JF Marleau is a professional kayak instructor, sea kayak guide and kayak fishing guide for SKILS
Photos: courtesy of Kokatat Watersports Wear
When someone asks me what my favorite piece of kayaking equipment is, I respond without hesitation, my Gore-TEX Kokatat Whirlpool bibs. I use my bibs constantly; not only for kayaking, but also when kayak fishing, waterfowl hunting, ice fishing, fly fishing, or even just mucking about in any wet environment.
I work as a kayak guide in the Pacific Northwest all year round. My Kokatat bibs protect me against the cool water, wind and rain I so commonly work in, helping me to stay warmer, dryer and much happier. As a result my energy level is much higher which allows me to put more effort into my work. I cannot believe I used to work without my bibs! Pre bibs I wore regular paddling pants that kept me rather cold and wet. Just thinking about surf launching or landing myself and my clients, in cold water, in those paddling pants, makes me shiver! I wish I had known about bibs when I started guiding in 1998 as my life would have been much more enjoyable. While Kokatat bibs can be more expensive than other brands, you get what you pay for and these bibs are worth every penny. Speaking from experience, the cheaper option often costs you more in the end – I recommend you make the investment in this crucial piece of gear from the start.
By now I hope I have convinced you that the Kokatat bibs are a fantastic tool which will keep you warm and dry while kayak touring. But wait! Bibs are more than just a tool, they are a multi-tool. Bibs are like the Swiss Army Knife of kayak clothing, with several functions to offer. As an outdoor addict, I love things that serve more than one purpose. Pair bibs with a paddling jacket and you have fantastic raingear; pair them with a drytop, and they become a drysuit.
Kokatat bibs have a neoprene overskirt that work with most double-tunnel drytops to make a seal and become a versatile two-piece drysuit system. As long as the bib’s overskirt is folded correctly with the double tunnel on your drytop, you will remain almost as dry as you do in a regular drysuit. The way you fold it is very important. This system works best when you us a sprayskirt with a neoprene tunnel to help hold tight the seal made between your bibs and drytop. Pressure from your PFD also adds security to keep the seal in place. I have performed short swims and immersions for up to 10 minutes and remained dry. The long-term waterproofness remains to be tested, and during extended immersion period with intense physical activity, the seal could progressively weaken, but for quick dunks this combo works.
When I paddle in conditions with warm air but cold water, and my risk of capsizing is low to moderate, I simply wear my bibs. The pressure of my tight neoprene sprayskirt tunnel and my PFD against my torso provide an adequate enough seal to prevent much water from seeping into my bibs in the event of an unexpected capsize. Contrary to popular belief, I will not sink if my bibs fill completely with water, as water is neutrally buoyant. However, my dexterity will be impacted.
The Kokatat bibs and dry top system is suitable for most paddling conditions the average paddler faces. Paddling in a drysuit is often overkill, especially when air temperatures are warm and your chances of capsizing are very slim. Hyperthermia, or overheating in your drysuit, affects your comfort level and paddling performance just as much as hypothermia or being too cold can. Buying a combination of bib pants and drytop is usually cheaper than buying a drysuit and provides you more versatility to adapt to different type of paddling conditions.
Another function of the bibs is to use them as waders for ice fishing, fly fishing or waterfowl hunting. For each of these activities layering underneath is required to keep you warm, but the bibs will keep you dry. I like to carry a waist pack when participating in each of these activities, and the belt of the waist pack provides some level of protection against my bibs filling with water in the event that I fall in the water or step into water too deep for my bibs. Finally, I like to use my bibs while kayak fishing where I frequently have to get in and out of the boat. The bibs also function as an easily washable armor against blood, slime and bad smell.
The Kokatat whirlpool bibs are made in two different fabrics: Gore-TEX and the Hydrus 3L (3 layers). I myself have only used the Gore-TEX version. Gore-TEX is a well known, proven and reliable waterproof breathable fabric. The Gore-TEX bibs come standard in black with a relief zipper and integrated dry socks.
The Hydrus3L bibs are a cheaper option. Hydrus 3L is Kokatat's proprietary waterproof/breathable
Both the Gore-TEX and the Hydrus 3L bibs come with the following features:
· Suspenders that keep them in the place,
· Reinforcements on the back and knees so they can withstand a lot of abuse,
· A pocket on the chest that is handy for keys, cell phone, wallet, etc. which is accessible while wearing most modern PFD’s. (I often go kayak fishing during business hours and I use the chest pocket for my smart phone. I can answer the phone or return important emails while kayak fishing),
· A relief zipper so you do not have to undress every time nature calls.
The relief zipper in the men’s bibs is naturally located on the front while the relief zipper in the women’s bibs is a drop down rainbow shape zipper. A word of caution here ladies - try out bibs or a drysuit with the drop down rainbow shape zipper in your own kayak (s) before purchasing to make sure it is comfortable. Some kayak seats and some hip shapes are not compatible with the drop down rainbow shape zipper, which can result in a lot of discomfort. In such a case consider using the men’s relief zipper in combination with an urination device (like the she-wee or go girl).
Bibs come in different sizes and can accommodate most body shapes, however, Kokatat also offers the option to special order customized bibs and drysuits. Ask and they shall deliver.
Care and maintenance
Take care of your gear and your gear will take care of you. Kokatat provides ample information about how to care for their products, and yet Kokatat gear actually requires very little maintenance. Make sure you rinse your bibs after using them, especially if you are wearing them in salt water. Occasionally your zippers will benefit from being lubricated with a light coat of paraffin, beeswax or other zipper lube product. I feel the most vulnerable part of the Gore-TEX bib is the feet. To protect them I wear appropriate footwear, depending the activity I am doing. This both avoids damage to the dry socks and keeps my feet warm. The footwear combos I use include;
· - A combo of booties and neoprene socks when I am kayak touring or kayak fishing,
· - A combo of an old oversize pairs of running shoes and neoprene socks when I am kayak touring,
· - Felt boots when I am fly fishing,
· - Muck boots when I am ice fishing or waterfowl hunting.
The Kokatat Gore-TEX whirlpool bibs are a cost effective solution for anyone looking to stay warm and dry. My Gore-TEX bibs have been reliable, sturdy and comfortable in all seasons and for numerous different water sports and activities. Considering the amount I have used them, the price I paid is well worth it – they are a great investment. They are probably the most envied piece of gear by my paddling companions. I think Kokatat bibs are a must have for avid paddlers in cold water environment as they will extend your paddling season, comfort and happiness.