Riding in cold water requires some special knowledge and equipment to proceed with safety and comfort. In this new series, we will go over the required equipment, walk you through common gear choices, and provide the necessary knowledge and tricks we have learned to stay safe in that treacherous environment. In this video and blog, we will explore the base of your cold water riding protection, which is your wetsuit or drysuit. This is key because keeping your core warm is the number one priority in order to stay safe and comfortable in the water. Keeping your core warm will help provide warm circulation to the rest of your body and give you the best starting point to avoid serious consequences.
For most people, when you think of water boardsports, you will automatically think wetsuit. They are the most common way to stay warm and can be seen at nearly any beach where surfers, kiteboarders, windsurfers, wing foilers, and the like are found. Even when the air temperature is seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit (24 deg C), you’ll frequently see watersports athletes don a wetsuit. This is because the water temperature is nearly always cooler than the air and will easily lower your body temperature when submerged. The colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit, of course.
That is true in concept, but really wetsuits are primarily for moderate water temperatures. Today’s wetsuit technology and semi-dry suit designs have really changed the game with regard to cold water comfort. The difference between the two is that wetsuits allow for water to flow in and out of the suit in small amounts due to the thinner wetsuit material and basic sewn seams. Semi-dry suits have thicker, higher-quality neoprene that is more water-resistant as well as taped & glued seams, thermal lining, and waterproof seals at the extremities. This really helps trap the warm water and reduces the flow of cold water into the suit. More on this in our future video and blog, “Tips & Tricks for Riding in Cold Water”.
Wetsuits are key for environments where you will have regular submersion in water. If you do not stay wet, the water will eventually drain out and reduce your thermal layer. Combine that with wet neoprene in wind and you will have a cooler riding experience than what you’d prefer. For surfing, you spend a lot of time in the water, so that makes sense and they function really well. Additionally, wetsuits work well for surfing and wave environments because they are very form-fitting, almost a second skin. This allows you to swim and travel through waves and extreme currents with less drag, which generally just makes your life easier and more efficient in those situations. For that reason, in decently-powered waves or larger, we recommend that you use a semi-dry suit rather than a drysuit.
I’ve avoided drysuits for a long time. Having been a surfer my whole life, wetsuits come with that territory. With current wetsuit technology, I was plenty warm on the coldest days, even overheating in a lot of situations. The idea of drysuits just seemed like overkill and less safe in my mind than what I was used to. I should also note that in the past I would only go out for a frosty session if the waves were really good for surfing or kitesurfing. It simply was not worth the trouble and extra rubber for a flatwater session. Foiling has totally changed that mindset; I want to be on the water if it is blowing 5-45 knots, even if the waves are messy or flat. Wing Surfing and my progression in that has only made me more stoked to get out in frigid temperatures.
This fall, I told our Ocean Rodeo rep that I would give drysuits a fair shake and would do a video on my thoughts. So naturally, I've spent a good amount of time in them to get to know them rather than simply posting after my first experience. Long story short… it dispelled a lot of bad information that I had in my head and I got completely HOOKED.
One fact that was confirmed during this test: drysuits are indeed warmer in frigid conditions. This is especially true for kiteboarding, windsurfing, wing surfing, and efoiling because you spend most of your time out of the water exposed to the wind and air.
Wetsuits work best in the water where the water trapped inside your suit can be warmed by your body and the neoprene helps insulate that against the surrounding cold water. However, when exposed to wind, wetsuits can act as a radiator by quickly pulling heat from the wet neoprene. If you are not working hard enough to keep a high core temperature, this will quickly drain your body heat when you cannot keep up. Spending long periods out of the water can also lead to a lack of water inside the suit. Without that thin layer of water inside the suit, your wetsuit is basically just a thin insulating layer and not nearly as warm.
Drysuits are made of a durable nylon fabric similar to your quality snow gear, only waterproof. This blocks the wind and stops the radiator effect, thereby trapping heat more effectively when exposed to air and wind. Because of this, you do not need to maintain as high of a core temperature to stay warm.
