Welcome to my guide of the best wetsuits for kayak fishing, or at least what I consider to be the best from the suits I have tried. There are hundreds of wetsuits on the market, so there are certainly a few models I have overlooked.
The wetsuits I list below are the ones I like, which I feel work well and are suitable for colder paddling conditions. Before deciding on a wetsuit, I feel it is important to highlight the following three points.
- Some people feel the cold more than others. What is a warm suit for one paddler, might be a cold suit for another. So if you feel the cold, I suggest going for a thicker suit.
- Winters vary widely in temperature. If you live in an area with extremely cold winters, you will need to wear a warmer suit than someone who lives in an area with a mild winter.
- Finally. It is always important to dress according to the water temperature more so than the air temperature. In the spring, the water can be a lot colder than the air temperature. So keep this in mind before gearing up.
In case you capsize your wetsuit must be warm enough to keep you warm while in the water.
I need to make this crystal clear. The number one purpose of a wetsuit when winter paddling is to keep you warm after capsizing. If you do not have a rock solid remount, then practice until you do. Ideally, you should be back on the kayak, and out of the water in under a minute.
Remounting a kayak is tiring work, and the cold water drains energy fast. You want to spend as little time as possible in the water. Once, back on the kayak, I suggest paddling as fast as you can back to your car to change into warm clothes. Paddling fast generates body heat and can help warm you up.
If you are paddling a sit-inside kayak. Then know how to roll. If you can,t roll, you are likely to spend a lot longer in the water. So in many ways, a thicker wetsuit is required while paddling a sit inside kayak than a sit on top kayak.
How thick should my wetsuit be for winter fishing?
This is quite difficult to answer.
For protection against cold water, say below 55f really requires a 5mm wetsuit or thicker, but such a thick wetsuit is not comfortable to sit around and paddle in. If you can not remount then stay off the water in winter. If you are forced to swim in water colder than 45f then 7mm might be required but they are very restrictive to paddle in.
I usually wear a 3mm wetsuit until the river freezes over. But I do so with the knowledge I can remount quickly and efficiently. I am in the water for less than 30 seconds.
I often insulate the wetsuit further by wearing thermal clothing underneath and a thick woolen jersey over top. I also wear woolen socks inside my neoprene booties. This combination works for me because I know my wetsuit is warm enough for a few minutes in the water. Plus my other clothing maintains some warmth even when wet.
On the other hand, for anyone not confident in remounting I suggest staying very close to shore and wearing a thicker suit. Maybe even 5mm, just to give that much more warmth.
Over winter I spearfish in a 5mm two piece wetsuit (but with a 10mm overlap in the torso) and can spend over an hour in the water before I start to feel a bit cold. The sea water temperature is usually around 48f.
In water colder than 48f and close to freezing. You really need a 7mm or even 9mm for protection against prolonged exposure to the water. But they are extremely restrictive out of the water. If you can not remount quickly and efficiently, I suggest staying off the water.
Cheapest – ZCCO Ultra Stretch 3mm
This is an inexpensive Chinese made wetsuit that gets a lot right, but a few things wrong.
It is very cheap. It is made from 3mm neoprene which I feel is the bare minimum for winter use. I can stay warm when actively paddling (Temperatures around 32f, 0c), but I do cool down if just sitting around. When I want to seat and fish, I usually wear additional layers over top.
I have no complaints about the quality of the Neoprene, it has a lot of stretch which is beneficial for kayaking or just moving around in general. The seams are not fully taped, eventually, water does ooze through them but is not a big issue when paddling. This is more an issue for surfers and swimmers because they are in the water all of the time.
The front zipper is a double edged sword. You can unzip it while out on the water to help ventilate the suit, but at the same time the zipper has zero stretch which can impede one’s ability to fully rotate in the stroke. If you are a kayaker, who is using a lot of upper body rotation, this might be a deal breaker. But, if you are paddling mostly with your arms or pedaling then it is unlikely to be an issue.
There are also zippers at the wrists and ankles. Honestly, they don,t really do much. Making the website slightly easier to put on and take off. There is also a small section of smooth ‘skin neoprene’ around the neck, wrist, and ankles. Again, it does not seem to do much. This smooth skin neoprene is not open cell, it does not stick to the skin to slow water intrusion. I guess it might provide a little comfort.
