Drysuit or Wetsuit for Whitewater SUP?
Paddling rivers means being exposed to cold water and inclement weather. In the Pacific Northwest where I live, some of the best whitewater is found during winter rain cycles on rivers barely warmer than freezing. Snow runoff is when Rocky Mountain states are pumping. Burr. Insulation is a key ingredient for successful whitewater adventures. It's the "I" in what I call the River SUP uniform, S.H.I.P.P.S (shoes, helmet, insulation, PFD, padding, signal devices).
So, what's the better form of insulation, a drysuit or wetsuit? The answer depends on you, your preferences, your paddle style, your aesthetics. I prefer a drysuit in most 3-season conditions (Fall-Winter-Spring). But I paddle with a rare few river runners who swear by wetsuits of various thicknesses in even the coldest rivers on the most fowl days.
I became a better paddler after getting my first drysuit because I could practice falling without fear of being wet and cold. It extended my paddling season.
I spent most of 2017 paddling with a wet suit on rivers. The year prior, I put in over 200 days in a drysuit.
Here are what I consider the main pros and cons.
They are dry, mostly. A new suit intended for full immersion will allow you to stay dry, meaning you could be wearing a cotton T-shirt and board shorts under the suit. I like that. Keep the suit clean, UV protected, and avoid thorny river banks and the suit can remain usable for a long time. Gaskets are replacable.
You control the insulation levels. Wear thick layers or thin depending on the weather, water temps, and excursion levels. Inevitably you will be too warm in the suit and not certain if you are soaking because of sweat or due to water getting in.
Changing in and out of a suit can be entertaining for spectators watching you dance around trying to work the oddly placed shoulder zippers or fight to get your head through the tight neck gasket. Once you have figured out how to change in and out of the suit, you will be much faster than your friends with wetsuits. In theory you can be wearing your street cloths under the suit. Take the suit off, and you are ready to hit the road.
With a drysuit you are protected from bad weather. Wind and rain, no worries. If you are going to paddle long days exposed to the elements, drysuits are a must. On pretty much any multi-day river SUP trip I will bring a drysuit.
Drysuits are buoyant. SUP is a buoyancy sport.
Relief zips built into some suits allow you to pee without taking the suit off. Get a suit that allows for this convenience.
Suits are expensive. A Gore-Tex suit from Sweet and Kokatat are well over a grand. You are getting good technology and materials, warranties, including gasket replacements and water repellent treatments with the price.
Over the life of even the "best" suits water will get in through holes, torn gaskets, and leaking zippers. Be cautious when hiking through prickly vegetation. Rough portages can kill a suit. Kneeling and crawling back on the board create abrasions on knees and elbows. A $500 suit and $1200 suit will be equally wet if the material is torn and leaking.
Suits can be too warm. Sweating in the suits is common, leaving as wet as if you had been flooded. Even Gore-Tex suits won't prevent sweating on a warm day or with heavy paddling.
Drysuits are buoyant, that's a pro and con. There are techniques for bleeding air out of the suit so you don't look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man; however a new suit with tight gaskets will retain air. This can make swimming difficult. If you have to swim to an eddy or go deep to get out of a sticky hole, the drysuit can make those critical situations even more perilous. This is a reason surfers don't wear drysuits nor PFDs in the ocean where safety is often under crashing waves.
Drysuits can be awkward and bulky. Gaskets are often uncomfortable and may need modifications to make them fit better. They can be too tight or too loose. Shoes worn with the suit will be a size or too larger than normal to fit over the suit's fabric booties. You feel like you are wearing a lot of gear. Whitewater SUP is not fair weather paddle boarding in bikinis and board shorts.
If most of the paddling you do means spending as much time in the water as on the board, a wetsuit is a great choice. If river surfing is what you are doing in park & play spots (say, at the Bend whitewater park), you are probably better off in a wetsuit.
Swimming is much easier in a wetsuit than a drysuit. They are less buoyant and bulky meaning swimming to an eddy or escaping holes/waves is easier.
Wetsuits are warm when in the water. Prone surfers can be in the water all day wearing the appropriate thickness.
Wetsuits are generally less expensive than drysuits. Though you can spend hundreds on a good suit with all the bells and whistles (wool lining and environmentally friendly materials), you can get good deals on wetsuits second hand and in the off-season. It's less trying buying a used wetsuit than a drysuit because you can quickly inspect the quality (zippers, holes, etc). A used drysuit may mean you have to invest in expensive gasket repairs and hole patching and yet still be stuck with a leaking suit.
Though warm in the water, wetsuits can suck the warmth out of you when exposed to weather. Even a thick wetsuit will leave you cold and clammy after a long day paddling rivers standing in wind and rain. River paddlers often wear layers over their wetsuits including nylon board shorts, and good coverage PFDs to help prevent wind stealing warmth.
Long days in wetsuits suck. Period. Irritated skin and rashes are likely. I would not recommend prolonged wetsuit use on multi-day river SUP trips.
Wetsuits are a bit more problematic to change in and out of, and take longer to dry on cold days.
You are more likely to pee in your suit than strip out of it. Peeing in a suit is common, and can warm you up temporarily, but isn't ideal.
Neoprene stinks. Dry sweat and urine smells linger in a suit. You may learn to ignore the smell but your friends won't. Getting into a car with stinky wet gear is never pleasant. Neoprene is a lot worse than nylon.
What do I wear?
I have worn many different drysuits. What I have found I like is a suit that is light, with nylon booties, and has comfortable gaskets. Gore-tex suits are great, but I still sweat in them. Expensive suits still get torn and retain water after serious use.
The Stohlquist AMP suit is what I paddle in the most. My first one lasted over four years, maybe 500 days. I still wear it although it is no longer dry. I have ordered a second one, which means it is the only style of suit I have owned more than once. Though it isn't Gore-Tex, it is comfortable and has reinforced knees. It is less expensive than other suits yet offers what I see as equal protection for river paddlers. Relief and chest zippers allow for easy access. Some people like metal zippers. I don't. The AMP zippers are not metal. They are supple and easy to pull. You don't need a skirt tunnel paddle boarding, but the one that comes standard on the AMP is simple and clean, allowing for a slimming fit.
As far as wetsuits, I have only owned one full suit. It's a 2017 hooded Patagonia R4 suit. I like it a lot for the Bend whitewater park where I spend a lot of time. I took it on my recent paddle trip to New Zealand. I like it in the ocean. It looks good, and fits well. The neoprene neck gasket tore on my first wearing, but it was repaired and now is fine.
In the summer I wear neoprene shorts or pants under board shorts, and sometimes an insulated top depending on water temps and ambient conditions. I have found that I stay warmer without neoprene on coldish rivers on hot days. Neoprene does suck warmth out of you like I said above.
Paul Clark SUPPAUL is the "Duffle Bag Paddle Boarder." Athlete, brand ambassador, photographer documenting adventure paddle boarding. Whitewater SUP, river paddle boarding, and adventure travel, based in Bend, OR