What Kind of Drysuit Do You Need?
A drysuit is likely the most technical piece of clothing you'll ever own (unless you're an astronaut or a haz-mat specialist). But the manufacturer takes care of all the technical stuff for you. You just have to know how to choose the design and features that best suit your needs and budget.
Pay attention to the major design features of drysuits before you look into options and accessories. Bells and whistles may be nice, but they won't make up for the wrong type of suit.
Different Drysuits for Different SportsThere are three main types of drysuits, each for different sports:
- "Baggy" drysuits for paddlers. These are made to fit loose, to give the user a great deal of freedom of movement for kayaking, canoeing, rafting, and stand-up paddleboarding. Some dinghy sailors and anglers use them too. They're made from non-stretchy waterproof fabrics. They fit over insulating undergarments, which are purchased separately.
- Baggy drysuits for divers. Some drysuits for SCUBA diving are also of the baggy style, but they're heavier and more expensive than paddling drysuits, and they're usually equipped with a special valve that vents air in response to changes in depth.
- Neoprene drysuits for paddlers and surfers. These are made from a foamed synthetic rubber material, usually with a woven fabric bonded to one or both sides. It's basically the same material that wetsuits are made of. The stretchy rubber has insulating properties. The tight fit makes them suitable for SCUBA divers and surfers, but it also means they're somewhat constricting and uncomfortable for repetitive motions like paddling.
One-Piece versus Two-Piece Drysuits
A one-piece drysuit covers you from your feet or ankles to your neck, and you "enter" it through a single zippered opening. A two-piece drysuits consists of a separate pull-over top and pants. Mating neoprene seals on the two pieces have to be carefully folded over each other several times to achieve a good watertight connection.
One-piece suits are much more popular and tend to be less expensive. Most paddlers who have tried both agree that one-piece suits are easier to put on and keep you drier, especially if you're in the water for a long time or take a rough "swim" in waves or whitewater. The advantage of a two-piece suit is that you can wear the top separately as a dry-top paired with wetsuit bottoms.
Most drysuits are made from multi-layer "breathable" nylon fabric that keeps water out but allows water vapor to escape. The other option is a non-breathable waterproof fabric.
Breathable fabrics do a good job minimizing the accumulation of moisture from perspiration inside the suit. Some breathable fabrics do this more effectively than others, but during vigorous exercise, even the best may allow some moisture to accumulate.
Fabric manufacturers use a variety of often incompatible test methods to measure vapor transfer, making direct comparisons difficult, and some do not publish test results of any sort. Gore-Tex®* is a brand name for breathable fabric used in many drysuits: it has an excellent performance reputation and a relatively high price.
Because of the advantages of breathable fabrics, they now dominate the market, even though they are more expensive than non-breathable fabrics.
Fabrics can also be compared by their weight (per square yard or square meter) and by the weight of the thread from which they are woven (expressed as "D" for denier). All other things being equal, a heavier fabric (for example, one with a weight of 420 gm/m2 ) or one made from heavier thread (of 300D, for example) would be less flexible but tougher than a lighter one (for example, weight of 185 gm/m2 or denier of 190). Unfortunately, differences in fabric design and suit assembly make it difficult or impossible to compare fabrics based on these numbers alone. Actually handling the suit -- or better yet, wearing it -- is the only reliable way to assess the comfort and durability of the fabric.
Snug-fitting, rubbery seals, called gaskets, fit around the neck and the wrists to keep water out. Some suits also have gaskets at the ankles, while others have socks or booties (see below). Gaskets are made from different materials:
- Latex. Most drysuit gaskets are made of natural latex, which is the sap from a variety of plants. Natural latex is very stretchy, so gaskets can be thin and non-constricting while still providing a good water-tight seal against the skin. Their thinness also makes them somewhat delicate: they are easily torn, and must be treated with care. Natural latex can also be damaged by contact with some sunscreens and bug repellants, and it deteriorates with time, so gaskets must be replaced periodically – a task many drysuit owners do for themselves. Some people are allergic to certain kinds of natural latex. Modern processing methods greatly reduce this problem in some formulations, but individuals with a severe latex allergy must proceed with caution.
- Neoprene. This synthetic rubber is tougher and less likely to tear than natural latex, and it lasts longer. It's also less expensive than latex, but it's not as stretchy, so it may not seal as well as latex and may feel constricting. People with slender necks or large heads may have trouble getting it sized right, so that it fits over the head and still seals properly.
- Silicone rubber. This synthetic material is new entry onto the drysuit market. It's stretchier than neoprene and tougher than latex, with none of latex's allergy issues. Silicone rubber gaskets are expensive, require special installation methods, and are not widely available.