The previous paragraph might seem obvious to experienced watermen, but stay with me. Because your core temperature can stay lower, that gives you the opportunity to do a few things.
First, you can take a more relaxed approach to your session. Wetsuits require your core temp to stay high in order to heat the water surrounding you. This works great until you get flushed or relax for too long and get cool. At that point, it is very difficult to warm back up and can result in a dangerous situation if something goes wrong. Drysuits maintain a comfortable temperature even when you are not working hard and regain heat quickly after a cooldown. By cooldown, I mean riding relaxed or just sitting around, not a flush. Drysuits, when used and sized properly, are almost impossible to flush.
Since we are already talking about body temperature, let’s also chat about overheating. The rule of thumb in cold water is to add more rubber. “Better warm than cold” is the common saying around here. That is proper thinking with regard to wetsuits because you need to maintain that body heat. If you do not, it is time to go in or things could get dangerous. I’ve had plenty of surf sessions in subzero conditions that required a brisk run back to my car to avoid hypothermia after getting flushed. There is simply no way to recover from that. Because of going warmer, you tend to overheat in normal situations where you are staying busy and have warm water in your suit. Your body cannot radiate the heat out and it gets uncomfortable and sweaty. Drysuits are unique because they can maintain a moderate temperature really well. When the proper layering is chosen inside the drysuit, you can maintain a comfortable body temperature. If you get a little warm after some hard work, simply sink your body into the water and allow the cool water surrounding you to cool you down a bit while you take a breather. Drysuits will trap a bit of moisture if you get hot and sweaty. Nowadays they do breathe quite well, so that will subside as long as you are not way overdressed or overworking yourself.
Proper layering really allows drysuits to have an impressive functional range. I use the same drysuit in the early fall sixty-degree days as I do in the dead-of-winter sub-zero wind chills by adding or removing layers to suit the air/water temperature and level of activity. Like any activity wear, we recommend that you use synthetic materials or wool rather than cotton. This will wick moisture away from your skin while providing maximum insulation. This really makes the investment work in your favor when compared to owning multiple wetsuits. Additionally, drysuits tend to be more durable, requiring less repair and less frequent replacement.
Drysuits should be easy to move in when sized correctly. They feel like a snow parka and pants rather than a restrictive leotard so they allow your muscles to function without any significant resistance. I was really happy to feel my coldwater arm pump disappear when kiteboarding. Swimming might have slightly more drag in the water than a wetsuit. I would not want to swim for miles in it, but it is not so much that it makes your typical self-rescue difficult.
Be sure to pick the right size that allows for movement because the fabric does not really stretch. If you hug yourself, touch your toes and do some squats you should not feel any significant restriction. If you do, consider jumping up a size or going to a “king” width. The primary size refers mostly to height, while more broad individuals will need to go with the king width. I was surprised that at 6’3” and a 32” waist that my ideal fit is an XXL. Talk to us about sizing if you need help. We are always happy to exchange sizes on new gear at no cost.
I recommend compressing the suit around your body after your slip on your drysuit. To do this, squat down and hug around your legs. Use one hand to vent your neck seal and let out excess air. This will reduce bagginess and improve mobility. Don’t worry, you’ll still have a lot of excess air to aid in floatation when you fall. Even when I push out as much air as I can, I have enough air left in the suit to float chest-high in the water. This is a benefit that I was not expecting to like so much, but receiving a good floatation that does not add bulk to your chest is really nice. I’ve taken some hard falls and my head almost never goes underwater.
I do typically kiteboard with a waist harness, but find that they ride up a bit more than normal with the drysuits. It's not totally necessary, but for that reason, most of the time I go to a seat harness like the Ozone Snowkite Connect Backcountry seat harness. This specific harness works great for drysuits and snow gear because it is really adjustable and allows a full range of motion. I typically ride it a little loose for maximum range of motion and comfort.
If you are looking at getting set up for cold-weather riding, feel free to contact us for a personal recommendation for your situation. We have more than 25 years of experience in frigid temperatures. To stay tuned for the next videos and blogs from this Cold Water series coming soon, be sure to subscribe to our MACkiteboarding YouTube channel.