Do I have to wear a wetsuit?

  • 24 June 2019
  • Sue Bakkila

In May and June we are asked daily if guests really have to wear a wetsuit. Most often, the answer is "yes." We indeed hear the sighs over the phone or in the shop. We understand that wetsuits are not the pinnacle of fashion, they are a pain to take off, and their body-hugging fit can make people body-shape conscious. However, we'd argue it's high time to rethink wetsuits!

The Great Lakes are massive bodies of water and take a long time to warm up after the winter ice has finally melted. This spring, the cold has lingered even longer than normal into May. And June has also been incredibly wet across the entire state (meaning no sunshine/thermal energy). Right now it's raining again as Mother Nature tries to break the last high water record of 1986 for lakes Michigan and Huron (measured together since they are connected at the Straits) — and all that new water is cold too! Water temperatures as a result of all this weather are in the 50s. Some spots might creep into the 60˚ range, but overall the Great Lakes are still pretty chilly (get out from the near shore, and the temps are still in the upper 40s!!!). Step into the water and most people suddenly realize that even if the air temperature is a pleasant 70˚ and sunny, the water is bone chillingly cold. Wetsuits give our bodies a layer of insulation, not unlike the outer skin of a seal. It protects us from the sun, the wind, and cold water. Remember, us humans are best "suited" to tropical and sub-tropical regions of the earth!

If you were to accidentally capsize your kayak, that wetsuit will suddenly become your best friend. Water will fill in and create a layer between the wetsuit and your body and become an insulating layer through conductive heating. That's why they are called wetsuits! Once that water layer is established, very little additional water will enter the suit because of osmotic pressure (science!). Therefore you body is not losing heat continually warming new water. And you can now stay in the water for a much longer period of time. This time allows your guide to help you get back into your kayak and back to the fun of paddling. (And paddling will further warm you up.)

In kayaking, the rule of thumb is to dress adequately for being 15 minutes in the water. Even on a sunny day, if water temps are chilly (below 60˚), that wetsuit will make the difference between being safe and comfortable in the water or risk developing hypothermia. As commercial operators, we err on the side of safety every time. And making these decisions is why we are a trusted guide service — we are looking out for your best interests even when you think the water looks fine based on warm air temps.

And the irony is that often when a tour is done and people take off their wetsuits, they are amazed at how cozy and comfortable the wetsuit kept them as they stand shivering on the beach in their shorts and t-shirts! Outfitters, like your Mom when you were a kid, often really do know best :-)

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