Gear Shed - Drysuit Care
Winter boating is without a doubt an incredible experience. With everyone raving about skiing it can be easy to be pulled away from our one true love…whitewater. There is also no doubt that if you are new to winter boating it is an intimidating experience. For some reason when the weather turns sour anxiety rises and fears start creeping in. I definitely understand why people feel this way since it is easy to warm up on a sunny day by simply getting out of the water.
I find though that even for the most hard core boater, trudging to the put in through 2 feet of snow certainly ups the ante. Biting cold, freezing sleet, frozen over eddies, blinding windy rain, or thick fog obscuring what lies downriver are all serious hazards for winter paddlers. Tack onto that many inexperienced paddlers often do not own a drysuit and are forced to endure an ever colder shoulder season until they give up and say “Nah, it’s too cold to boat man…going skiing”. All of these elements plus frequent storms, unpredictable flows, and short days; you end up cutting the margin for error down so much that inexperienced paddlers get left behind.
But what if I don’t want to get left behind? I want to boat the hard stuff, I want to learn to be a better paddler, how am I supposed to do that? The trusty drysuit comes to the rescue…or does it?
Do I need this piece of gear?
My good friend and team boater Daniel Jenkins has a very sound theory about boating that I have come to respect, it is more of a question really: Do I need this piece of gear? With every additional piece of gear you add comes new benefits, but with it also comes new dangers. The follow-up question to that is: do the benefits of having this gear outweigh the risks?
In the case of hypothermia and being soaked to the core in the winter the community’s resounding answer is often yes. We can’t be too hasty here though since not all situations call for a drysuit. I have seen inexperienced paddlers using them in the summer when it is not hot, but it is warm out. I don’t believe that the drysuit is the go to piece of gear for many reasons, but a drysuit does have its place in you gear shed. First let’s look at the temperature and your swim potential. As rafters we are less prone to submersion than kayakers and we are less prone to being splashed since we sit higher in the water…essentially we actually do dry off. In our winter boating safety article we cover the general temperature ranges that you should be using wet and dry gear in. If it is 80 F out and it is raining, I would not wear a drysuit, but 2 feet of snow and I’m wrapped up in that drysuit like stuffing in a thanksgiving turkey.
Benefits of a Drysuit
The benefits of a drysuit are pretty obvious; basically if you follow the best practices for the suit you will stay dry and toasty throughout the trip. Typically any wetness you experience will be from sweat after paddling.
Hypothermia – Keeping yourself from getting wet will help prevent the common causes of heat loss and help to keep you from getting hypothermic. For boaters there are two main mechanisms: Convection and Evaporation. Convection is the process of losing heat through the movement of air or water molecules across the skin. Evaporation is the process of losing heat through the conversion of water to gas (evaporation of sweat or moisture from your gear for example). Drysuits do help to prevent these processes, but this does have limits since the dry suit only serves as an outer shell layer.
Layering – The great benefit of a drysuit is that you have the ability to add and remove layers depending upon the temperature. Unlike wetsuits you can add and subtract as you see fit without getting your gear soaked. Also, the drysuit enables a greater degree of flexibility throughout a trip. When you bring your 4/3 Wetsuit, that is what you have for the rest of the trip. You can add layers of fleece or splash tops, but they are not nearly as effective. The drysuit allows you to add or remove layers without getting soaked and increasing heat loss through convection.
Disadvantages of Drysuits
Drysuits don’t make you bulletproof – People seem to get into their drysuit and suddenly feel the rush of their ego. I have a drysuit, the weather doesn’t matter, I can paddle in anything…right? Drysuits have become ubiquitous in the boating world and you always see the really good boaters dropping big stuff in them, but this comes with a price. Have you ever ripped a drysuit? New boaters often ask me if they should get a drysuit and I always try to advise them away from the purchase until they are a more established boater because of the tendency to get too fired up. You may feel like a good boater boating in the winter in a drysuit, but you better be able to rescue yourself like one of the big boys
Rips, tears, and pinholes – Rips are one of the biggest concerns for the integrity of the suit itself and unfortunately although it feels rugged there is only a thin piece of material between you and all of the sticks, brambles, and sharp objects of the world. The latex on your gaskets is also a concern since they are the most common wear point. Gaskets tend to tear easily especially with poor maintenance or when you wear sunscreen on the water. Pinhole leaks are one of the most common issues with drysuits since they are hard to detect until you notice a wet knee. All of these issues are easy to come by out on the river and Mother Nature does not play nice. Take extra time to make sure you don’t damage your expensive new suit.
