The Gear Shed - Wet Gear
The shoulder seasons are always an excellent time to reevaluate your wet gear for the season. Although spring and fall end up at opposite times in the northern and southern hemisphere, this time of year means wetsuit season in both hemispheres. Springtime is marked by increasing temperatures and dreams of peeling out of our dry suits, while fall marks the inevitable march toward more clothing. Either way the first action to take as soon as temperatures move into the “cool” range is to evaluate your equipment needs.
To understand what kind of gear that you need it is important to consider how heat loss occurs from your body. 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). Understanding these two processes will ultimately lead you to select the gear that you really need for what you will be running.
Wet gear construction is based upon a very specific theory of systems designed to retain warmth during cold water immersion. Wetsuits are typically recommended for continuous exposure to water between 45 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. This raises some questions since boaters are typically exposed to cold water immersion for less than 15 minutes. Wetsuits are designed to create a multilayered barrier with a thin layer of warm moisture against your skin. The multi layered barrier provides a few great advantages including reflecting heat back toward your body and creating a membrane to prevent the “Cold Shock” phenomenon. You can read more about cold weather boating exposure in our winter boating article.
Bearing in mind the cold water boating issues that we face in the shoulder seasons, what should you select as your go to gear? This can be a complex question based on the river you run and your needs.
Pants and Jackets
Pants and Jacket separates come in many forms however most of the time these articles are used during warmer days. In general these garments are solely designed to reduce the cold shock effect of water splashing on you.
Thickness range: .5 mm– 2 mm.
Pros: Less movement restrictions, lighter weight, extra layers can be added to increase warmth, articles can be worn within another type of wetsuit to increase warmth, and you are less likely to overheat.
Cons: A cold water flow easily through the open seams, fewer layers to the fabric means lower heat retention. The 2mm long sleeve Neoprene Jacket is typically doubled up over a Farmer John style suit to provide more warmth to the wearer’s core during variable weather. Heat retention in this configuration is at a huge disadvantage over a full suit given water’s ability to flush through the suit.
Farmer Johns are a staple of commercial rafting wetsuits. Typical suits are 3 mm with a range of options depending upon the river you are paddling and typical weather patterns. Often hailed as the most versatile suit available to boaters, the Farmer John is typically coupled with a neoprene top or a splash top.
Thickness Range: 2 mm – 5 mm.
Pros: Ease of maintenance, rapid entry and exit, variety of layering options, and lower cost. Versatile for different weather conditions and allows for easy layering with a variety of fabrics and layer styles. Shoulders are unhindered by the suit allowing for maximum range of motion.
Cons: Upper torso area is open allowing heat to escape a paddler’s core easily reducing the overall warmth of the suit. Typically coupled with a splash top or neoprene top this can easily kick up the price to match a full suit. Required layering can neutralize the benefits of the suit in the water since improper layers can fill with water and tends to flush cold water through the suit. This can also hamper swimming with a full loadout of layers. High level paddlers will not gain the performance enhancing benefits inherent to wearing a full suit, specifically the increased peak muscle performance and body awareness (see full suit below).
Shorty / Spring Suit
Ideal for warmer days, the shorty is as the name implies a suit with short arms and typically with short leg as well. Typical cuts will put the sleeve down to the mid bicep and the legs down to the mid-thigh.
Thickness Range: 2 mm – 4 mm
Pros: Practical in most situations as well as easy to get in and out of. The increased core warmth can be extremely helpful with a splash top or splash pants. This suit excels when the water and the days are mild, but the temperature is still a bit on the warm side in the heat of the day.
Cons: While they are good at keeping your torso warm, shortys do not keep your extremities warm during a day of paddling. Shoulder seasons typically experience variable weather with wind and rain as a major concern. Shortys can feel cold on longer days on the water where you end up winding into the shadow of the mountain or when you are boating in the morning/evening when the temperature drops.
Full wetsuits have a variety of styles with rear entry back zip, front zip, and top entry the thermoregulation benefits for a full suit are not available in other types of wet gear, and for folks who paddle hard and often this is the go to wetsuit type.
Thickness Range: 2 mm – 7 mm
Pros: Hundreds of different styles and sizes designed mainly for surfing have reduced the cost and increased the quality of wetsuits in recent years. Many surf inspired designs find a home in padding with flex zones specifically designed for maximum upper body mobility. Full suits provide the highest level of thermos regulation by preventing convection of air and water through the suit. More recent developments in wetsuit material have also dramatically decreased water retention from the surface of the suit thus decreasing potential for evaporation.
A US National Institute of Health study has found compelling evidence that neoprene sleeves help improve an athlete’s performance by increasing the wearer’s sensitivity to their muscle reactions. The study focused on surfing specifically and noted a significant increase in the deltoid muscle’s peak activity. There was also evidence that users were more aware of their wrist and hand positioning while wearing a full suit. Both of these effects would be highly beneficial to a rafter on the water.
