These snug neoprene garments don't keep water out, but rather trap a thin layer of water next to your skin where it is warmed by your body. Neoprene minimizes evaporative cooling, so once you are out of the water you remain comfortable.
Wetsuits come in a variety of styles: full-length suits, short-sleeve "spring suits," sleeveless "Farmer Johns" and separate jackets and pants. Farmer Johns (sleeveless suits with full-length legs) are among the most popular for moderate-weather paddling since they allow some cooling of the torso. "Farmer Jane" suits are available to fit women.
Wet suits are available in different thicknesses of neoprene. The thickest options are usually too bulky and warm for paddling and are more often used by divers. Most paddlers opt for 2mm or 3mm neoprene.
Polyurethane-coated fleece is another available fabric, best worn when immersion in cold water is less likely. Warm, stretchy and windproof, it resembles neoprene, only fuzzy.
Just like wetsuits, garments made of this fabric allow water in and then warm it next to the skin. The fleece interior makes them comfortable to wear for extended paddling in cool weather.
Shop REI's selection of wetsuits.
If you paddle in cold water, rough rapids or surf, or you're out in bad weather, drysuits offer the best protection. These one-piece suits are made of nylon with a waterproof polyurethane coating or waterproof/breathable Gore-Tex® laminate. They feature latex gaskets at the wrists, ankles, and neck plus a special zipper or roll-up closure to prevent any water from entering. So even if you take an unexpected swim, you remain dry.
Drysuits provide no insulation, so they need to be paired with long underwear or specially designed fleece liners for warmth.
Choosing the right clothing is toughest when the weather is hot but the water is very cold, as is common in northern climates in summer. You need to weigh your desire for paddling comfort against the risk of capsizing and cold-water immersion.
If capsizing is a possibility (a long, open-water crossing or rough water, for instance) your best bet is a Gore-Tex® suit that will allow body heat to escape as you paddle. Otherwise, you'll end up getting wet from perspiration.
Shop REI's selection of drysuits.
Dry tops feature latex neck and wrist gaskets, often supplemented with protective neoprene cuffs. The waist bands, typically made of neoprene, are double layered to seal with your spray skirt, both inside and out. Dry tops can be worn over Farmer John-style wetsuits, or with dry bibs for versatile 2-piece systems.
These are an inexpensive solution for boaters who wear a dry top the majority of the time, but need the added protection for bigger and colder water in case of an unexpected swim.
Insulating layers made specifically for water sports are available. Tops and bottoms of Polartec® Power Stretch® fleece fit comfortably underneath wet- and drysuits or can be worn alone comfortably. This quick-drying, breathable fabric features an abrasion-resistant outer surface that blocks wind, plus it offers a soft, velour interior for warmth.
Full-length fleece liners with front zip entries are popular for layering underneath full drysuits.
These popular, quick-drying polyester/Lycra® spandex shirts are frequently worn under a wetsuit to provide protection from chafing. Their SPF ratings also make them good sun-protection choices for wearing by themselves, for paddling, surfing or swimming. Their stretch and form-fitting designs allow freedom of movement.
Shop REI's selection of rash guards.
If you're expecting cold weather, pack an insulated hat. Popular options include fleece or wool caps and face masks, lightweight balaclavas, and even full neoprene hoods for extremely challenging routes in cold conditions.
In cooler conditions, you'll need to bring along gloves or mittens. Make sure they're durable and water-resistant. Paddling gloves made of neoprene, nylon or Lycra® spandex provide good grip and good protection without impairing your paddle control.
Hand protectors called "pogies" are also available to paddlers. These neoprene or nylon covers fasten over your hands and around the paddle shaft without interfering with your grip.
Shop REI's selection of paddling gloves.
In warm weather and water, wet feet are rarely a serious problem. Sport sandals, water slippers, or even old tennis shoes work just fine. In colder conditions, wet feet mean cold feet. You can keep them completely dry in calf-high rubber boots or with Gore-Tex® socks worn inside boots or shoes. Or opt for thick-soled neoprene booties which will allow your feet to get wet but will keep them warm.
Shop REI's selection of paddling footwear.
By Steve Tischler
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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