As many of you may have seen on social media, I recently received a care package from Supskin Elementary Waterwear (www.supskin.com). I’d been waiting for a package from Starboard bringing me their new All Star Suit, but it hadn’t arrived yet and Wolfgang Otfried Leeb from Supskin had been insisting that I try a Supskin suit so I sent him my measurements and within a couple of days the package arrived containing not one, but three, different SUP specific dry suits.
I should start by explaining that Starboard’s All Star suit is made from the same material as Supskin’s Diablo Elements suit. I’m not sure whether it is exactly the same as the Diablo, but it looks pretty similar and is rated for the same 3-season use. I’m sure mine will arrive any day now and I can do an up close comparison, but I think it’s safe to say that the review I provide for the Supskin Diablo suit can apply to the All Star suit as well.
Xcel 4/3 Dry-lock Wetsuit
Before describing this new generation of dry suits, let’s take a look at the alternative – dry-lock wetsuits. I’ve been paddling in an Xcel 4/3 Dry-lock Wetsuit for the past three or four seasons. I must admit I didn’t make an effort to get out much in winter paddling conditions until this year, but right from the beginning I appreciated a few things about this approach to gear for winter paddling:
It’s not your typical wet suit that water penetrates and flushes through. It truly is dry-lock. There is no trickle of freezing cold water entering the suit and running down your back when you end up immersed in the water. It keeps you dry and that’s awesome.
It’s ridiculously warm. Seriously, even in the coldest conditions I’ve paddled in at -4C with a considerable wind chill on top of that, I’m pretty warm right from the start. The walk to the water may be a little cold (not freezing, just a little cold), but once I’ve been paddling for a minute of two I’m warming up. For a person who absolutely hates being cold like me this is a huge plus.
When you fall in, you can’t feel the water through your suit. The water we paddle in all winter is typically a few degrees above zero Celsius. That’s between 32 and 40F. It’s cold. Yet in these 4/3 suits you have no appreciation for that. If you fall in, you can’t feel it. You’ve got an incredible amount of time in the water if you need it before you’re going to get hypothermic, and that gives you a tremendous sense of confidence about paddling in sub zero temperatures.
The suit makes you a little more buoyant. If you do fall in and get separated from your board this is useful.
You finish your paddle and you’re extremely warm. This means that when you’re changing in the parking lot after paddling, totally exposed to the elements, you’re not really cold no matter how low the temperature is, unless you really take your time changing. This is pretty nice, meaning you get in the car to drive home or for coffee and you aren’t shivering and don’t need the heater cranked. It also means you’re not shivering uncontrollably while trying to tie your board on the roof of your car and your fingers aren’t freezing while trying to fasten the straps.
As with everything else, you’ve got to take some bad with all the good that I’ve just mentioned.
With a 4/3 dry-lock wetsuit, the bad is:
Despite the fact that it is supposed to keep you dry, you’re going to be soaked when you finish. No doubt about it. The water you’re soaked with doesn’t belong to the lake or the ocean you’ve been paddling on. It’s your own. You literally sweat so much that you are going to be soaked from head to toe. I mean drenched. This means there is no choice but to change before driving home, and you’ll need to change everything you’ve had on under the suit.
This sweat is a direct result of the fact that you’re going to overheat if you’re actually trying to paddle and aren’t just surfing. On cold days I’ve enjoyed a 5 to 8 km window in which I feel invincible (unafraid of falling in) and yet am not overheating. By the end of the workout I’m really too hot to paddle hard. On warmer days above freezing I overheat even more quickly. A couple of weeks ago I got so hot I thought I was going to have a stroke. Seriously, I could barely stand up on my board anymore, let alone paddle. This overheating is usually preceded by a discernable river of water (read sweat) running down your legs or arms inside the suit. You absolutely need to rehydrate as soon as you’re back on land as you lose so much fluid paddling.
