I decided to describe a little better what a drysuit for kayak paddling consist of and how it works. As always, such a decription will be a little biased. In my case, it is biased based on what drysuits I have looked at (Palm, Gul, Kokatat, Artistic,...), but also from what I found good with the different parts of dry suits.
- I ended up with a kokatat gore-tex drysuit. I could have ended up with other brands (Palm drysuit was the main competitor). The reason for selecting the Kokatat drysuit was that it contained all factors I was looking for in one single suit.
- A drysuit is in reality a need for two sets of clothes. If you have a drysuit, you have to have something beneath the drysuit as well. In my case, I use rash guards during summer/spring, and warmer fleece parts during the colder season. Thus, a drysuit is a huge investment, it could be as expensive as a kayak when you sum all parts, and it is not likely to last just as long.
The reason for needing to have something beneath the drysuit is twofold. The drysuit itself keeps you dry, not warm, so you need warming clothes when it is cold (in air or water). Also, if you like me tend to sweat easily, a drysuit without rash guards between the skin and the suit will quickly become uncomfortable.
If we ignore the zippers and the seals (they are described further down), then first question would be how dry the drysuit is. The answer is that the good drysuits are completely dry. Water can not pass through the material if it is for example gore-tex. Gas can pass through the gore-tex material. Thus, rain or water stays outside the drysuit. If it is a breathable drysuit, then sweat in the form of steam passes outside. There is a number of conditions for that to happen, but in general, it will pass to the outside as long as the outside atmospehere is not containing steam of a similar or higher pressure level. Thus, although you might have a breathable drysuit, breathing beneath a plastic sprayskirt, or inside a well sealed kayak cockpit might not be good.
- A drysuit can be completely dry (dry socks, and rubber seals in neck and arms).
- A drysuit can be a little less dry, but still mainly dry. Neoprene seals in neck and or arms, and neoprene socks, or only seals instead of socks for the feet.
The advantage with a drysuit not having rubber seals in neck and arms, instead having neoprene, is mostly a matter of comfort. The first days with a new rubber seal around your neck is quite uncomfortable. I did enlarge the neck seal. After about three weeks, the rubber seal did become quite comfortable. I do not have experience from a drysuit with neoprene neck, but I do have both a wetsuit, as well as a 0.5 mm neoprene shirt. In the start, neoprene wins the comfortability race without doubt. My feeling is that after the intial weeks, a drysuit rubber neck is just as comfortable as neoprene, and then the parts not explicitly of rubber around your neck will be more comfortable allready from day one. Although I hope I do not really need it, I prefer a dry suit which does not leak in water through the seals, even if it is only a little per second.
Thus I would not go for a neoprene neck alternative. Same reasoning goes for the arm seals, although they are a little easier to get comfortable with compared to the neck.
A drysuit can be made of a very thin material, the gore-text drysuit is really thin. The material is not flexible, but light and relatively soft although not flexible. When you put on a drysuit, you empty the drysuit of air (it is not only water tight, it is actually almost airtight). When the drysuit has been emptied of air, it will kling fairly tight around your body. Due to the drysuit being a little larger than you before the air is emptied out of it, it will allow your body to move without any hindrance. This, combined with the material being thin and light, means that paddling is done with very little additional effort.
The drysuit is much easier to paddle in compared to a wetsuit, where the material is thick and flexible, especially if it is to be thick enough for winter paddling,
When I selected my drysuit, I saw the socks as an advantage. They are of gore-tex, and thus as breathable as the rest of the drysuit. After having had them for a while, I would say that true breathable socks is a huge advantage. I am wearing kayak socks inside the dry suit, and thin neoprene moccasins outside. The socks, just like mentioned before, are to assure not to have direct skin contact with the drysuit. The moccasins are added to have a protection while walking whenever i leave the kayak, and in really cold water, they add nicely to the socks.
