Drysuits, wetsuits, waders and dry tops: there are a few different ways to stay warm and safe when paddling in cold water. Here are some pros and cons for each.
Full Dry Suit
The only way to make sure you stay warm and dry when you’re on a kayak, even in the harshest conditions, is to wear a full-body dry suit. Aside from the latex gaskets they use to seal your wrists and neck (which can feel overly tight until you get used to them), dry suits are extremely comfortable. Because you can wear them over layers of regular clothing, they’re also extremely versatile. Wear T-shirt and shorts underneath or layer up with lots of technical underwear to match the conditions you plan to face. These suits are expensive, though costs have dropped over recent years. Kokatat, for example, makes an affordable Gore-Tex suit (that features a handy crotch zipper for emergency access when you have to pee).
Pros: Extremely dry. Very comfortable. Good range of motion makes them ideal for longer paddles or overnight trips.
Cons: Expensive. Small tears or punctures from hooks, shells, or other sharp objects can create big leaks that could turn catastrophic in the wrong cold-weather situation.
Try This: Kokatat Gore-Tex Front-Entry Dry Suit with Relief Zipper ($975)
Wet suits keep you warm by allowing a thin layer of water to form between your suit and your skin. Your body heat warms this layer up, and the neoprene of the suit keeps that heat trapped in. The thicker the layer of neoprene, the more heat gets trapped. Wet suits are cheap (even top-end cold-water suits like Patagonia’s R3 series cost only $550, which is little more than half what you’d pay for a low-range dry suit). The major drawback to a cold-weather wet suit? You can’t wear one in anything other than cold weather. Despite this, a good wet suit is probably your best choice for shorter winter or early-spring trips when you know you’re likely to get soaked (i.e. launching through surf to fish through a morning tide, or riding a paddleboard rough water).
Pros: Cheaper than a dry suit. Keeps you warm even if the suit gets cut or punctured.
Cons: Hard to put on. Makes you look ridiculous if you’re not in surfer shape. Restricts motion more than a dry suit or dry top. Not ideal for paddling longer distances.
Try This: Patagonia R3 full wetsuit ($525)
Waders with a Dry Top
Pairing breathable waders or dry pants with a pullover dry or splash top is the most comfortable way to stay warm in a kayak in all but the most extreme conditions. As with the dry suit, this method lets you wear layers beneath breathable waterproof outerwear to regulate your temperature. But unlike with a dry suit, you can layer up or down while you’re still sitting in your yak, because you don’t have to stand up to take off your top.
This makes the combination ideal for days when the mornings are cold but warm up quickly. Paddle out light, layer up to fish, then layer down as the sun gets high. The wader/splash top will keep you warm and dry through some pretty rough conditions — everything short of a serious dunking. This is not the ideal choice for extreme cold weather, but is more than adequate for most fishing situations. NOTE: If you’re wearing waders, always make sure to belt them properly. Waders full of water won’t cause you to sink, but will make righting your kayak and pulling yourself back on board much more difficult.
Pros: Least expensive, most comfortable, and most versatile option. You can use the waders or dry pants for other kinds of fishing.
Cons: Not fully waterproof. Good chance you’ll get a little water down your front if you fall overboard.
Try These: AquaSkinz Phantom Semi-Dry Top ($229), Kokatat Tempest dry pants ($179)