From The GCA Email List:
I am getting into more winter paddling and was wondering what is the best choice for different conditions? Would you wear the Farmer John in cold water/warm air temps?

It depends on several factors and I will try to cover some of them here; the rivers you will be paddling, the temperatures you intend on paddling on and your budget.

First let us look at river location.  If you are paddling remote locations, on rivers that do not have quick and easy access then I recommend a Dry Suit.  Dry suits if maintained give you a much stronger chance of staying dry and keeping you warm.  If you swim say on the Chattoga or the Little River Canoe you will want that warmth because there really is no quick and easy way out.  Also if you must help in a rescue attempt you will want to be able, if necessary, to stand in that water and stay dry and warm for as long as needed.
Tempatures in my mind trump my comments about river location and access.  At certain temperatures I would recommend a dry suite on all rivers or lakes.  Typically on mild winter days say 45 and above if I am on say the metro hooch or something similar I will wear a dry top with fleece under it and hydro skin pants but if the temperature is much lower than that I will move up to the dry suit.  It does not matter what class the river is if you swim when it is cold you will need that protection.  On remote rivers or those with limited access the dry suite temps for me are around 60 -55 degrees and lower; it may be 60 degrees at the top but when you get down into a gorge it could feel like 50.
wetsuit-drysuitIf you want to be able to go out on the coldest of days or to remote locations and stay nice and warm then the dry suit is your best choice but be ready to spend between $500 to $1,200 dollars.  Make sure that when you look to purchase one that you get one that is made of breathable material each company has their own version and some may be better than others.  While the investment at the beginning is high you will be pleased with the purchase for many paddling excursions to come.  If you are looking to get something less expensive then I would suggest a  wet suit or similar product as the base layer and then fleece layers on the top along with a dry top but I think you will find once you add those alacart items you are getting close to the price of an entry level dry suit.
My final comments are it really depends on the rivers and temps you will be paddling in but in my opinion cold temps raise the river class up a level or so.  I purchased my dry suite at the suggestion of a friend that indicated it was just safer for myself and those I paddle with to be as warm as possible on the river in the winter.   Not once have I regreated my decision to invest in the drysuit.  Again this is just my opinion but hope it gives some good insights.

Todd McGinnis
January 8, 2012