EXPERT: Camille Warren
Bio: Though she has been playing in water since she was 9 months old, she did not begin paddling until, with her children, she took a tandem whitewater canoeing class through the Chapel Hill YMCA when they were in junior high. She is now passing on her love of paddling to her grandchildren.
Topic: Cold Water Paddling Gear and Women: things you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask
“Drysuit features and usability have come a long way since I first started paddling. And we now have the advantage of the internet where it is possible to find specific and detailed information about every imaginable topic. Twenty years ago information was limited to what I could get from other paddlers’ comments, observations of others’ drysuits, and an occasional visit to a paddling store that was quite a few hours away. Today one can find plenty of information on the web about drysuits and other cold water paddling gear – different types for different sports, various features, maintenance and repair. You can also find some practical information about getting in and out of a suit, keeping the zippers well lubricated so they are easier to operate and so on. This is general information pertinent to men and women alike. If personal issues are addressed at all, it is only obliquely and briefly with references to the “relief zipper” as one of the features. Well, let me tell you - the fact that one can get a drysuit with such a thing as a relief zipper doesn’t come close to answering the question one of my fellow paddlers whispered to me at one of our recent club meetings: “What do you do when you have to ‘go’?”
I first pondered that question over 20 years ago during my whitewater paddling days when I wanted to extend my paddling season into colder weather and water. As I considered what to buy I envisioned being stopped on a small rock outcropping by a river with a bunch of fellow paddlers, mostly guys, limited space with little or no privacy, and an excruciatingly full bladder that wasn’t going to wait until we reached the takeout. I am not overly modest, but I just couldn’t see myself peeling my drysuit and other layers down to my thighs so I could “go”. In addition there is the problem of getting chilled. One gets hot and sweaty inside a drysuit. Peeling off protective layers, especially when windy, could result in significant cooling.
My solution at that time was neoprene wetsuit pants with no bib (i.e.only to the waist, and not a farmer Jane) and a dry top with thermal layering underneath. At least with that combination I could pull down the pants and would only have to bare my behind. With everyone looking the other way, my behind facing the opposite direction, and with a skirt to hide behind having to “go” became doable, if not exactly private.
Fast forward to 15 years later. I sign up for some classes that will result in extended periods of time in the water practicing rescues, etc. I decided the wet suit pants – dry top combo would not be enough and I would need a drysuit. I was delighted to find drysuits made specifically for women and that I could even get an extra XL short. Even better, they make them with back relief zippers. That should make having to “go” simple. I merrily traipse off to my class with my new drysuit thinking I am all set. I couldn’t find an XL short union suit so I decided to use thermal tops and bottoms I already had.
Then comes the first day I use the suit and have to “go”. I sneak off behind some trees. Getting the zipper unzipped by myself was next to impossible and reaching through the unzipped relief opening from behind and then up inside the drysuit to pull down the thermal pants wasn’t much easier. But at least now I could finally “go”. After that I was not able to get the thermal pants all the way back up in the front and the top all the way down and properly situated leaving the layers in the wrong place and bunched up uncomfortably. I was unable to pull the zipper back up and had to call one of the women in the group to come zip it up for me. The bunched up layers were so uncomfortable so I ended up going further back behind more trees, opening the entry zipper and pulling my head and arms out so I could get the top and bottom layers back in place. Of course then I had to get back in the suit and zip it back up. It would have been easier to have done that in the first place. Clearly two piece layering does not work well if you plan to use a drysuit with a drop seat relief zipper. I also learned that keeping the zippers lubricated and freely moving is essential. Needless to say, I rarely used the drysuit, sticking to my tried and true wet suit pants – dry top combo for all but the most frigid situations.
Fortunately union suits have come a long way as well. The new hi tech fabrics are very warm, light weight, soft and comfortable on the skin, and stretchy so they mold to the body and move with you without bunching up or binding. I recently bought a union suit with a drop seat to wear under my drysuit which has a back relief zipper. It definitely works much better than the two piece layering. But having a one piece thermal layer with a drop seat does not mean that your troubles are over.
The relief zipper drop seat opening looks HUGE. In practice however, it doesn’t feel very big at all. Until you try it you don’t realize that the circumference of your folded body, torso flattened against thighs, is what has to fit through the relief zipper opening if you are to get your behind far enough out of the suit to “go” without wetting yourself or the inside of the drysuit. Once you have your behind far enough out to “go” without wetting everything your chest is trapped against your thighs by the limited size of the opening and you can’t straighten back up until you are all the way back inside the suit. It is a bit tricky to do. Practice this in the privacy of your own home before you try to do it on a trip lest you require a rescue to get back in your suit and unfold.
Some women opt for getting a front relief zipper and using an F.U.D. (female urinary device). There are several brands out there. As with the back relief zippers, this is not always as simple as it would seem. If you don’t have the thing positioned just right or the rate of flow into the upper part of the device exceeds the rate of flow from the outlet tube, overflow will occur wetting the inside of whatever you have on. Practice using it in the shower to figure out the placement that is going to work for you. Wait until you really really really have to “go” so you can get practice urgently placing the device in the proper position, and to discover whether high flow rates will result in overflow. When shopping for an F.U.D. look for one with a larger capacity funnel.
Some women have made their own funnels from generally available plastic funnels one can find in a variety of stores. Choose one made of soft flexible plastic. Many of these plastics can be heated in boiling water, molded into the desired configuration while hot which is retained when cooled. The plastic can also be trimmed to a shape that fits better. Plastic tubing for the end of the funnel can be obtained from a hardware store and cut to any length you desire.
Relief zippers, drop seats and funnels. So there you have it. All you ever wanted to know about drysuits and what you do when you have to “go”. What a relief.