Wetsuit or Drysuit for Cold Water Kayaking and Canoeing?

4-minute read + 12-minute video

When you decide to canoe or kayak on very cold water you need to be protected with either a wetsuit or a drysuit. What’s the difference?

man wearing a drysuit walks along a shoreline with a Bending Branches paddle in his hand

(Photo courtesy of @martin_trahan_canoeist/@yankaczynski)

Without the right protection, if you were to capsize in cold water while paddling you could be in real danger from hypothermia.

This video from our friends at Headwaters Kayak helps clear up any confusion you may have between the two. And it will help you know the best option for you in your paddling situations and for your budget:

Wear a Full Wetsuit

Wetsuits are significantly less pricey than drysuits. For that reason, they’re a great choice if you’re not even sure you’ll enjoy cold-water or cold-weather paddling. Seth mentions in the video that the model he’s wearing was $250 USD new, but you could find a used wetsuit quite easily for much cheaper.

Wetsuits are made of neoprene of various thicknesses. One of the biggest differences between a wetsuit and a drysuit is that wetsuits are made to wear while in the water. That’s why surfers, divers and other swimmers wear them. They’re streamlined and comfortable when they’re wet.

man wearing full wetsuit

For kayakers and canoeists, though, who will only be in the water in case of a capsize, all that neoprene could get really hot. If you’re paddling on very cold water on a hot day, you’re going to cook.

If you’ll only kayak or canoe on dangerously cold water once or twice a year, a wetsuit may be just fine. After all, if you get too hot, you can always jump in to cool off!

Wear a Farmer John/Combo

The Farmer John wetsuit (or Farmer Jane made for women) is a type of wetsuit that’s sleeveless. The upside is you won’t get nearly as hot. The downside, of course, is your arms aren’t protected from the cold water.

So to be fully covered, you’ll want to add a couple more items: In the video, Seth suggests a neoprene long-sleeve shirt (more comfortable and cooler than a straight wetsuit) and a drytop.

Why use this setup instead of a full wetsuit? It allows you to adjust your layers to the air temperature. And you can wear these layers separately, too, depending on the conditions.

man in Farmer John with other layers to put on

New, this full setup would cost you $400-500 USD. Again, though, you’re likely to find good used gear for much less if you want to take the time to look for it.

If you love kayaking or canoeing on cold water or in cold weather but don’t want to (or can’t) spend the money on a drysuit, this combination is a great alternative.

Wear a Drysuit

“I put on clothes under this [his Level Six drysuit],” says Chris. “I cannot overstate how important that is.”

Remember, with wetsuits, you have the thickness you get, no matter how warm or cold the air temperature is. A drysuit, on the other hand, is simply a shell with latex gaskets to keep water out. So you can adjust your base layers to be comfortable in whatever weather you’re in.

Seth’s Level Six drysuit was $1,100 USD new (it’s their top-of-the-line option). They range from there down to around $750. He stresses a good drysuit will last 20-30 years, so if you think of it that way and will paddle enough to make it worthwhile, it’s worth considering. Used ones can be available, but will still probably cost more than a new wetsuit, and maybe even the Farmer John/drytop combo.

man wearing a drysuit

These are definitely the most comfortable option of the three. They’re designed to be worn dry, but to keep you mostly dry in case of capsize. They’ll also protect you from splash and rain, sleet or snow. “If you’re comfortable on the water, you’re going to spend more time out there and have more fun,” Seth says.

Do you plan to canoe or kayak regularly in cold weather and on cold water year-in and year-out? Do you know you’ll go on multi-day expeditions in cold conditions? A drysuit is your best bet. It’ll be worth the investment.

Good Wetsuit/Drysuit Brands

There are several brands that make high-quality wetsuits, Farmer Johns, Drysuits, drytops and other cold water paddling apparel. NRS and Kokatat are American brands. Level Six is based in Canada. UK-based brands are Typhoon and Palm Equipment. All sell worldwide.

See more Headwaters Kayak videos on their YouTube channel.

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

More for you...