by Larry Rice
first appeared in October 2005 issues
Some of my whitewater buds think I'm exaggerating, but after my boat, paddle, PFD, and helmet, my most valued piece of paddling equipment is my drysuit. I can't begin to count the number of days I would have been cold, miserable, or possibly hypothermic--or just plain stayed off the water--if I hadn't been wearing this specialized outerwear. With watertight latex gaskets at the wrists, neck, and ankles (or attached waterproof socks), watertight zippers, and taped seams that eliminate seepage through needle holes, the five drysuits reviewed here are designed to be fully waterproof, windproof, breathable, abrasion-resistant, and quick-drying--the absolute best protection available for those unanticipated capsizes that every boater, sooner or later, is going to have.
I prepare for every trip, whether it's on a river, lake, or ocean coastline, assuming that I'm going to get dunked. As a general rule, if the combined air and water temperature is 100 degrees or less, hypothermia can be an immediate danger, no matter how close you are to shore. But I have my own hypothermia calculation. Let them laugh, but being tall and lanky with little insulating body fat, I usually wear a drysuit (with a base layer of sweat-absorbent fleece or polypro underneath) even in midsummer--especially if I'm paddling Colorado's snowmelt rivers or cruising Lake Superior's chilly waters, or anytime when water temperatures are a bit less than bathtub warm.
There are a number of manufacturers that produce high-quality garments in a range of models, options, and prices. For this review, we will focus only on the full-suit, waterproof/breathable-fabric variety (Gore-Tex and its ilk) that offers the best combination of comfort and performance for all active paddlers, from canoeists and kayakers to sit-on-toppers and rafters. (Note: Many whitewater kayakers prefer drytops alone.)
I'm willing to bet that once you're decked out in a drysuit, you'll find yourself paddling more often; a warm, dry boater is a relaxed boater, more willing to push harder, try new runs, and explore new routes even in frigid waters or storm-driven weather.
The five drysuits in this review underwent rigorous testing on sections of eight whitewater rivers in the Southeast and Colorado this past spring. Air temperatures ranged from the mid-30s (with blowing snow) on Colorado's South Platte Waterton Canyon run to the mid-60s (with chilly April water temps) on Georgia's Chattooga River and Tennessee's Daddy's Creek. Reviews are a distillation of comments and opinions
from me and a conscripted handful of paddling friends, based on the following criteria:
Waterproofness: The dreaded dunk test: Was there any leakage after a full-body immersion in quiet water for five minutes, or while rigorously swimming a rapid (which, for the sake of this review, my buds and I "volunteered" to do more than once).
Durability: After several days of hard use while canoeing, kayaking, boulder-hopping on shore, and just plain messin' around, how did the suit hold up? Were there any pinhole punctures? Did those all-important waterproof zippers and latex gaskets operate as they should? Are high-wear points like seat, knees, and elbows reinforced?
Comfort Factor: Judging whether a drysuit is comfortable is highly subjective, depending on factors like your body's internal heat production, weather, proper fit, ease of getting in and out, duration and intensity of your trips, and even your bladder size (the act of peeing while wearing a drysuit is not to be taken lightly!). The suit should be loose fitting and easy to move around in, gaskets should be tight but not cut off circulation, and the waterproof fabric should be tough as nails, quiet, and breathable. Additional features (which may be add-on options) like adjustable neoprene over-cuffs and collars that protect latex gaskets from abrasion and UV exposure, waistband cinch cords, pockets, adjustable overskirts for kayakers, relief zippers for men and drop seats for women, and attached waterproof socks can substantially increase the comfort quotient.
Bang for the Buck: Again subjective, but considering that a drysuit will be one of your single most expensive boating investments, will the expenditure satisfy your expectations?
Note: This is only a sampling of the models and designs available from each manufacturer. For a complete product line, call for a brochure or visit their Web sites. And one introductory comment: there is not a single drysuit tested that didn't perform superbly regarding waterproofness and durability.