Before dry suits were introduced to water sports like kayaking, the weather and water temperature would greatly limit the amount of fun you could have.
While a wetsuit is tight and difficult to put on and take off, a kayaking dry suit is loose and easy to wear. Its goal is to keep you dry and does not provide much warmth on its own. The insulation is provided by the layers of clothing you wear beneath it.
While wet suits can cost anywhere from $150 to $350, drysuits are more expensive ($550 and $850 for a quality piece). The extra expenditure is worth it as dry suits are generally believed to be more comfortable and better at protecting the wearer in cooler weather and water conditions.
What is a Drysuit?
The goal of a drysuit is to keep the kayaker completely dry. This is achieved using a system of gaskets at the neck, wrists and ankles and waterproof material construction. No part of the dry suit would leak and the latex gaskets seal each body part to prevent water from trickling underneath. Kayakers with latex allergies need to find alternative options. There is also a chance that the gaskets will fail while on an excursion, which can cut the adventure short.
If compared to regular outerwear, a wetsuit would be more like a raincoat than a parka. It is not designed to keep you warm. This is done by wearing layers of insulating clothing under the drysuit.
How to Dress for Different Water Temperatures
Water temperatures of 70° or more
If the water is at least 70°F, no wetsuit or drysuit is required for safety and comfort. You may prefer to use a drysuit if the air temperature is considerably lower than the water temperature however. A paddling jacket, dry top and rash guard should be sufficient.
Water temperatures between 50° and 70°
Many kayakers wear only a sleeveless wetsuit at these temperatures. If the air temperature is lower, or if the water is at the bottom of this range, a full wetsuit may be preferred. A drysuit in this situation would probably end up being too warm and uncomfortable, especially since layers of clothing need to be worn underneath. If the water is near 50° and the air temperature is also chilly, a drysuit may be ideal. Always bring along extra clothing to change into in case of immersion.
Water Temperatures between 45° and 55°
The choice of whether to wear a full wetsuit or a drysuit at these water temperatures will depend mostly on the individual and the outside air temperature as well. Both are sufficient to keep the body properly insulated, although a dry top and paddling jacket should be worn over a wetsuit for maximum comfort. If you end up in the water, you will want good insulation from the clothing worn under the drysuit as well. Also, gloves, boots and head covers should be added to your kayaking gear.
Water temperatures below 45°
Once you get to these winter time paddling temperatures, a drysuit is required with multiple layers of clothing underneath. Protection for head, hands and feet is also necessary. Water at these temperatures can quickly put your health and safety at risk (cold shock is a risk). Extra protection from the conditions is possible using a diving hood. Cold shock can quickly shut the system down and saps the energy fast. Make sure to wear a proper kayaking dry suit and paddle with experienced buddies who know what to do in the event of a kayak capsizing.