This means that I am dry from neck to foot. Not only if I fall into the water, but also if water sips inside the sprayskirt when there are waves. Also, if I do a beach launch where I have to stand in the water before entering the kayak, I will stay warm and dry, and the water collected on the bottom of the kayak will not affect me.
There is one small disadvantage with drysuit socks and neoprene moccasins on top. The disadvantage is that when putting the boots on, it is a little hard to keep the drysuit socks from being pulled back and put pressure on the toes. It has ended up with me using one size larger boots when having them over the drysuit than when using them without a drysuit.
It is enough to look at all the alternatives that exist for where the zipper is placed to realise that a drysuit zipper is a problem. My drysuit hasd two zippers, one relief zipper, and one zipper for closing the suit. If you are a man, I suggest that you should aim for a drysuit with a relief zipper, or at least with a zipper that passes enough low to be used as a relief zipper. Having to take of the drysuit instead, would be too much of a job.
The closing zipper can be in front, adn int hat case there is a number of alternative routes existing on todays drysuits. It could be on your back, over the shoulders, and it could be down around the legs. I think you should avoid a drysuit with zipper back over your shoulders. Zippers have a tendency to cause problems, and with such a placement, you will have great difficulty of handling it yourself.
The zipper is one of the weaker poiints of the dry suit. A metall zipper is preferable, but then zipper oil of some kind is also a good investment, although stearing will do reasonably well.
This is an area leaving more room for uncertainty than the others. I do have a hood on my drysuit. I do not like the fact that the hood prevents me from being able to view around me, compared to using a cap or hat or no hood at all. I have also noticed that the hood has a tendency to become warm a lot faster than the drysuit itself. So at times, I have though that a drysuit without hood would be better.
But then comes the autumn. Where fair kayak paddling in a relatively nice day is suddenly exchanged for paddling in a heavy rain. Last three weeks, the rain has come faster than expected. And it is nice always having the rain protection with you, just pull up the hood. So on this one, I guess the hood is not so desired in spring and summer, but in autumn and winter, the hood copuld be a good deal.
One clear negative factor it is its price. Another factor that is discussed is how comfortable it is, but I have already described my experience from a gore-tex drysuit in different temperatures and will leave it out of here.
The most negative part with a drysuit except the two above that I can think of is the discussion on what happens if it becomes filled with air or water.
- If your drysuit is full of air when you get into the water, then it will have a buoyance. If that buoyance leads to your legs getting all the air, you could find yourself having a tendency to float upside down in the water (I have not tried it myself). This is a clearly distressing factor with a drysuit. Best countermeasure, in fact a countermeasur you should never forget, is to before going out into the kayak wearing a drysuit, you must empty it of air. If you would forget this, and find that you have fallen in, and that the legs are floating on top of you. then the advice is to bend your legs at the knees. This will move the air to the upper part of the body, where the air is less advantegous, and easy to let out throw the neck seal (that part I have tried, that one is easy).
- If your drysuit leaks, or you have missed to close a zipper, then the drysuit will eventually fill with water (I have not tried it myself). It is something that will counter the idea with a drysuit, so you should now and then check it for leaks (simple thing, just go into the water at a safe place). If the drysuit fills with water, it is likely to take a rather long time, so biggest problem is likely to be due to the cold water. However, with a lot of water in the suit, it will slow you down. It will not drag you down (water inside the suit is not heavier than water outside the suit), but it will increase your total weight, thus making movements in any direction take longer time to stop. This is as I see it the major risk with a drysuit and something to be very aware of.
This is an area where it is most important to follow the advise of the manufactorer of the drysuit. Below is general advice I once found on a forum around gore-tex discussing care of gore-tex drysuit. The text below is copied form that page. Kokatat also delivers advice on care of Kokatat gore-tex drysuit. My own addition to this is, when using a wash machine, be careful so the was machine does not centrifuge drysuit while rinsing.
