What’s the Difference Between a Drysuit and a Wetsuit?
Often enough, we’re asked this question or have new paddlers mistaking one for the other when looking to purchase waterproof clothing.
Each option is made from durable, premium fabrics with tears and rips being somewhat rare; if you do damage your suit, they are fixed easily enough. That said and personal opinions aside, both are equal having their own unique benefits and negatives, but there are striking differences that will make one the right choice over the other depending on your specific needs.
The main distinction is that a drysuit helps you stay warm by keeping you dry – a wetsuit allows a small amount of water in the suit and then keeps you warm by heating that water within.
To explain, let’s breakdown the features of each:
Typically constructed using a foamed neoprene material that incorporates tiny air or nitrogen bubbles which act as insulation and prevent warm air (and water) from escaping.
The technology of the fabric allows a thin layer of water to enter the suit which is then heated by your body temperature. Given only a small amount of liquid can get inside, heat loss is prevented as no new cold water is able to come in after the initial saturation.
With wetsuits allowing you to get wet, there is a moment of ‘shock’ when the thin layer of cold water enters. And once it’s inside, it’s unable to escape, meaning the rest of your paddling is done while sitting in a suit of water.
Wetsuits are tight fitting and act as a second skin to the wearer. They can be cumbersome as such, and they do limit your mobility to a degree. It can also be argued that you fatigue quicker while paddling in a wetsuit, because the material creates a little resistance when bending your arms and twisting your torso.
Lastly, foamed neoprene material has minimal breathability, which means not only does the warm air and water get trapped inside, but so does your sweat. Your wetsuit will develop an unpleasant odor over time, so cleaning and maintenance is crucial.
Note: if the water and air is too cold, there is potential that your body temperature drops to the point that it can’t heat up the liquid inside the suit.
Made from waterproof, breathable fabrics such as GORE-TEX or Kokatat’s Hyrdus material that keep you completely dry even when fully immersed in water (excluding your head and hands). For this reason, they tend to offer more warmth if you wear the proper clothing beneath the suit.
Given their breathability, drysuits don’t offer much in the way of insulation; what you wear under the suit is how you insulate yourself (i.e. layering with clothing that helps lock in the warm air like merino wool and neoprene). With not allowing any water inside, you are not subject to a jolt of cold during a capsize as you would when wearing a wetsuit.
Drysuits fit loosely to offer room for layering, which makes them more comfortable to wear. That said, the loose-fitting design offers challenges when it comes to having to swim – a PFD should always be worn when paddling, but it’s even more paramount when wearing a drysuit!
There are more features included with drysuits like pockets, overskirt bibs, latex gaskets around the neck and cuffs, and hoods. The materials used are also more advanced than what’s used to make wetsuits, so that means drysuits tend to be more expensive in comparison.
Note: there’s a common misconception that if water does fill your drysuit, you will sink. That’s not true as the water is no denser inside the suit than out; it does make it more difficult to swim, of course.
What’s the Right Choice for You?
Now that you understand the differences between a drysuit and a wetsuit, choosing the right option boils down to a few things with your needs being priority number one.
Here are a couple of items to consider when making your purchase:
- Your Budget – drysuits can range between $1000 – $2000 depending on brand, features, and the materials used in construction. Accordingly, wetsuits are slightly less expensive costing between $500 – $1200
- Your Comfort – like PFD’s, if the suit is uncomfortable to wear and limits your ability to paddle, it’s unlikely you’ll wear it. Being comfortable is subjective and different for us all, so it’s important to try on both a drysuit and a wetsuit, not only for sizing, but to see how one feels being worn versus the other
- Your Paddling – when, where, and for how long are all factors that play a role in determining your best option. For instance, drysuits are a better choice when paddling extreme environments (like paddling around icebergs) for extended periods of time, while wetsuits are more suited for SUP surfing where mobility is important.
As you can imagine, there are paddlers out there who own both a drysuit and a wetsuit, and they wear the one that is ideal for the type of paddling they’re doing on any given day. That’s not feasible for everybody, of course, so it’s important to choose the one that is best for the type of adventures you do most often.
At Frontenac Outfitters, we carry both drysuits and wetsuits, and we provide free test paddling everyday of the week. If you’re interested in trying the different suits available, we invite you to come visit us and Experience the Freedom of Performance.
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