The suits are heavy and you’ll find, especially when you’re not used to them, that they restrict your motion a little. The more tired and overheated you get the more you notice this. Imagine every movement you make is against a small amount of resistance that isn’t normally there. That’s the experience of paddling in a 4/3 dry-lock wetsuit.
They take a while to dry and require regular washing to prevent them from stinking and harboring bacteria that could cause infection if they come in contact with a cut or open sore. I’ve already gotten an infected finger and toe this year from neoprene gloves and boots. I didn’t even realize I had a cut, the area the bacteria attacked was so small. And I dry my neoprene immediately after paddling and wash everything regularly.
You carry the smell of wet neoprene with you for the rest of the day. I’ve become fairly tolerant of it, but if that bothers you then you better plan on a thorough shower after each paddle.
A 4/3 dry-lock wetsuit gives you an incredible safety margin in cold water. I found that wearing one allows you to paddle totally uninhibited about falling in, which in big water is the best way to paddle to develop your skills. You can just go for it without a care. But it is not without some pretty significant disadvantages, the most notable of which is it’s less than ideal suitability for long endurance paddles.
In my opinion it is the option to wear if you’re going to be in the water a lot, like when you’re surfing or perhaps doing your race training in very big conditions.
Supskin Dry Suits
Many years ago when I was paddling one-man outrigger, I got a dry suit from Kokatat as I thought that would be the best option for cold weather paddling. It was heavy and bulky, the zipper was prehistoric looking and difficult to zip, the fit was horrible and there was a ton of air inside the suit (even after “burping” it) which meant falling in the water inverted was always something I was worried about, and I almost always overheated in it. Once I had the opportunity to try a dry-lock wetsuit I put the dry suit away and never took it out again.
Supskin suits are TOTALLY different. While the concept is the same, the technology and the thought that has gone into these suits makes them totally different and a very appropriate choice for effective cold weather paddling.
The fabric is better than in the old suits. It’s lighter and breathes better but also somehow still manages to keep wind and water out. In fact the material on the suits rated for the lowest temperatures is really technical. I don’t understand exactly how it works, but it is advanced stuff that provides exceptional performance and remarkable climate control inside the suit.
The zipper is not unlike the zipper on any other garment that you’d wear (perhaps slightly heavier guage), yet is totally waterproof and seems really sturdy. The fit is outstanding. You can order a tailor made suit and they ask for a variety of body measurements when you order so they can address any strange body shapes outside of the regular sizes. As I provided measurements when ordering, I assume mine were tailored (or perhaps I am just the ideal extra large sized athlete) because each suit fits me nearly perfectly.
The Diablo Elements, Magic Allround and the Ultimate Classic
The Diablo is a lightweight suit rated for 3-season use down to about freezing (0C or 32F). I used it on a day that was right around freezing with a significant wind chill and was fine, with running tights and a couple of polypropylene tops underneath. Starboard’s All Star suit is made from the same material so has the same 3-season rating. I’m pretty convinced you can push it and use these suits in even lower temperatures by just putting another layer or two on underneath, but with the other suits to test I decided to try them instead.
Although the Diablo doesn’t have any Velcro at the ankles or wrists to tighten cuffs that really isn’t required, as the fit, for me anyway, is perfect. Both arms and legs are sealed from the water by latex gaskets sewn into the sleeves. You can’t see the gaskets from outside the suit, but they do their job well and yet are not uncomfortable. The neck gasket is neoprene and has a Velcro tab to tighten it. I’m told it’s not 100% waterproof and that there may be a trickle of water get through, but I’m pretty confident it would do the trick for most SUP paddlers who fall off their boards.
For the record, I jumped off my board and found I stayed 100% dry, but my shoulders were only under the water for a second. The slim fit not only means that it is more comfortable for paddling but you don’t feel like you’re inside a balloon when you’re in the water. This inspires some confidence that you’re never going to end up inverted struggling to right yourself. And although I felt the chill of the water through the suit, it was just that – a chill. It wasn’t actually “cold” and certainly nowhere near capable of taking your breath away like sub 40F water usually does. That said, even with a sufficient under layer, I wouldn’t want to be in the water for a long time in this suit.
