Kayaking can be a year-round endeavor depending on where you live. Here in the northeast, many of the lakes and ponds freeze over, but some of the bays and the ocean have open water all year. Using a drysuit can help keep you safe when you realize how cold it is. But it can also keep you safe in those seasons where cold water safety is easy to take for granted. Spring is probably the most dangerous time of the year when air temps can climb into the 70s and 80s but water temps can still be in the 40s and 50s. Even if a quick dunk isn’t enough to kill you (and it might be due to cold shock and the gasp reflex) prolonged exposure certainly can. So how is a drysuit going to save you?
There are two basic types- full drysuits and semi-dry suits.
Both are made of a waterproof, breathable material with sealed seams, waterproof zippers, latex gaskets on the wrists, and either latex ankle gaskets or built-in dry socks. The difference is that semi-dry suits have neoprene at the neck instead of latex.
True dry suits are the safest option because they keep virtually all of the water out. Semi-dry suits can let a little bit of water in at the neck (hence the “semi-dry”) because neoprene doesn’t provide as tight a seal as latex. If you don’t usually find yourself in the water, a semi-dry suit is probably fine for you. But if you know you will be rolling, surfing, or running rapids, a true dry suit will be your safest option.
The big reason why people tend to lean toward semi-dry suits versus full drysuits is comfort.
Many people find the neoprene around the neck more stretchy and comfortable. Check out this video to see a semi-dry suit demonstration.
Price tends to be the main objection when people first talk about a dry suit. The price range is pretty big from approximately $500-$1300. One big factor in where suits fall on that spectrum is the particular waterproof fabric they use. Many companies have their own waterproof fabric that they use. That is one big factor in keeping costs down. GORE-TEX still commands a higher price due largely to its breathability. Few things are worse than feeling like you are going to drown in your own sweat because you skimped on the fabric you chose. That’s not to say GORE-TEX is the only quality option out there, but not all fabrics are created equal. So be sure to consider that when choosing.
Other features can also drive price up. For instance, while some zippers can be very handy, waterproof zips are very expensive and bulky. Cordura reinforced areas like knees and butt can add much-needed durability for some types of paddling but can be overkill for others adding stiffness and bulk to the suit making it a little less comfortable and a bit heavier. Attached dry socks are also an additional expense, but they keep your feet dry. Dry feet are warmer feet, so many people feel they are worth the extra money. Without the built-in socks, you have another latex gasket, and that layered with your booties (which are still needed for durability, traction, and warmth) can be uncomfortable.
Keep in mind that dry suits do not insulate. They will not provide any real warmth, so all of the insulating has to happen in the layers you chose to wear under them. Again, remember to layer for exposure to water temps. If you get hot, you can always take a dip to cool off, and you don’t even have to get wet!