In my last post, I stressed the dangers and risks associated with paddling in cold water. I hope that no one feels like a am being an elitist, “holier than thou” kind of kayaker when I tell people that they shouldn’t be out on really cold water without wearing a drysuit. My intent is to make sure that every paddler comes home safely from trips on cold water. Unfortunately, I was reading a news article this morning about a 65-year-old kayaker who is missing and presumed drowned on the Connecticut River out east. It is unknown at this time what the person was wearing and what the circumstances of the drowning might be. Let’s just say that I won’t be surprised if I find out that he was not wearing a drysuit. While it is certainly possible that what he was wearing had little or nothing to do with the accident, staying reasonably warm once you find yourself in the water can make all the difference in whether or not you are able to make it out safely.
Enough on the warnings. If you have heeded my advice and have a drysuit, the next question becomes how to best protect and prolong the life of your investment. Your drysuit can easily last 10 years or more even if you use it alot like I do. Make sure to keep plenty of 303 Protectant on hand and use it regularly on the inside and outside of all your gaskets to protect the laytex rubber from UV light and degradation caused by skin oils and things like sunscreen and bug spray. As much as possible, avoid getting these substances on your drysuit as they will weaken the rubber of the gaskets and damage the durable water repellent (DWR) finish.
It is best to avoid laundering your drysuit as much as possible. If you paddle in saltwater, you should give your suit a good rinse in freshwater after every trip. I like to turn my suit inside out and let it air out as it is drying. Do not dry the suit in the sun. UV light is especially hard on the gaskets, but it is also hard on the fabric and durable water repellent finish on the exterior of the suit. After the inside is dried out, I turn mine back rightside out to let the outside dry. If you have an older non-breathable coated nylon suit, it is especially important that you turn the suit inside out as there is not way for the moisture inside the suit to dry out and you will likely end up with mildew growing inside your suit. Besides being gross, mildew will destroy the waterproof coating on the inside of the fabric rendering the drysuit pretty much useless. Once your suit is dry, it should be loosely rolled up and placed into a bag, duffel, or bin where it won’t be creased or abraided. It is not a good idea to fold your suit as you will be more likely to develop leaks along any creases in the fabric or the laytex gaskets. Every so often, maybe once a year, it may become necessary to do a gentle laundering of your suit. This should be done by hand using a mild soap specifically designed for drysuits or Gore-tex rainwear. Rinse the suit in fresh water and allow to air dry out of the sun.
However, despite your best efforts, the gaskets on your suit are unlikely to last as long as the suit itself. You need to be prepared to have gaskets replaced perhaps several times during the life of your suit. This is one of the reasons that I like having sewn-in socks on my suit. It eliminates two gaskets that will need replacing. On my 12-year old suit, I am on my third neck gasket. It tore last year and will need replacing, but I was able to do a repair that has been holding out pretty well, so I have been putting off the replacement for the time being. I have yet to replace my wrist gaskets, but that is partly because my hands and wrists are so skinny that I barely have to stretch the gaskets to get my hands through. When it comes to gasket replacement, I have an advantage that most people don’t have. I have 3 drysuits, so I can afford to wait until my gaskets tear before doing a replacement. I just carry a spare drysuit with me just in case. If you only have one suit, you will want to do periodic inspections of the gaskets to determine if a gasket is developing dry rot or other weak spots before you find yourself at a put-in with a torn gasket and a useless drysuit. I recommend that you watch the YouTube videos by Amigos Drysuit Repair. They have an excellent video on inspecting gaskets to determine when replacement is needed. When you do need to replace a gasket, you can either send it back to your manufacturer or to one of several good drysuit repair/gasket replacement companies like “Amigos”. You can also do your own gasket replacements. Kokatat has an excellent website with instructions on how to do repairs on the neck, wrist, and ankle gaskets as well as good information on drysuit use and care. I have done several neck gasket replacements using the instructions from their website.
When you first get your drysuit, you may find the gaskets to be too tight and restrictive. While it is OK to trim a gasket, if this is your first drysuit, I would caution you to take a more conservative approach before attacking your gaskets with a scissors. Since very few of our regular garments have waterproof gaskets, it is possible that you may only think the gasket is too tight because it is an unfamiliar sensation. Using 303 Protectant can help make the gasket easier to pull over your head, hands, or feet by making the laytex more slippery. Put your suit on and wear it around for a little while. Maybe sit and check your e-mail for 20 minutes. As you become accustomed to the suit, the gasket may not feel so tight. If your face is turning red or you are having difficulty breathing, take the suit off and next try stretching the gasket over a bowl, ball, or food can. Leave the gasket stretched overnight and see if that takes care of the fit. If the gasket is still too tight, you can use the concentric rings found around the opening in the gasket as a guide to trim it back. Trim only a very little bit of the gasket at a time with a sharp scissors. Try on the gasket before trimming any more. Remember that if you trim too much, your gasket is going to leak and you will need to replace an otherwise perfectly good gasket. Amigos Drysuit Repair has a good video on YouTube about trimming gaskets. I suggest that you watch it closely before doing any trimming on your suit.
Drysuits have a waterproof zipper that allows you to get in and out of the suit, but keeps water out when you take a swim. Be careful not to damage the teeth on the zipper, especially during storage. (Another reason not to fold and compress your suit during storage.) It is a good idea to leave your suit unzipped so that you do not compress the teeth on the zipper except when it is in use. You are a little less likely to develop leaks in the zipper that way. Keep sand, dirt, and other grit out of your zipper. I have never had to lubricate the zippers on any of my drysuits, but Kokatat does recommend a light coating of paraffin, beeswax, or zipper lubricant along with a small dab of Vaseline at the closure end of the zipper to improve the seal. Don’t yank or pull on your zipper too agressively and don’t force a jammed zipper.
It is not uncommon to develop tiny pin-hole leaks in your suit over time. Luckily, a few pinhole leaks are nothing to be too concerned about. However, if you notice a small amount of water accumulating in your suit after an extended period of rescue practice in which you have been in the water, it may be time to send your suit in for a pressure test. Kokatat will do this for you if you have purchased a Kokatat Gore-tex drysuit. The leaks can be patched and the suit will be good as new. This is one of the benefits of getting the more expensive Gore-tex suits. To prevent some of the pin-holes from developing, I suggest that you stand on a small rug when getting in and out of your suit at the put-in or take-out. This will help to prolong the life of the socks that are sewn into your suit.
Be aware that moisture inside your suit does not automatically mean that there is a leak somewhere. Kayaking is an active pursuit. You will likely work up a sweat when you are paddling. The perspiration may not be able to exit as quickly as it is being produced. Dampness in the clothing that you are wearing under your suit is most likely from this cause. You can usually test this by putting on your drysuit over dry clothing and then standing in chest deep water for several minutes. If you are not actively doing anything, you shouldn’t be perspiring much. When you take the suit off after getting out of the water, you should find very little dampness inside the suit. Pooling of water in one of your feet is more likely a sign of a leak. Double check that your zipper was pulled completely closed or water can easily leak through near the closure. If the zipper was closed tightly and you still had water accumulating in the suit, you should send it in for a pressure test to a good repair facility.
A drysuit can be a daunting expense for many paddlers, but if you take care of it, it will take good care of you. Averaged over the life of the suit, even a very expensive suit will probably cost you less than $100 per year. When you consider that using a drysuit can safely add anywhere from 2-9 months to your paddling season each year, that doesn’t seem so unreasonable. Add to that the priceless quality of some of the scenery and experiences that you can have on the water in those colder seasons and more northern latitudes where the water never really becomes warm, and it’s hard to imagine not getting a drysuit at some point.