Photo: Bennett Barthelemy/Tandemstock

How To Choose a Dry Suit

Dry suits come in a variety of types, primarily front- and rear-entry.

If you’re paddling in cold water and weather, be it ocean touring, canoeing, or whitewater kayaking, you’re going to need a dry suit, which keeps you dry and warm (with proper insulating layers) when immersed. While wicking and neoprene wetsuit layers have their place on shorter trips and in warmer waters, a full dry suit is a key piece of safe paddling equipment that not only extends your season, but that also allows you to be on the water longer. And if you end up in the water, a dry suit reduces the risk of hypothermia, increasing your ability to conduct a self-rescue or aid others in your group. Consider your level of exposure and risk—in terms of where you’re paddling, your ability level, the conditions and water temperature—to see if this investment in safety and comfort is the right choice for you.  

Types

Dry suits come in a variety of types, primarily front- and rear-entry. The main difference involves zipper placement.

Front-entry dry suits have the zipper across the chest, typically diagonally from the shoulder to the opposite hip. This makes the suit easier to get on and off, and the zipper easier to open and close; the downside is the zipper can interfere with your spray skirt’s tunnel and cause the suit to “billow” a bit across the chest.

Rear-entry dry suits place the zipper across the back of the shoulders, which makes it slightly harder to fasten and release, but keeps the zipper out of the way and from interfering with your spray skirt. Kokatat’s Switch Zip dry suit has the zipper around the waist, letting it work as separate dry pants and dry top, or, when fastened, a full dry suit. Most dry suits also have a horizontal relief zipper up front for urinating, with women-specific models often including a rear drop zipper for the same purpose. It all comes down to preference. Note: Try it on at the shop with a PFD to see how comfortable the zipper location feels. 

Fit

This is an important factor with dry suits. You want it big enough to offer freedom of movement and comfort with room for medium-weight insulation layers underneath, but snug enough to function well if you swim (the baggier your suit, the tougher it is to swim). Many manufacturers have their own sizing charts and measurement definitions so try it on in a crouched and seated position before you buy. Hint: If you’re between sizes, go up a size instead of down.

Photo: Mark Yuill

Gaskets

Dry suits come with latex wrist and neck gaskets that keep the water out in the event of a swim. The gaskets come in universal sizing and can be trimmed concentrically with a razor blade for fit. (Hint: Trim in small increments so you don’t take off too much). If you ever break a gasket, which happens, they can be easily replaced by most paddlesports retailers. Note that sunscreen can degrade latex so be careful when applying. Also, some dry suits intended for cold-weather paddling disciplines where immersion is less likely (think recreational touring and kayak fishing) feature stretchy and sometimes adjustable neoprene neck gaskets in favor of the tighter latex. 

Zippers

Most zippers are either metal or plastic, and both work well. Plastic, however, is easier to open and close. No matter which type you get, upkeep them with proper lubricant to ensure their longevity and ease of use, especially after storage during off-seasons.   

Footwear

Most dry suits have built-in booties made of the suit’s fabric material; those that don’t have latex ankle gaskets. While booties are more practical, bear in mind that they create an extra layer of bulkiness for any footwear you might be wearing—especially when you add lightweight insulating socks to the mix. You might want to size up your shoe, bootie, or sandal accordingly. 

Cuffs, Tunnels, and Hoods

To help protect the latex gaskets from sunlight and punctures, many dry suits come with either neoprene or laminate cuffs over the wrist and neck gaskets, often fastened with Velcro. Many dry suits also employ Velcro-attached zipper covers for the same purpose. Whitewater paddlers and sea kayakers should look for a dry suit with a “tunnel,” an extra piece of fabric that sandwiches your spray skirt to help keep water out of your kayak. Simply roll your suit’s tunnel up, pull your spray skirt up to your chest, and then roll down the dry-suit tunnel to cover the skirt’s waist tunnel to keep water from going down the skirt. If you’re not planning on rolling often (as you do when whitewater kayaking), some dry suits also come with hoods—detachable or permanent—for further protection from the elements; these are often good for sea kayaking. Base your decision on what type of paddling you'll be doing.  

Material

The suit’s base material, and its thickness, will determine its price and performance, from Gore-Tex offerings to other companies’ proprietary waterproof/breathable laminates. Most three-layer materials are extremely durable and often carry comprehensive warranties, depending on manufacturer. The key: Make sure the suit offers well-sealed seams of material that is both breathable and waterproof—breathable so you don’t overheat while paddling, and waterproof for keeping water out. A less expensive (and less breathable) option is a “coated” material, featuring a waterproof coating applied to the exterior shell. But these coatings can wear and become less waterproof over time. Get one with material specific to the type of paddling you do. Most dry suits also come with reinforcements at the knees, elbows and rear, especially those for whitewater paddling.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.