It’s a beautiful sunny day, the water is glass, my boat is begging to be paddled, but it’s January and the thought of getting wet in just above freezing temps is anything but enticing. Or maybe it’s blowing a gale—perfect downwind run conditions—but the water is 45 degrees. My body turtles at the potential. It’s easy to dress to stay warm on the upper body, but without the proper gear the most likely places to get wet, my legs and feet, are always freezing. A solid pair of booties, like Stohlquist’s 5 mm neoprene Tideline, help keep the piggies happy. Now it’s time to find the right paddling pants.
Breezy on a budget
Immersion Research Zephyr Paddling Pant $100 (immersionresearch.com)
We would never recommend wearing most waterproof paddling pants against bare skin. Clammy just begins to describe the inevitable feeling. The Zephyr’s are the exception. The soft mesh liner helped with the pant’s breathability and create a thin barrier between the waterproof exterior and our skin. Most of all it extended the temperature range. We could wear the Zephyr’s al fresco on a splashy downwind run in mid-50s and with a base layer in sub-freezing temps. Though they lack the rubber gaskets that would make them truly waterproof, the adjustable neoprene ankles and the stretchy neoprene waist did a descent job of keeping water out. On a shin-deep beach launch we didn’t get wet. Splashes beaded right off whitewater canoeing. And a soaker over the lap didn’t penetrate. But when we spent a few minutes in the water untangling weeds from our rudder, we did get wet from the bottom up. The fabric is IR’s own WhiteOut waterproof-breathable with all seams taped. Breathability is only okay, but the pants always felt comfortable because of the liner, which wicks moisture away from the skin. An antimicrobial treatment kills funky smells before they start. And with articulated knees they fit really well. When a boat went for a unmanned float down a rapid we gave chase over boulders and forest and never felt restricted. Not the best choice if you plan on spending a lot of time in the water, they are an affordable option for a winter paddling pant with many potential uses.
Bombproof during a gale
Kokatat Whirlpool $570 (kokatat.com)
The worst part of paddling a surfski on a downwind run are the lap-fulls of water. Every few minutes a wave will hit you just so, filling the bathtub-style cockpit with water. A minute of paddling drains it out the Venturi drain, but till then your lower body from belly button to toes are submerged. Yeah, not nice. The Whirlpools are designed for just these kinds of situations. The bibbed pants rise almost to my armpits with shoulder straps holding them in place. Made of a burly waterproof-breathable Gore-Tex, the water stayed where it should and, as long as I layered properly, the interior felt comfortable even when I was working hard. Topping off the warmth: Built-in socks kept my toes toasty and dry. There is an inherent danger in having socks on a drypant: If the system was ever compromised the whole suit could fill with water, acting kind of like cement shoes. Not good. Trying, we found the Whirlpool’s hard to compromise. Jumping in with just the pants and a non-waterproof jacket, we could swim for a few strokes before a trickle started to slip through. Paired with a drytop, we never felt a drop. I’m not saying it can’t happen, just that it was hard to do. Bibs buried under several layers can present other urgent issue, like how to go when you’ve been holding it for a three mile crossing. A drop-seat on the women’s or a crotch-zip on the men’s works adequately. These pants are warm, so layer accordingly. We found them perfect for wet and wild conditions, like a surfski downwind run, or whitewater paddling in winter, when the spraydeck tunnel comes in handy. Often a baselayer was enough for 40-degree type conditions. A more versatile option than a drysuit, with almost equivalent protection when it comes to staying dry and warm in rain, cold and generally nasty weather.
Cold and versatile
NRS Hydroskin 1.5 Pant $110 (nrs.com)
NRS took a standard pair of neoprene pants and made them cozy. Sounds crazy right? To do it NRS took its proprietary 1.5 mm neoprene and welded a layer of fleece on the inside. Titanium in the neoprene reflects heat and the fleece traps warm air to add warmth, next-to-skin comfort and speed drying times. They are noticeably warmer than a pair of 3 mm wetsuit pants and much lighter. On a day when it was 40 degrees above (and below) the surface, I waded thigh-deep through waves to launch an SUP. My legs never felt cold or wet as I logged an hour on the water, yet when I took the pants off they were noticeably wet through. Not windproof, we did feel a chill when an offshore breeze started to gust. The paddling-specific cut goes on easy against bare skin and rides high above the waist to close any gaps with upper layers. NRS also carefully positioned all the seams to avoid irritating spots. Sitting in a cockpit or doing sprints in a surfski, I never noticed any issues with chafing or rubbing. No surprise; being lighter, they feel more comfortable and stretchier than my 3 mm neoprene pants. They’re also better for the environment. Rather than petroleum used in most neoprene, the Hydroskin is made from crushed up limestone. Bottom line, these are a great pair of paddling pants that can serve many functions. We wore them as a baselayer with the Immersion Research Zephyr Pant on a frigid day, on their own on a warmer day and, on a warm and sunny day, as a bottom for SUP surfing. In every situation, they excelled.