Limits swimming – Forgetting to burp your suit is one of the single most dangerous mistakes you can make with one of these suits. Burping refers to getting excess air out of the suit. Drysuits often have a solid seal and that extra air has to go somewhere. Remember water wings? If you have ever worn water wings and tried to swim or you watch a child swim with them on you will notice it doesn’t work. When your legs are in the water it pushes the air to your torso making you look like you are wearing a muscle suit. This will make swimming nearly impossible as you flail about with your oversized water wings.
Multiple failure points – From the Zipper to the gaskets and socks drysuits have numerous failure points. I got a great lesson years ago in a swim, when you burp your suit you will notice your suit suctioning to your body, but what happens when the seal breaks? All of that suction works in the opposite direction and sucks water into the suit. Your suit will quickly fill and not drain…now what. You better have a knife, because your PFD is now useless with all of the extra weight. If you are not at the shore or your buddy is not pulling you in the boat you need to get that water out somehow.
In my early years of winter paddling a good boater was telling me his technique for this situation. His relief zipper imploded in a swim. After the implosion his legs filled with water and sank him counteracting the buoyancy of his wetsuit. He took out his knife and cut the legs from his waist to his feet to help drain the water out after. He credited that one action with saving his life that day.
Additional maintenance – Drysuits require plenty of additional maintenance including patching pin holes, getting new gaskets and just keeping it clean and dry. Wet insides can easily mold ruining the fabric and zippers get sandy. Zippers require lubrication, the fabric requires treatment, pinholes and rips need to be sealed, the gaskets need to be treated with 303 and replaced periodically. All of these things add up and they add an additional cost to the suit. If you use your suit frequently you may get a couple seasons out of the gaskets and a new neck alone can cost $75 for parts and labor at a shop. Keeping the drysuit in top shape for your next adventure is critical and all of the additional maintenance, care, and safe handling can be troublesome compared to dipping the wetsuit and letting it dry.
Drysuit best practices
Clean and maintain your suit – In the corporate world it is not unheard of spending thousands of dollars on a suit so you want to keep it nice. It is the same for the rafting world, we have nice suits and we want to keep them nice. Don’t skimp on your maintenance, a new gasket can be a bit pricy, but a suit full of water in a swim can be deadly. On top of that a drysuit can be a significant part of a month’s wages for anyone, not just a raft guide, so why not take the time to make sure they are in excellent shape?
Inspect common failure points – Every time you go out and every time you put it away inspect your common failure points or issues. Are the zippers fraying? Are the gaskets getting worn out? Take time to look at these points to make sure everything is good to go. Common issues include the cord in the zipper teeth breaking, seams (including gasket, zipper, and socks) delaminating, and the outer ends of the gasket becoming overstretched (feels a bit grainy to the touch). If any of these issues pop up don’t use the suit until you can get it repaired.
Layer properly - For your drysuit to be truly effective you need layers. Proper layering technique is important to provide a comfortable experience in your drysuit. To be effective multiple layers of moisture wicking material is required to help eliminate the issue of sweat. We always recommend synthetic base and mid-weight layers to start. If the day is cold you can easily add heavier weight fleece layers to help keep you warm. Don’t forget that you will be paddling and a drysuit is just as effective at keeping moisture in as it is keeping moisture out so don’t overdo it. The best thing you can do is try your equipment out on a cold day before you paddle. If you live near a lake or a calm patch of river put your gear on, jump in the water, jog a mile, then jump back in the water and see how you feel.
Seal it up - Double check your openings and make sure that you hair is not caught in the gaskets and your zippers are closed. Nothing sucks more than walking in the water to burp your suit and you forgot to close your drop seat. Try to make sure that the gaskets are completely in contact with your skin and if you have Velcro closures tighten them down.
The buddy system – Skydivers always check their buddy before they go out of the plane. In case you missed something your buddy can double check to make sure that you are all set. It also really helps to have someone who can help to seal the last bit of your zipper for you since it can be hard to reach. Make sure when you check your buddy’s suit thoroughly: inspect every gasket, look at every zipper, and physically pull each zipper closed.
Burp your suit – Before you paddle it is good practice to walk into the water up to your chest and gently pull your neck gasket open to allow the air to escape. This will make the suit more form fitting and streamlined for paddling while preventing you from looking like a professional wrestler when you do swim. If you can’t wade into the river in a safe place, your other option is to curl into a ball and gently pull your neck gasket open to release the air. If you have a kayak style suit and it comes with a skirt cover make sure you burp your suit before you lock this down or you may not get all of the air out.