Kokatat generated a frenzy of excitement within the paddling community last year when they released the Idol, a revolutionary two-piece suit that can be used as either a drytop or as a complete drysuit. Utilizing new SwitchZip technology, Kokatat aimed to solve several problems for paddlers: 1) Eliminate the need to buy two separate garments for different seasons, 2) make a more versatile garment for expedition paddling, and 3) make a suit that is easier to put on and take off.
Theoretically, this groundbreaking innovation should have disrupted the drysuit market by now but, over a year later, I've only seen a few Idols around at the takeout. Front and back zip drysuits have worked so well for the past few decades that many paddlers seem to be waiting for more information before spending almost $1200 on a new technology.
I spent this spring and early summer paddling with the Idol in the snow-fed rivers near Carbondale, Colorado, where frigid water temps combine with hot weather to blur the lines between drytop and drysuit conditions. This fall, I brought the Idol to Quebec for some creek boating as well as chilly surf sessions at Lachine and Habitat 67. Here’s what I found.
It's dry! That answers the most fundamental question about the new zipper tech, and that's obviously a big deal for the future of this kind of waist-zip drysuit.
On my first day with the suit, I had to spend several minutes looking at the directions to figure out how to use it in my living room. After the initial confusion it still took me several days on the water before I could get the zipper lined up, zipped, and sealed without fumbling around and messing it up. Once you get the hang of it, however, the zipper is relatively easy to use, and it is easy to reach, which is nice for folks with shoulder issues.
One disclaimer is that in colder temps—the times when usually you need a drysuit—it can be a little harder to zip and unzip the suit because it does require a certain amount of dexterity to use.
The waist zipper is bulky enough that I notice it when I put my skirt on. That is doubly true when I'm using the Idol as drytop; it's a pain in the butt to get my skirt over the top of the zipper and get my double tunnel positioned correctly.
One of the advertised benefits of the zipper was that it works as a relief zipper. On one hand, this is great because now men can take a #2 in the woods without having to take off the whole kit. That will solve a problem for many who've felt nature's call while scouting the biggest rapid of the day. On the other hand, the waist zipper is higher on the suit than a normal relief zipper, which makes it harder to use for #1. And although I don't think the SwitchZip is particularly hard to use, it is still slightly more of a pain than a relief zipper when I'm fumbling with the closure under my skirt.
Women users will probably have different impressions of the zipper's usability for relief as compared to drop seats or funnels.
One other advantage of the Idol is that when I am traveling I save space by only bringing a drysuit and not needing to pack a drytop as well. Space is often limited, especially for air travel, so this is a big convenience.
Overall the zipper has its pros and cons but it is dry and gets the job done.
The suit in action: Fit and comfort
On the water the suit kept me as dry as any other Kokatat suit, which is no surprise given Kokatat's track record. The Idol has durable cordura material in high wear areas including the entire bottom half of the suit. The GORE-TEX material inspires a lot of confidence in terms of the suit's longevity. Just like a back-entry suit such as the Kokatat Icon, the Idol lets very little water through my skirt tunnel and into the boat.
The Idol has a lot of freedom of movement because it does not have a zipper across the torso. This is a significant improvement over the Meridian, which still uses a stiff and bulky metal-toothed zipper. The freedom of movement is not noticeable when compared with the Kokatat Icon or NRS Crux, which have flexible plastic TIZIP zippers that I hardly notice while paddling.
Unfortunately for the Idol, that same flexible plastic TIZIP zipper that I do not notice on my chest or back is definitely noticeable when placed around my waist. The extra layers of fabric meant to protect the zipper when used as a drytop make the whole system pretty bulky. I eventually figured out how to get the zipper out of my way in the boat but it took a while to get to hang of it and all that bulk still gets uncomfortable on longer days. It's especially hard for me to get comfortable in my seat when using just the drytop.
Kokatat asserts that it's simply a matter of getting the zipper to sit above your seat and below your backband but I found that it was a little more difficult to get comfortable that I would have liked. This partially depended on the type of outfitting I was using. It seemed to work the best with Jackson backbands but chafed against LiquidLogic, Waka and Pyranha systems.
I'm happy to report that the Idol stands up to Kokatat's reputation for building drysuits that stay dry over time. After two months on the water, I am still dry as a bone inside of the suit.
The SwitchZip is still going strong and I haven't had any problems with it so far but it certainly seems like the kind of complicated system that could fail more easily than a normal zipper. Only time will tell if the moving parts will last. On the bright side, if it did fail during an expedition, you have the option to use the suit as a drytop. That's great insurance for paddlers who don't want to be caught out in the wilderness with a useless bundle of GORE-TEX and it is one of the biggest arguments for purchasing the suit.
The Kokatat Idol solves some major issues for expedition paddlers, travelers, and budget-minded boaters. It's an innovative suit that, although not without flaws, is a great step in the world of drywear. If you can overlook the minor complexities of the zipper system and the occasional discomfort caused by the zipper’s bulk then this suit could be the one for you. If, on the other hand, you want a simple suit with less bulk and can afford to own multiple pieces of drywear, you may want to look elsewhere.
More from C&K: