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Drysuit 101
How do these suits work, and should you source them secondhand?

Somewhere I never thought I’d find myself: swimming breaststroke on a windy autumnal day in Brainard Lake, a waterbody 10,000 feet above sea level in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness. In the alpine gusts, orange and yellow aspen trees bent and shimmied. It was goose-bump cold. But in the water, protected by a drysuit, I felt calm, gently pulling myself through the water with each stroke as 13,000-foot peaks loomed above.

A drysuit protects the body against cold water—think of it like a waterproof, thermal onesie. Unlike wetsuits, drysuits prevent water from coming into direct contact with the body, and the air trapped within the suit creates an additional buffer helping prevent body heat from transferring to cold waters—kind of like a sleeping bag uses air between down feathers to prevent body heat loss when sleeping outside. This makes drysuits the best choice for activities in extra-frigid waters, like fly fishing in the winter, paddleboarding in glacial spring runoff, or, like me, taking a dip in an alpine lake well beyond the last days of summer.

Vanessa Fors

While drysuits are the perfect tool for extending your paddling or fishing season into fall, or starting it early in the spring, drysuits can be an I-need-to-save-up-for-this type of expense. That said, it’s important to take care of them properly, so they can last as long as possible. To learn more about drysuits, how to care for them, how to source them secondhand, I connected with Mustang Survival, a premier technical marine gear company based in British Columbia, Canada. Vanessa Fors, product manager and mastermind of Mustang Survival’s new women’s specific apparel and drysuit line, helped answer my questions.

A drysuit is a big-ticket item—for those on a budget, would you recommend buying a second-hand drysuit? 

Vanessa: We’re always a fan of second-hand gear from a sustainability standpoint, but products like drysuits can be tricky to purchase second-hand, as maintenance of the suit is critical to the performance and safety of using the suit. From a safety perspective, it is risky to buy a second-hand dry suit unless you are certain it’s been properly inspected, and leak tested. This is because the safety risk of a dry suit failure can outweigh the perceived monetary savings: a dry suit is often the barrier against hypothermia when things turn for the worst.

While a suit can appear to be pristine to the naked eye on the outside, critical inspection seams can get missed on the inside and degradation could abruptly appear during use, if it’s minor then it could just spoil a day, but if it’s major, it could be dangerous.

A brand new suit manufactured in our waterlife studio in Burnaby, BC goes through at least 20 minutes of inspection, including leak testing at the end of its construction ensuring we don’t ship out anything that doesn’t pass our rigorous quality controls.

Woman paddling showing Mustang Helix Dry Suit

Mustang Helix Dry Suite Image Courtesy of Mustang Survival

If so, how would you evaluate a previously owned dry suit? What parts of the suit would you examine, what would you look for, and how would you assess its shape before buying? 

  • First and foremost – no holes, no rips, no tears, not even tiny ones. These will allow water to leak in. Even a pin prick, invisible to the naked eye will quickly become known the second you enter the water.
  • Check that all the seams are still intact and sealed (no seam tape peeling, cracking or drying out)
  • Check that the main body fabric is not delaminating – this looks like little wrinkles in the fabric, but is the membrane coming away from the face fabric and impedes the performance and waterproofness.
  • If the fabric color looks faded, then the piece may have UV damage. This means degradation has occurred, shortening the life of the garment.
  • Check for dirt and oil stains as these will impede the performance of the waterproof fabric.
  • If the suit has latex neck and wrist seals, check there are no nicks in the latex and check they have not been cut to a size that is larger than your own neck and wrists. Latex relaxes after use and you want the seals to fit you tightly, almost uncomfortably, but not so tight that your circulation is impeded. Loose latex seals let water in quickly and are equally as dangerous as fabric or seam damage.
  • Finally and most importantly, you should test the dry suit in safe water conditions (like a swimming pool), to make sure there are no leaks.
Woman paddling showing Mustang Helix Dry Suit

Image Courtesy of Mustang Survival

How do you take care of a drysuit? If properly taken care of, how long should a drysuit last?

  • Your drysuit should be rinsed with fresh water after each use, especially any latex on the suit so oils don’t build up.
  • Make sure your suit dries properly before storing it. Store in a cool, dry place to avoid molds and mildews.
  • Do not store your suit where it can be exposed to sun. UV rays can damage the fabrics and cause it to dry out, crack or fade.
  • The waterproof zippers will need regular inspection and maintenance by removing dirt, salt and sand, then applying a zipper lubricant on the teeth to ensure it lasts.
  • When properly taken care of and depending on the initial quality of your drysuit, there’s no reason your drysuit can’t last at least 10 years.

