Wetsuits keep you warm by trapping a thin layer of water between your skin and the inside of the wetsuit. Your body heat warms this water, and since the water does not move much or get mixed with the outside water, it stays warm. Wetsuits do allow some water to escape from the inside of the suit, so if you are submerged, sometimes you can feel some cold water getting in, particularly if you move around a lot, or if the wetsuit does not fit snugly.
Wetsuits also come in different thicknesses, with thicker wetsuits providing more insulation than thinner ones. A thinner wetsuit may be about 3mm thick, while the thickest ones are around 5-7 mm thick. Wetsuits may also have different thicknesses for different parts of the body. For example, a 3mm wetsuit typically has arms and legs that are only 2mm thick, to allow for more mobility. When deciding how thick your wetsuit should be, consider the following:
- How cold is the water where you will be paddling? The thinnest wetsuits may be suitable for water that is a little colder than what you could swim in without a wetsuit, while the thick 7mm wetsuits may allow you to swim in 50°F cold water. Of course this depends heavily on other factors like your tolerance for cold, how much you move around, and how long you stay in the water.
- How much mobility do you need? Naturally, it will be easier for you to move around in a thinner wetsuit than a thicker one. In addition, mobility also differs between different wetsuits of the same thickness. You will definitely appreciate increased mobility when paddling, so try moving your arms around if you are testing out a wetsuit to use while kayaking.
- Do you get cold easily? This can also be affected by several factors, including your energy level and how much body fat you have. If you have very little body fat, you may get cold a lot more easily and need a thicker wetsuit. If you get cold very easily you might also consider getting a drysuit instead of a wetsuit.
Types of Wetsuits
There are also a few different types of wetsuits, which differ in how much of the body is covered. Here are some of the major types:
Shorties – These cover the torso and upper thighs, leaving the arms and most of the legs exposed. Shorties are typically used in warmer water, where the exposure protection needed is not that great. Shorties insulate the core of the body, while leaving the arms and legs free to move around.
Farmer Johns – Farmer Johns (which are sometimes called Farmer Janes, for women) provide more coverage of the legs than shorties. Farmer Johns leave the arms exposed, but cover the legs down to the ankles. Farmer Johns can optionally be used with a wetsuit jacket for additional insulation of the upper torso and arms when it is needed.
Steamers – Steamers are full body wetsuits offering the most body coverage. These cover the torso, the legs down to the ankles, and the arms to the wrists.
Don’t forget your other gear! All the pieces in your kayaking outfit, like your PFD and paddle jacket, will have to fit together (which might mean going over your wetsuit). Even though it’s not always practical to try on everything at once, it doesn’t hurt to keep this in mind.