- Try to keep your Gore-Tex clean as a first step. Dirt and contaminants also inhibit vapor transmission, as well as possibly attracting moisture and allowing it to more rapidly defeat the DWR, which certainly does limit transmission. Rinse the garment when possible, and wash it occasionally. A warm ironing afterwards helps reactivate the DWR. When necessary, reapply a water repellent coating to the outside fabric of the Gore-Tex garment to maintain its effectiveness. What is below will explain the steps in more detail.
- Trying to keep a garment clean in the first place, and rinsing what dirt and other foreign contaminants off when possible, cannot hurt. Salt water paddlers should rinse any Gore-Tex garment as often as they can. Salt crystals are too large to clog the PTFE film pores, but buildup (especially on paddling jackets and drysuits) can inhibit breathability. A freshwater rinse is best, but even a rinse of the outside of the garment in saltwater will help cut extra surface salt accumulation according to both Kokatat and experienced sea kayakers. Washing will decrease the life of the DWR (the original one, or any subsequent applications), so a good rinsing is easier on it than any real washing. However, washing and further treatments will eventually be required.
- Clean Gore-Tex works better than dirty Gore-Tex. Most garments can be machine washed (and some even dry-cleaned), but do check the label for manufacturer's instructions. Do not use bleach, and use of a non-detergent soap is recommended as many detergents will prevent ultimate performance of the oil repelling (oleophobic) qualities of the Gore-Tex film layer (and possibly void the Gore warranty!). Detergent molecules are oil attractants (oleophilic), and any that might not be rinsed out can counteract the oleophobic (repellancy) compound that was applied during manufacture. Kokatat says that use of powdered detergents (i.e. "Tide") are fine, but liquid detergents are not.
- Most garments can also be tumble dried on a warm setting, though this is not recommended for dry tops and dry suits as it destroys the latex seals. Ironing rain garments using a warm setting in the "steam" range after a washing helps reactivate the DWR. Most manufacturers recommend applying the iron to the inside of the garment. Check with the manufacturer before ironing drysuits or drytops as Gore does not recommend this step for their "immersion technology" grade fabrics, and these garments are likely to use them.
- When the water stops beading and starts wetting the outer fabric layer, it is time to restore the DWR. Try washing and ironing first, and if that does not suffice, then recoat the outside of the garment. Teflon based repellents like Nikwax products (some described below) are recommended. Do not use silicon based compounds as Gore claims they wreak havoc with the existing oleophobic/DWR system.
- The selected restorative compound can be either sprayed on, or washed in by machine (or by hand). Follow the compound manufacturer's instructions. Nikwax, one manufacturer of restorative finishes says using their wash-in formula offers more complete, more thorough, and longer lasting coverage, but some people who have tried both indicate that the spray-on method has worked better for them. A spray application directly onto the outside fabric layer -- really soaking it well -- worked best, according to one user report. Even sprayed on, the repellency might only last several uses, not necessarily a whole season (unless you don't use the garment much). I have not done research into products other than those by Nikwax, and do not know what, if anything, works in place of that brand. Nikwax claims that their products also work with some the other non-Gore-Tex waterproof/breathable barrier systems.
- Gore-TexÂ® Care Products, Sources of Supply, and Info
- Nikwax Tech-Wash - a non-detergent soap especially formulated to be used with Gore-Tex. Machine washing recommended if the garment instructions allow it. Tech-Wash should be available from local outdoor and paddling shops who carry Gore-Tex garments, or from REI.
- Nikwax TX-Direct - a water repellancy restorer for Gore-Tex. Available in both a wash-in formula and a spray-on formula. This should also be available from your local outdoor and paddling shops, or from REI.
- GoreÂ® ReviveXÂ® - another DWR restorer for Gore-Tex from the makers of Gore-Tex. A new product supposedly three times as durable as other available finish restorers. It's too new to know for sure if it will live up to Gore's claim. More expensive ($5-$10 per garment per application), but would definitely be worth the money if it will take an older, well used rain parka through a long wilderness trip in wet country without failing. Try your local Gore-Tex garment outlet, or REI.