The entire suit weighs a super light 450g (approx. 1 lb.) but feels even lighter than that, and stuffs easily into a small tote bag provided with a shoulder strap for easy carrying.
The Starboard suit has all the features of the Diablo, with the added feature of Velcro adjustments at wrists and ankles.
While I felt it was pretty much the perfect temperature inside the suit while paddling in the Diablo (I was never cold and never overheating), I got much colder as soon as I got off the water. I attribute part of this to the wind where I parked my car, but also to the fact that as I never seriously heated up while paddling I didn’t have a nice “heat reserve” to allow me stand outside and change. If I were paddling in the same conditions in the Diablo again I’d put more on underneath and build up a little more heat inside the suit. I’m pretty confident I still wouldn’t be overheating to the degree I do in a wetsuit.
The Magic is a much heavier suit at 950g (approx. 2 lbs.) but, again, it feels much lighter than that. It is certainly lighter than a neoprene wetsuit by a massive amount. It too stores neatly into the little carrying bag provided. It’s rated for 4-season use so I decided to use that on the coldest day I’ve paddled on this year at -5C with a -13C wind chill. Remembering my lesson from the Diablo regarding the under layer, I decided to add a 1mm neoprene rash guard T-shirt underneath in place of one of the polypropylene tops. I wore the same running tights down below.
This suit is marginally less form fitting than the Diablo but I still wouldn’t call it anything near bulky. It has Velcro tabs to adjust the ankles, wrists and waist so you can sort of tailor it once you’re wearing it. Instead of the zipper being straight up the front from waist to neck, the zip is diagonal across the chest from left hip to right shoulder. I assume this allows the suit to have a much thicker neoprene neck gasket that fits very tight but doesn’t cause any discomfort. In fact it just feels like wearing a comfortable turtleneck. The suit’s outer layer also has a loose turtleneck style collar that is adjustable by drawstring, making it not unlike any ski jacket on the market.
I changed into the suit at home and from the moment I arrived at the water to paddle I was warm on a very cold and windy day. I did my customary for cold weather downwind first, upwind back paddle and was never cold. Not even my toes and fingers, which was amazing. In similar conditions in the dry-lock wetsuit I’ve had a warm core but, for at least part of the paddle, cold toes or fingers. I strongly suspect the fact that I seemed to be at optimal temperature throughout the paddle, helped to keep my fingers and toes at optimal temperature as well. I can’t find another explanation for the fact that my feet didn’t get cold when there was ice forming all over my board, boots and the cuffs of the suit’s legs from the usual splash and spray.
As you’d expect with the Magic being thicker, it means that if you end up off your board, you’ll feel the water temperature even less through the suit than you do in the Diablo. With the more robust neck gasket it is entirely waterproof, even if you end up submerged headfirst.
As with the Diablo, I found this suit to be extremely comfortable to paddle in and it didn’t inhibit my movement in the least. I honestly didn’t expect it to work so perfectly and was a little shocked at what a productive session I was able to have under such harsh conditions.
Finally the last little detail about the Magic that I love is that it has a small waterproof pocket sewn into the inside that is the perfect place for my car keys while paddling.
The Ultimate is similar to the Magic in that it is rated for 4-season use. The neck gasket is a little different in that it’s more like the Diablo’s and the zipper is straight up the front like the Diablo. Like the Magic, it has the Velcro tabs at the wrists, ankles and waist to adjust the fit while you’re wearing it. It also comes with a detachable hood and has a water proof pocket on the right hip with is accessible from outside which is handy.