For the money, it is a good suit, but in quite a few ways you get what you pay for. Overall, It works perfectly fine for kayaking. When it is very cold, I like to wear additional layers over top.
Best Value – ZCCO 3mm Premium
This is the second Zcco wetsuit on this list, it is actually my main wetsuit for winter paddling. It does a great job keeping my core warm while I am moving. The neoprene is thick enough to block a light breeze but windchill eventually gets through.
I can get in a full body paddle rotation while wearing this wetsuit. I do paddle slower over winter, but I blame the extremely cold air rather than the suit.
This was my personal kayaking wetsuit all of last winter, and it got cold enough for my local river to freeze over. The wetsuit kept me warm when I was moving. When I got back to the car and was standing around I quickly become cold.
Like all wetsuits on this list, if I wanted to go winter fishing, I had to wear additional layers on top to trap in more heat. Neoprene alone is not warm enough to be stationary on a cold winter day.
Let’s talk more about this suit. It uses a traditional back zipper. Like all back zipper wetsuits it can be a bit of a pain to put on, and I certainly can not put it on while standing in snow at the river bank. I will freeze. I put it on, and take it off in the warmth of my home.
Like the Zecco ultrastrech wetsuit above, it also features ‘Smooth skin neoprene’ seals around any opening in the suit. Again it does not seem to do much. No pointless ankle zippers this time.
The internal seams are not tapped, but it has never been an issue. It uses a very heavy duty zipper which again has been reliable.
Overall, it is a good affordable wetsuit that serves me well for winter paddles.
Best Value – O’Neill Men’s Epic 4/3mm Back Zip Full Wetsuit
Spending a little extra money can get a much better wetsuit. This is the case with the O’Neill Men’s Epic. It is a very nice and comfortable wetsuit ideal for cold weather kayaking. It might sound strange, but I actually prefer kayaking in surfing wetsuits rather than traditional kayaking wetsuits. The reason is simple, stretchiness, and flexibility. To swim out to the break surfers, need more arm rotation than kayakers, and surfing wetsuits provide that. Any wetsuit which is flexible enough for surfing is going to flexible enough for paddling.
This wetsuit is warmer than the cheaper ZCCO, partly because the torso is made from 4mm rather than 3mm neoprene but also due to several key differences. The seams are blind Stitched then tripled glued, making for a much more watertight fit.
There is also a large, windproof section on the torso that helps block the wind, it does make the wetsuit feel a lot warmer in breezy conditions. Although life jackets cover the same area, so they also block a lot of wind. Still, a nice feature to have.
It is a better wetsuit, which will keep you warmer for longer than the Zcco. But, It is still just a 4/3mm wetsuit, if you planning on drifting around fishing in cold weather, additional layers of insulation are still required to stay warm.
Leg & Torso – NRS Men’s 3.0 Farmer John Wetsuit
This is the first farmer john style wetsuit on the list. Farmer John style wetsuits cover the legs and the torso while leaving the arms bare. They allow for maximum arm movement while paddling (It honestly does not change much).
When winter fishing or paddling in a Farmer John style suit, you will need to wear a jacket on the top. Most paddlers combine them with a semi-dry top. They can then layer on insulation underneath. This allows them to remove layers as they get too hot, and in theory, add layers if they get too cold. It is a very versatile system.
The NRS Men’s 3.0 is a kayaking wetsuit, it has a long front double zipper that is easy to open to allow for ventilation if used during warmer weather. The bottom zipper can be opened to go to the toilet. It really is a good design, especially if you are spending the day on the water.
The long front zipper, is also a possible point of water intrusion, so it is not quite as warm as an equivalent wetsuit with a smaller zipper. That is the price of convenience.
If the NRS Farmer John wetsuit is not a good fit, then the Kokatat Neozip seems like a good alternative. Normally slightly cheaper to.
Best For Mild Winters – Sharkskin Chillproof
Check price on amazon top/pants
Sharkskin chillproof is made from a neoprene alternative. I might sound a bit negative at the start of this review, but I actually really like it. Sometimes I wear it inside my Neoprene suits for extra warmth.