Cons: Suits over 4mm can fell extremely bulky, while suits less than 2mm often feel too cold for most river activities. Full suits require more maintenance and dry time. These suits are generally the most difficult to don and remove especially when they are wet. Cost can be a factor in these suits especially considering top end suits can be 60-70% of the cost of a dry suit, some boaters prefer to opt for a dry suit if they only have the money to spend on one.
Thickness Range: 2 mm – 5 mm
Pros: In rough cold whitewater or cold rainstorms where hands are subject to immersion frequently having some solid warmth is a huge benefit. 3mm – 4mm is the ideal size since you can still maintain some manual dexterity while maximizing heat retention. Mitten style gloves can keep your hands exceptionally warm by keeping your fingers together.
Cons: One of the main drawbacks to gloves is that they keep your hands wet. If you are running long stretches of class II in the shoulder season they can be as much of a burden as they are a benefit. Cold dry hands are always preferable to cool wet hands since the constant heat transfer of evaporation can cause problems. 2mm or thinner gloves tend to be cold and are best reserved for warm weather paddling where sun protection is more important. Any gloves thicker than 5mm will tend to be too bulky to really make a good paddling glove since that much neoprene makes it very hard to grip a paddle or use your hands on the river.
After the torso, the head is one of the next most important parts of the body to keep warm. Hats and helmet liners come in a variety of styles to suit your needs and are an essential layer for colder days.
Thickness Range: depends upon materials
Recommended styles: Fleece or neoprene helmet liner
Pros: Low cost, readily available, and a large variety of styles to choose from. Helmet liners especially offer a great deal of heat retention when properly fitted and coupled with a good helmet. Some wetsuits come with the option of a neoprene hood and since it attaches directly to the suit it can be even toastier.
Cons: Fit is a huge issue and it can be difficult to deal with especially if your helmet is already a snug fit to begin with. Neoprene hoods can often not fit well in helmets and obscure vision and hearing.
Sometimes extra layering is required when you have long cool days on the river. It is always a good idea to keep some extra clothing in a dry bag and for boaters nothing works better than a synthetic fleece top. This is best worn under a splash top and there are other varieties that can be worn inside your wetsuit.
Pros: Low cost, huge variety of weights, Lots of styles to choose from, lightweight. Fleece also retains heat well, dries quickly, and is naturally hydrophobic generally retaining only 1 of its weight in water. This property prevents the convective and evaporative heat transfer process of water.
Cons: Some types of fleece tops are poorly suited to the river environment. Fleece tops with elastic waistbands or poorly fitted tops that are too large can fill up with water counteracting the buoyancy of your PFD thus increasing the drowning risk. Try to select a top that is as skin tight as possible to mitigate this risk.
Splash top / Paddle Top / Dry Top
The ubiquitous Splash top is used by rafting companies all over the world for commercial trips. This light weight outer layer is typically constructed out of a synthetic material such as Urethane or Polyamide coupled with neoprene neck and wrist gaskets along with a stretchy waistband.
Pros: Excellent for preventing cold shock and protecting against wind chill. Splash tops provide a solid membrane to seal out the effects of wind and stop heat loss from the rapid cooling effects of wind chill.
Dry tops offer even more protection in the form of a thicker outer layer and latex gaskets on the wrists and neck.
Cons: Forgetting to close your gaskets can lead to water flushing through the top exposing you to a risk of the top filling with water. This can not only cool you down, but like a fleece top, it can counteract the buoyancy of your PFD and increasing your risk of drowning.
Dry tops are even more complex and require more maintenance than a splash top. A ripped latex gasket can eliminate all of the benefits of a dry top for a rafter. Additionally cost is a huge factor with a dry top and often times that money is better spent on a full dry suit. Although the protection a dry top offers is superior, most dry tops are designed for kayaks where you are most likely to immerse your upper body to cold water but not your lower half. In rafting if your upper body is immersed your lower body will probably be as well. On top of that the most common form of cold water exposure in a raft is to your lower body.
I feel compelled to drop a note here on splash pants as well. Given the relative high cost and vigilance required to effectively use splash pants and the fact that most people couple splash pants with a splash top, I do not recommend their use. Instead of purchasing wet gear or multiple pieces with a large potential failure point in the middle I feel opting for a dry suit is always a better choice.
For more information on footwear you can check out our Basic Footwear Selection Article. The best advice for the shoulder seasons though is to pick up a good pair of 4mm booties. This will keep your feet warm and happy throughout the shoulder season, however if you get cold you can always opt for a pair of neoprene socks.
Selecting the correct gear for the correct paddling conditions is essential to staying warm and happy in the shoulder seasons. Take time to look over your current equipment and figure out where you are in terms of your gear. Is your current wetsuit damaged or full of holes? If so can they be patched with a simple iron on patch and some wetsuit glue? If not it may be time to consider replacing your suit so you can enjoy some happier and toastier days on the water.
Finally let’s tackle the issue of snow, if you are boating in snowy conditions then we recommend a dry suit. That is the only recommendation for that application, and in such cold conditions, regardless of the season a wet suit will not provide enough warmth. We will cover dry suits in a follow up article as we get closer to December.
We would like to give a huge thank you to our friends at NRS for sharing some photos of their wet gear with us.