino wool
  • Outer Layer – Your drysuit is already waterproof and windproof, meaning you probably won’t have to add anything else – except for a PFD, of course
  • Dry Socks & Footwear – Loose-fitting socks, known as “dry socks,” are integrated into the drysuit but should be paired with liner socks and neoprene booties for warmth 

How To Use A Dry Suit: Donning The Dry Suit 

women in green dry suit upstream paddling in orange kayak

I’m not going to lie; putting on a drysuit the right way is going to take some practice – it’s a skill many a boater struggles with, so don’t panic. 

If you’re not quite sure how to put on a drysuit, here are a few quick pointers: 

  • Find a clean surface and, if needed, place a towel on the ground to avoid any sand or grit getting inside the suit
  • Slide your feet in one leg at a time, pulling the drysuit up right above the knee and then up to waist height, making sure not to dig your nails into the fabric
  • Keeping your fingers together and pointed, slide your arms through the sleeves one at a time, and pull the suit up to shoulder height
  • Be sure not to snag on or stretch the cuffs as you slide your knuckles through the wrist seals
  • Bring the neck gasket over your head, gently pull outward with both palms to stretch it out a bit, and then slide it down to your neck, making sure it sits flat against the skin
  • Firmly grasp the top end of the zipper and use the other hand to slowly but steadily pull the entry zipper shut, making sure nothing gets caught in it – or ask someone in your paddling group to help

All that’s left to do is to “burp” the suit and get rid of any excess air inside it.

How do you burp a drysuit, you ask?

Insert two fingers on each side of the drysuit’s neck seal, and as you’re pulling it away from your neck, crouch down. If there’s excess air trapped inside, this allows it to escape through the neck seal.

Caring For Your Kayaking Drysuit: Basic Care & Maintenance Rules

Dry Suits hanging drying

Kayak drysuits are designed to be tough and hard-wearing. Still, maintenance goes a long way in keeping the dry suit in good condition and ensuring that it performs as expected. 

How long does a drysuit last, you ask?

It comes down to how well you care for it. A high-quality drysuit should last a very long time – as in, up to 10 to 15 years. Cheaper ones might not last that long, but you’ll still get around five or so years out of them. 

With proper maintenance, though, you can probably extend its life even further. 

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How Do You Clean A Drysuit?

You’ll generally want to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding how to clean your kayaking drysuit.

With that in mind, some rules of drysuit cleaning that are pretty much universal, including:

  • Rinse the kayaking drysuit with fresh water after each use, making sure to wash out any debris, sand, and other contaminants
  • If the drysuit is particularly dirty, you can wash it a front-loading washing machine on a gentle cycle, using mild soap
  • Apply spray-on waterproofing treatment, such as Nikwax TX.Direct to restore the durable water repellent (DWR) of the fabric
  • Treat the drysuit’s gaskets with the 303 Marine Aerospace Protectant to protect them from UV damage and cracking
  • Hang the drysuit – upside down and with the zippers open – on a heavy-duty hanger and leave it to air dry in a well-ventilated area, out of direct sunlight 

How To Store A Dry Suit?

First and foremost, make sure that it’s completely dry; a drysuit covered with mold is the last thing you need.

Other than that, here are some general tips for storing your drysuit that will come in handy:

  • Store the dry suit on a wide, heavy-duty hanger, and be sure not to damage the neck seal when you’re putting it on the hanger
  • If the suit has metal zippers, keep them undone for storage; plastic ones can be stored zipped up
  • If you’re storing the drysuit flat, roll it up loosely, making sure not to fold the zipper back on itself; roll it from the feet toward the neck seal, with sleeves loosely folded over the suit’s body
  • For long-term storage, hang the drysuit from the legs and leave it unzipped; keep it in a cool, dry place, preferably indoors, and away from direct sunlight
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How Do You Wax A Drysuit Zipper?

Pay special attention to the zippers because they, along with gaskets, ensure that you remain dry – and they’re also the most vulnerable parts of your drysuit

So, get in the habit of lubricating the zippers regularly – after cleaning them with a soft bristle brush – to make sure they continue working as smoothly as possible.

Avoid any oil-based lubricants; beeswax and other specifically formulated zipper lubricants are the way to go.

Apply the wax along the zip’s outer side, opening and closing the zipper a few times to make sure it’s distributed evenly between the teeth. 

If the zipper gets stuck, don’t force it; back it up to a position where it’s working, add a bit more wax, and try again. 

Kayaking Dry Suit FAQ

graphic to show kayak drysuits FAQ

Can You Swim In A Drysuit?

Drysuits, regardless of what they’re made of, are designed to fit loosely. The baggy fit allows for some freedom of movement and leaves enough room for layering undergarments that will keep you warm.

Ease of movement typically isn’t a problem; drysuits and wetsuits are made with watersports in mind, after all. But – there’s always a “but” – the drysuit’s loose fit can create a lot of drag in the water, affecting your ability to swim.

Do I Need A Drysuit For Kayaking?

The short answer would be – it depends on the water and weather conditions. If the water’s cold enough to put you at risk of hypothermia if you fall in, then yes, a drysuit is recommended.

At what temperatures do you need a drysuit, you ask?

Whenever water and air temperatures combined don’t exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit or water temperature alone falls below 60 degrees Fahrenheit; you’ll need a kayaking drysuit. The colder the weather, the more insulating layers you’ll have to add underneath it.

How Much Does A Drysuit Cost?

Drysuits for kayaking can set you back anywhere from $500 to well over $1000 – depending on the style, materials, and additional features. That’s a lot for a piece of clothing, especially when you consider that you can buy several high-quality wetsuits for the same amount of money. 

It’s not like you’ll have to buy a new one every season, though. Kayak drysuits can be versatile – enough for year-round use – and have a lifespan of at least 10 to 15 years, so the investment is more than worth it. 

What If I Rip A Gasket? Can It Be Replaced?

Neck, ankle, and wrist gaskets are in charge of keeping the water out of the suit – but they also happen to be the weakest links on kayak drysuits. And while rips and tears are a possibility, the good news is that seal system gaskets of the ankles, wrists and neck are generally easy to replace:

Cut off the old gasket, insert cardboard or foam as the “form,” prep the surface, stretch the new gasket over it, and apply a layer of Aquaseal adhesive.

That’s the oversimplified version; you’ll find more detailed instructions in the video below.

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Drysuits For Kayaking: Summary

Womwn in rwd drysuit paddling white and blue kayak

A full-body suit that can save your life in icy waters – it sounds like an overstatement when you put it like that, but it’s true. Even on the days when the conditions aren’t that extreme, drysuits for kayaking can undoubtedly make your kayaking adventure a lot more comfortable.

What it won’t do, though, is make you invincible:

Look at it as an essential addition to your water sports safety gear, but don’t assume that putting on a drysuit makes you “bulletproof” in any way. Cold water is still the enemy – and a deadly one, at that.

Layer up and stay safe out there, especially if you’re paddling alone – that’s all I’m saying.