Socks, Booties and Ankle Gaskets
There are three different ways to close the bottom of the legs on a drysuit:
- Ankle gaskets. Identical to wrist gaskets except slightly larger. They leave the feet bare. You can wear whatever you want to protect your feet, but they won't stay dry.
- Socks. These are sewn on at the bottom of the legs so that your feet stay dry. They may be made from the same waterproof fabric as the body of the drysuit (relatively rugged, with room inside for warm knit socks); foamed neoprene (less rugged but self-insulating); latex or unfoamed neoprene (delicate and often too tight to wear socks inside). Never walk around outside with only drysuit socks on your feet: wear water shoes, sandals or booties to protect the soles.
- Booties. With thick neoprene uppers and molded rubber soles, these are essentially paddlers' booties attached to the drysuit. They eliminate the need for separate footwear, but on the other hand they eliminate any choice of other footwear. Sizing may be more difficult than gaskets or socks, since one size doesn't fit all.
Entry Zippers (Closures)
One doesn't "put on" a one-piece drysuit: one enters it through a single zippered opening. The zipper may be across the shoulders on the back, or diagonally across the chest. A back zipper is a little shorter, so a little less expensive, and it adds less bulk to the suit. Many users find back zippers difficult to manipulate, and need help opening and closing them. Front zippers are more popular because they are easier to operate solo, but some paddlers find they get in the way of free arm movement.
Options and Features
The main purpose of a drysuit is to keep you dry and warm. Some of the following options are nice to have, but they all add to the cost of a drysuit. Think carefully about what you want, what you really need, and what you're willing to spend.
Most drysuits are "unisex" – that is, they're designed primarily for men, and they work pretty well for most women. Women's drysuits are cut differently, to account for the different proportions of most women. For some women, this makes a difference in how the suit feels and looks; for others, it's a non-issue.
Relief Zippers and Drop Seats
These are the most popular of all drysuit options, and with good reason. A relief zipper is like the fly on a pair of pants, only it's water-tight. For men, it's a no-brainer, but women can make use of relief zipper in combination with a special funnel (a.k.a., "feminine urinary device").
A drop-seat uses a long curved zipper to allow women to squat instead. Most women find this a more comfortable way to pee, but it means you're sitting on a bulky zipper the rest of the time, and that may negate the comfort advantage in the long run. A drop-seat is more expensive than a standard relief zipper.
Tunnel or Overskirt
This is a flap of material, usually neoprene, that encircles the waist of the suit. It folds over the top edge of a kayaker's spray skirt to prevent water from sneaking between the skirt and the drysuit into the cockpit. It's useful for kayakers in whitewater and during Eskimo rolls. For canoeists, rafters, paddleboarders, sailors, and kayakers who don't wear skirts, it's of no value.
Some suits have neoprene or nylon cuffs over the wrist, ankle, and neck gaskets. These help protect the gaskets against mechanical hazards, and are worthwhile if your paddling style tends to involve rubbing your wrists frequently against the boat or rocks, or if you're just generally rough on your equipment. The cuffs often have hook-and-loop fabric closures (e.g., Velcro) and it can be a nuisance when you're trying to push a body part through a gasket and you find your way blocked by an accidentally-secured Velcro tape.
Found only on expedition-grade drysuits, a built-in hood can keep your head dry and warm. It's a nice feature for extremely harsh conditions, but a separate neoprene hood or other headgear generally does the job just as well.
A sealed pocket with a waterproof zipper can be useful for keeping a mobile phone, car key, energy bar or small camera handy. Non-waterproof pockets have their uses, but they should be designed to drain water easily. Pockets on upper arms are generally convenient but small. Pockets on the chest can be larger, but they're inaccessible when covered by a PFD. Leg pockets are not easily accessible beneath a kayak sprayskirt but may be convenient for other users.
Many suits have extra layers of fabric at strategic wear points, particularly over the knees, elbows and seat. These will prolong the suit's life or reduce the need for major repairs if you're rough on it or use it very frequently. For more careful or casual paddlers, they provide little benefit but add weight and cost.
Reflective tape or piping at the cuffs or along arm seams will make you much more visible in darkness, if someone is shining a light in your direction. This is useful if you paddle after dark on the ocean or on large lakes that you share with powerboats, or when rescuers are searching for you after dark.
Some manufacturers will sew their drysuits in custom sizes. Custom suits are costly, but it's a good option if you can't find a standard-size suit to fit you properly.
*Gore-Tex® is a registered trademark of W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc., which is not associated with Mythic Gear, Inc., in any way.