Do You Need a Wetsuit to Kayak?

Do You Need a Wetsuit to Kayak?

You may have seen kayakers on your local water wearing wetsuits and now you may be wondering whether you should also be wearing one when you head out for a paddle. 

So, do you need a wetsuit for kayaking?

In short, no. You don't need to wear a wetsuit while kayaking but they are a good thing to have in certain conditions. 

During the warmer months the last thing I'd want to be doing is wearing a wetsuit while paddling. If I'm heading out swimming, sure, but it can get pretty hot if you're not in the water. On the other hand, during the colder months, I favour a wetsuit. Why is this you ask?

In this article, I'll be discussing why I prefer layering up with a wetsuit when it's colder and why I opt for shorts and a t-shirt during summer. I'll also be going over why you may want to wear one for kayaking, what the difference is between wetsuits and drysuits, and helping you figure out whether you'd benefit from wearing one.

What is a Wetsuit?

A wetsuit is a piece of clothing designed to provide thermal protection while you're wet. They are made from neoprene and foam and are often worn by surfers, divers, kayakers, and people that practice other water-based activities. 

Wetsuits are designed to keep your body warm and protected when the water is neither too cold nor too hot. Water still reaches the skin when you're wearing a wetsuit but it provides skin-tight insulation that helps keep your core temperature up. 

Wetsuits are best suited to water temperatures of 8°C to around 24°C depending on the foam thickness. Temperatures below 8°C may require a drysuit (more on this later) because the wetsuit's ability to pass water will lower the body's temperature too much. Temperatures above 24°C wouldn't warrant a full wetsuit. Instead, a neoprene top and shorts would be better.

Why May You Need a Wetsuit for Kayaking?

You may need a wetsuit for kayaking if the water temperatures are colder than 20° to 24°C (depending on your tolerance). If you fall into the water in colder conditions, a wet suit will help keep your core temperature up and allow you to recover easier when you've got back on your kayak. 

Wetsuits are fantastic for water sports because they keep your body temperature regulated while giving you full unrestricted movement. They also allow you to jump into the water without worry when you need to pass a shallow stretch of water or drag your kayak up onto a beach.

What’s the Difference Between a Wetsuit & Drysuit?

If you've looked at wetsuits for kayaking you may also wonder about a drysuit. Both of these clothing items are made for exploring the water but although similar, they are both very different also.

A wetsuit allows water to pass through the fabric whereas a drysuit is a skin-tight suit that's completely waterproof. Drysuits do not let water pass through the fabric to make contact with the skin. 

Wetsuits allow freer movement compared to drysuits, but as mentioned, they can only be used in temperatures no lower than 8°C. 

Drysuits on the other hand, are more suited to cold water environments. The right drysuit will keep your body temperature regulated in waters well below 8°C. These are the suits that are used in the Arctic for exploration, scientific studies, and nature photography.

It's unlikely that you'll need a drysuit for kayaking unless you're planning on exploring during the winter in more northern climates. They are often used in Scandinavian countries by kayakers that explore the vast lakes before the freeze in early winter. 

How Should You Dress for Kayaking in Mild Conditions?

When I'm kayaking during the summer, I don't bother with a wetsuit most of the time. If the water is warm and the weather is fair, I'll opt for a thin t-shirt and pair of swim shorts. However, if it's springtime or autumn when the weather is good but the water temperature is still cold, I will opt for a wetsuit. 

If I feel that the water is somewhere in the middle, I'll opt for a long sleeve neoprene top with either neoprene shorts or three-quarter length bottoms. This way, you have some thermal insulation if you get wet while still staying cool enough to be comfortable while paddling. Neoprene is also extremely fast-drying so you can recover quickly after a swim whether intentional or not

Now unless you're going to bring your thermometer out with you as well as a wardrobe of clothes, it's impossible to know exactly what the water temperatures are and prepare for it on the day. You have to trust your instinct when it comes to this. 

If it's early spring, assume the water is below 10°C. If it's warm out but your area is yet to have consistent heat throughout the days and nights leading up to your Paddle day, assume the water is cold. 

If it is well into summer and we've had a good few weeks of warm temperatures during the day and through the night, you can assume that the water is warm enough to swim in without a wetsuit. 

During autumn, the water temperatures can still be warm, sometimes even warmer than the air temperatures. However, the water temperature can drop quickly during this season if we get early frosts and cold day/night temps. 

During winter, you can definitely assume that the water temperatures are below 8°C. There's no way I'd be leaving home without a wetsuit during the winter.

How Should You Dress for Kayaking in Cold Conditions?

During cold conditions you should definitely be wearing a wetsuit or even a drysuit depending on how cold the water is. Of course, you never plan to get wet in a kayak during winter but it's always wise to prepare for the worst. A capsize can happen quickly and out of the blue sometimes, so preparing yourself with the right clothing will ensure your safety while out on the water during the colder months. 

If the water is above around 5°C to 10°C a cold water wetsuit will be your best option. This will give you the best range of movement and thermal insulation. Ensure that the wetsuit is suited to cold water temperatures before you purchase one for late autumn and winter conditions. 

If the water is below 5°C you'll likely need a drysuit. Wetsuits that will cope with temperatures this low are available but drysuits provide far better insulative qualities at this temperature range. They will provide the best recovery times and greatest protection from the wintery waters around you. 

Drysuits definitely aren’t cheap. So, unless you’re planning on heading out in arctic waters or paddling in icy water for long periods throughout winter, they probably aren’t worthwhile. 

If you want to head out kayaking during the colder months we recommend heading to areas with calm water where the chance of a capsize is slim. This way you can wear a wetsuit and remain safe on your kayak without putting yourself in harm’s way.

Wearing a wetsuit with a thin layer of thermal clothing on top is usually enough to get you through the winter months (certainly here in Ireland). This will provide your body with warmth while you paddle and enough thermal protection and unrestricted movement to recover if you do happen to meet the cold water.

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