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Drysuits Don't Make You Bulletproof

Drysuits are a wonderful innovation for boaters. They have been used by divers for decades, but models suitable for kayakers, rafters and canoeists have only become popular in the last 15 years. Breathable fabrics, double tunnel designs, built-in socks, relief zippers and competitive pricing have caused more and more boaters to move up to a drysuit for cold-water protection.

And the breathable drysuit is a wonderful protective garment. It keeps water away from your body core and limbs, allowing you to add and subtract insulating layers so you stay comfortable and warm. The US Coast Guard requires them for their small boat crews when water temperatures are 50ºF or lower. They are definitely life-saving devices.

Talking to NRS customers and reading recent posts in various boating forums, I see many boaters singing the praises of the drysuit.

  • “Greatest investment I’ve ever made!”
  • “My drysuit has opened up more months of boating for me.”
  • “I don’t know how I ever did without a drysuit.”

All true and I can say “ditto” to each of those statements. However, I’m led to also give the cautionary warning, “A drysuit doesn’t make you bulletproof.”

My concern is that feeling the warmth and protection that a drysuit gives us can lead to overreaching the limits of our skills and equipment. Something that happened almost a year ago still nags at the edge of my mind.  In Cold Days in Hells, I wrote about a mid-March trip several of us took on the Hells Canyon stretch of the Snake River, where it cuts between Idaho and Oregon. We drove through snow to the put-in, and while it only rained on us along the river, snow coated the canyon walls above. The water was frigid. At Granite Rapid, Paco and I chose to run right into the center hole in the rapid. I thought later, and still think, we wouldn’t have made that choice had we not been wearing high-end NRS drysuits. While the hole looked clean, and we made it through fine, I don’t think we would have chanced a flip had we been less protected against the cold.

We’ve written a number of safety articles for the e-News. Take a look at them for good advice on all the other safety considerations a wise boater adopts.

My charge to you is this: by all means, add a drysuit to your gear bag. It will open new horizons to your boating life. And it may save your life. It will certainly increase your comfort level. However, merely look at it as one piece of your boating safety arsenal.

Don’t Boat Without Number Two – Importance of wearing your PFD

High Water Safety Guidelines – Extra precautions for high water boating

Sea Kayak Safety Starts at Home – Author Roger Schurmann gives pre-trip safety tips

Coming Back is Mandatory – Learn the limits of your skills and equipment

The Fine Nine – David Luinstra gives a great list of things to know and gear to have

Safety and Rescue Discussion Group – Safety guru Charlie Walbridge and rescue-trained NRS folks discuss things you need to have and know

These articles and others stress the broad range of considerations you’ll be wise to consider. They’ll help keep you and your boating companions safe when you venture out on the water, no matter what the season.

As always, we welcome your comments, suggestions and insights. Drop us a line at editor@nrs.com.

Boat Often & Boat Safe,

-Clyde
e-News Editor

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Gary Lepak gave this feedback on the article:

Just read your comments on drysuits.  I've had a Kokatat GoreTex suit for 7 years and have to agree with you that they can lead to overconfidence. I've used mine for windsurfing, kitesurfing and kayaking in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington.  Many people seem to not realize that if you are floating in the water the pressure will compress whatever clothing you have under it and decrease the insulation value a lot compared to when you are out of the water. 

I've been in club paddles in 60°F air and 48°F water with people wearing t-shirts under their drysuits and had to explain this to them. Perhaps everyone should float around in their drysuit in the cold water for awhile to experience this firsthand. I find that a drysuit is great if you are mostly out of the water, and perhaps might be in the water for a few minutes. But in situations that might put you in the water for a half an hour or more, a wetsuit is safer. Of course, a wetsuit under a drysuit can't be beat as the drysuit is better at warding off the wind chill effect. I always wear polar fleece under my drysuit.

Just my thoughts.  Keep up the good work you guys.  I appreciate your great products and service.

Gary Lepak
Port Angeles, WA

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Editors Note:

Gary and I exchanged emails and I got some additional info on some of his comments.

I totally agree that, in a safe location and conditions, boaters should get in cold water with the apparel items they intend to wear for protection during their cold-weather trips. It lets you see what it feels like and helps prepare you for an emergency situation. Plus, you may find that you’re underdressed and need to add layers or choose another system.

I brought up the fact that wearing a wetsuit inside your drysuit defeats its breathability. Gary shared that when he’s wearing this combo, he’s in ‘flatwater casual birdwatching-style” paddling mode, so he’s not working up a sweat. Makes sense. And, like Gary, I sometimes wear wetsuit pants inside my drysuit; breathability isn’t as important in the lower body.

And when Gary was talking about a wetsuit being better for long-term immersion than a drysuit, he has a thicker, full body wetsuit. The nice thing about a drysuit is you can add and subtract layers to set a comfort and safety level. If you get too warm, you’re on the water and can either roll or splash on water to cool down.

The best philosophy is “always dress for the swim.” Even if you’re just going out for an hour’s paddle on the lake, you should be dressed for an emergency. Kaka Occurs and you need to be ready.