The product descriptions explain the technical details but it is basically made from three layers of synthetic materials. The inner layer is fleece which feels soft and warm but does trap the sweat and become saturated after paddling hard. The next layer is windrproof and is meant to be breathable, and the outer layer is a durable hard wearing shell. So basically a windrproof, water repellent fleece.
Their marketing claims that it provides the thermal properties of a 2.5 to 3mm neoprene wetsuit. Well, I rate shark skin products highly and have worn chillproof for years. But there is no way that Sharkskin chillproof is anywhere near as warm as 3mm neoprene. If I had to give a figure, I say it is more like 1mm neoprene and it certainly does not keep you warm for long in the water. I have experienced it.
When I use to live in New Zealand, it is what I wore all winter when actively paddling. It kept me warm unless there was serious windchill. But, New Zealand has very mild winters, I never saw ice on the rivers. Up here in the Northern Hemisphere, the winters are much colder. Sharkskin alone is not sufficient. Here I wear it in the Spring, Fall, and as a base layer beneath my wetsuit. In these situations, it excels.
I also use to wear my sharkskin when fishing at night during the summer. It is versatile enough to be warm during the winter but breathable enough to wear on a cool summer evening.
The build quality is very good. All of my sharkskin pieces are made in Australia which might go some way to explain why it costs so much. But I feel it is worthwhile. Sharkskin is very comfortable to wear, and because it is fleece lined it is very easy to take on and off and feels great next to the skin. It is expensive, but it a quality product.
I use to paddle three times a week, and cover about 25 miles in that time. Sharkskin chillproof was durable enough to last me a whole winter season. Then the following year I will wear it on slightly warmer days. So I could easily get a good two years out of a top despite heavy use. The durability is quite impressive.
Maybe best of all. Sharkskin chill proof is fully machine washable. Although, I usually just hose it down before drip drying.
Most Comfortable – Synergy Triathlon Wetsuit
This is a triathlon wetsuit, so it is designed for swimming. So it is very flexible allowing for a full range of movements. I am not aware of any wetsuit which are more flexible than ones designed for triathlon. It should go without saying, but it features full sealed seams.
The reason, I like this Synergy suit is that some of the panels are up to 5mm thick. (While, others, like under the armpits are only 2mm). So in areas where it needs to be flexible, it is thin, but it is also thick in areas that need to be kept warm. Now, on average, it is not going to be quite as warm as an equivalent surfing wetsuit.
This wetsuit also features an outer layer of smooth skin which is designed to block the wind. Cutting out the wind chill helps keep the suit warmer for longer.
Now, this wetsuit is not perfect for kayaking. While smooth skin blocks the wind, it is not the most durable of materials. I will expect this wetsuit to fail before some of the cheaper ones above.
I also find smooth skin to feel a bit sticky, which can reduce the body rotation when paddling. Although, to be honest. Few of us in fishing kayaks use a proper rotation when paddling so I doubt that will be much of an issue.
Spearfishing / Free diving wetsuits.
I feel the need to discuss wetsuits designed for free diving. These wetsuits typically feature two parts construction. A farmer john style bottom, and a full jacket top. Over the torso the wetsuit is twice the normal thickness.
These wetsuits, are also typically made out of open cell neoprene. That means there is no internal liner, the material really sticks to the skin making for an excellent seal. There is no warmer wetsuit on the market. But, there is always a downside. Open cell neoprene is less durable, easier to scratch, easier to tear, easier to damage. The life expectancy is nearly always shorter.
It is also very sticky. Open cell wetsuits are almost impossible to put on without some type of lubricant. This means, they are difficult to put on and take off. I always struggle to get out of mine.
So, how do they perform on the water? Well, they are certainly warm. But because the neoprene sticks to the skin, I find they are quite restrictive to paddle in. It is possible, and I certainly have down many miles in mine but it is less enjoyable.
When I do paddle, I typically only use the long john section and leave the jacket at home. I also find it very hard to paddle in a wetsuit with an included hood, and in my experience. All spearfishing wetsuits for colder water come with an integrated hood. I have owned several, and they work well in the water, but they are certainly not my choice for a paddling wetsuit.