The big difference in the Ultimate compared to the Magic is the fact that it has “socks” integrated into the suit. I still put my usual merino wool socks on as part of the under layer, and then stuck my feet into by boots. The extra layer represented by the suit’s socks not only means your feet stay dry from outside water even if your boots leak, but it keeps your feet from being exposed to the raunchy neoprene with is a plus for me. It’s also another layer to help keep feet warm in really cold conditions.
The material for the Magic and Ultimate is even more technical than the Diablo and the suits are supposed to help regulate temperature inside the suit meaning that you never overheat and thus have the optimal climate inside the suit throughout your paddle. I don’t understand all the technical aspects, but I can tell you that my experience with them is that they somehow manage to keep you warm in harshly cold conditions without overheating.
However, I still suspect much depends on the under layer you’ve chosen to wear, the intensity and duration of the work that you’re doing and a strong understanding of the temperature your motor runs at. I fully expect as I continue to use these suits that I’ll miss it one day and either wear too little or too much underneath and be either cold or too hot inside the suit.
Pros of a Supskin suit
- They have a great fit and are very comfortable to paddle in; these suits don’t impede or interfere with your normal paddling motion at all.
- They block wind entirely, largely removing the effect of wind chill when it comes to your paddling
- Waterproof fabric and waterproof gaskets at ankles and wrists keep water out. The neck gasket on Magic is totally waterproof and largely waterproof on Diablo, All Star suit and Ultimate.
- If you get the under layer right you are going to be warm without ever overheating. I think you’d really have to overdo the under layer to heat up anywhere near to what you do in a wetsuit. As such they are a much superior option for distance paddling or high-level interval work on a SUP than a wetsuit.
- These suits are much easier to get into and out of than a wetsuit
- They dry exceptionally quickly. I just hang mine up for an hour or so and then stuff it back in the little tote bag that is provided.
- They are easier to travel with and carry around.
- These suits can be tailor made to fit perfectly on difficult to size bodies, and there is a wide range of color options available. Supskin will also crest the suit for you if that is of interest.
- Supskin can repair any suit that is damaged. The only problem with that is you have to get it to them.
The cons, as I see them are few, but here goes:
- If you’re going to be in the water for any length of time I still believe a heavy wetsuit is safer. If I am SUP surfing or out in really big conditions I’d still opt for a dry-lock wetsuit.
- Because they aren’t skin tight like a wetsuit there is an increased chance of catching the fabric on something while you’re wearing it and damaging it.
A Supskin dry suit (or Starboard’s All Star suit) gives you a high level of safety when paddling in cold weather on cold water without much chance of overheating, which seriously affects your ability to complete a long workout. Especially in the Magic or Ultimate, you’ll feel as confident as you do in a wetsuit so you can paddle without inhibition due to the fear of falling off your board, however you will find changing into and out of your suit, drying it and storing it all much more convenient. There’s no question in my mind it is the best cold weather option for those training for SUP racing.
If you’re going to be in the water for any appreciable amount of time I’d still recommend a dry-lock wetsuit for it’s superior ability to keep you warm for extended periods of time while immersed in the water.
Winter paddling can be every bit as fun and productive as summer paddling if you’re wearing the right gear. It’s nice to know that near perfect choices are available whether you’re doing endurance paddling for racing or SUP surfing. So get geared up and get out there and stop missing the fun!
SUPskin Ultimate Suit
1. Ultimate suit showing built in socks, vertical zipper, external waterproof pocket and Velcro adjusters at waist, wrists and ankles
2. Close up of integrated boots/socks
3. Neck detail showing neoprene gasket with Velcro strap and removable hood
4. Rear view showing lumbar tailoring
5. Cresting of your choice available, seen here on shoulder.
1. Three Supskin suits in tote bags
2. Magic suit showing Velcro tabs at wrists, waist and ankle for easy adjusting
3. 1mm neoprene totally waterproof neck gasket
4. Outer “turtlenecks” with drawstring
5. Waterproof diagonal zipper with internal waterproof pocket