To help get you started with your own repairs, Mustang Survival has a series of “rapid repair” videos for drysuits: https://mustangsurvival.com/blogs/technology/rapid-repair-technology

My swim in Brainard Lake was to test out Mustang Survival’s new Helix Dry Suit, which debuts to market in March. The launch of the Helix Dry Suit represents Mustang Survival’s decisive step into womens-specific water protection designs. While unisex or male-colorways have existed among drysuit manufacturers for some time, introducing more options for women that aren’t simply “shrunken” or “pink-ed” versions of male suits is a celebratory occasion as the gender gap in water sports closes.

The suit’s ergonomic design makes it insanely easy to pull on and take off, and a variety of layered materials leave you ready to tackle any task at hand, no matter how rugged or cold.

I found the diagonal, waterproof zipper is insanely easy to manage with just one hand, so you can hold your finicky toddler or a beer while getting in and out. The neck seal is smooth to the touch, and the neoprene wrist cuff is made to be trimmed to meet your ideal, unique fit. Contoured knee pads are not only adjustable, but removable, which allows you to narrow or widen the fit, depending on how tight or loose you want the suit around your legs. Same goes for an adjustable internal harness, which ensures the suit stays centered on your body with its weight evenly distributed. Atop the kneepads, across the back of the seat, and along the foot soles is an extra layer of “tough as nails” 500-denier nylon, a fabric near-impossible to rip or tear—so you’ll feel confident kneeling, sitting, or walking on rocky shores or riverbeds. All in all, this suit makes it easy to be both a woman and a cold-water-sports extraordinaire.

Image Courtesy of Mustang Survival

What are the main differences between the gendered drysuits? 

Vanessa: Typically sizing and/or color is the only difference. At Mustang Survival, we are driving change in this approach. We’ve approached gendered drysuits by thinking about how men and women use them differently. For example, our new Helix Women’s Dry Suit that launches in March 2021 gives freedom and mobility in all the places needed for a female paddler, and no extra material in the places you don’t. We engineered for a women’s body and biology, like a helical zipper that makes donning, doffing and taking ‘relief breaks’ a breeze. The fit is also not just “shrunk” from our men’s version. It is designed specifically with a women’s body in mind – accommodating hips, torso and chest.

Image Courtesy of Mustang Survival

With the launch of the women’s line, do you expect to help equalize the currently male-skewed participation rates in water activities like fly-fishing and paddle sports? 

Vanessa: Absolutely! However, we do find that women’s participation in paddlesports and angling is getting closer and closer to 50/50 – go, ladies! The barriers to entry are not as high anymore. More and more people are looking for ways to recreate responsibly and at a social distance, so watersports have become more popular. However, apparel and gear built for women in these arenas hasn’t kept up with the demand, and we are looking to close that gap. Nothing says ‘You don’t belong here’ than a whole section of men’s gear and apparel options. Women belong in fishing, women belong in paddling and thanks to the herculean efforts of Olympic committees, world sailing and other organizations, women are finding their place in sailing. My hope is that more brands see the awesome potential in women and girls and the importance of their inclusion in sport to build confidence and community. We are excited to launch a collection of high-performance apparel pieces that have been inspired by our female athletes and staff, all passionate about their pursuits on the water. Designed by women, for women.

Image Courtesy of Mustang Survival

Drysuits allow folks to recreate on the water, even when temperatures drop. Thoughts on the benefits of extending folks’ access to and connection with nature, especially water?

Vanessa: We’re excited to help extend someone’s paddle or angling season by providing gear to keep them safe and warm while doing it. Seeing our favorite places in a different season can lead to a new appreciation for a location, and the paddling sport itself. We also love to see people get outside, no matter the weather. Paddling in the colder months can mean less people on the water, and more opportunity to enjoy the serenity of nature without the crowds.

Remember, to paddle in colder waters, you will need:

  • A dry suit or wet suit to keep you warm
  • Warm baselayers and midlayers
  • A foam PFD for safety
  • Warm headwear, gloves & boots
  • Knowledge on the waterways you intend to be on. Take the time to learn about your environment & the weather situation before you head out and paddle with a friend, or tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.

As the National Center for Cold Water Safety states, “Cold water preys on the unsuspecting, the unwary, and the careless, but it also lurks offshore, waiting patiently for those with plenty of experience who don’t take it seriously.” For additional cold-water safety tips from Mustang Survival, visit: https://mustangsurvival.com/blogs/blog/cold-water-safety

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Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.