The buzz among whitewater gear manufacturers is this:women’s participation in whitewater paddle sport is exploding, and the industry is responding to that buzz with attire and gear designed specifically for women. Despite the fact that many products are offered only in unisex sizes,women really do have certain sizing needs.
Unisex sizing – always based on a men’s fit–rarely works for women. That’s why we’ve seen a great response to items we create with women in mind. The criteria to look for are: narrower cut in the shoulder; shorter sleeve and torso length; fuller hips with longer rise; non-binding fit in upper thigh; and less bulk around the waist.
Following is a rundown of a variety of women’s products (and some unisex and men’s items), tested over a summer of paddling. My advice? Try on as many styles as possible before purchasing. Women come in an amazing array of shapes, and for some unisex will work better. Find a store that offers an array of attire and try it all on. When purchasing by mail, order several sizes and styles and return the ones that don’t fit.
Men so liked the first PFD designed for women – Lotus Designs’ Lola – that it has gone mainstream. Most people probably don’t realize that the design was based on a wedding dress pattern,” says Lotus’ Steven Rogerson. “When we were struggling to come up with the right design for women, someone on the sewing floor brought in a wedding dress–and now nearly every PFD for women has that same tri-panel, princess seam design.”
Drytops and Drysuits
Companies like Kokatat are convinced that women will be more comfortable in a drytop designed exclusively for them. Other companies go with the unisex approach. I decided to see for myself; Stohlquist gamely supplied a unisex drytop (size small), while Kokatat sent a size medium Women’s Gore-Tex Wave Drytop.
Measuring the two, the differences were obvious: the sleeves and overall length were several inches longer in the unisex small. A friend and I traded them back and forth while kayaking on a breezy, high-water day on the Animas River and, to be honest, once we were on the water, wearing PFDs, skirts and various other layers, precision fit was not a noticeable factor for either of us. When it was my turn to try the Kokatat, I did prefer having less of thebunchy fabric at the waist under and over my sprayskirt. Again, I’d advise women to try several brands and styles so they can decide which fit factors are most important.
Kokatat also makes drysuits for women, and, though I didn’t have a unisex to compare, fit would be more of factor here, considering the hip-to-waist ratio is much different between men and women, and few women are very comfortable in men’s pants.
Most wetsuit makers provide women’s sizing. Northwest River Supplies (NRS) has a bundle of women’s options, from an Action Jane to an Ultra Jane. I recommend the latter since it comes with a relief zipper.
My idea of a good first layer is one that, on a warm summer day, after peeling off a neoprene layer and drytop or paddling jacket, I can wear to the local ice cream joint for a milkshake. One popular choice is a swimsuit (tankinis work well) and a pair of quick-drying sport shorts. Of course, this setup is also often the only layer rafters wear in July and August.
The names and styles vary but concept is the same: stretchy, fleecy fabric combined with a thin neoprene skin, designed to insulate, repel water and breathe.And it seems that every company that makes any products sized for women carries this fabric sewed up into a black sport bra, but these don’t work for me. I like a multi-purpose, sportswear first layer–black rubber bras look odd at Dairy Queen.
But these thermal layers are great in their other forms. I tried a wide variety of tops, tights and Janes–everything from Voyageur’s Xeric Zip Top to Stohlquist’s Stealth Vest. One of my favorites turned out to be Mountain Surf’s Farmer Jane and their Thermal Stretch Sweater, in men’s size small. Both faces of the fabric (the fleece and the neoprene) were thick,supple and skin friendly. I found with all these stretchy products, from vests to shorts, that sizing varied considerably–try before you buy!
No one makes a neoprene bootie for women. So, I tried the Voyageur River Bootie, ordering a size down as recommended, and the result was typical –about the right length but too wide. However, I had no real complaints because the heels didn’t slip when I was walking. Narrower-footed women (not to mention youths and narrow-footed men) might be more annoyed with a sloshy wide fit. For general river footwear, I tried Chaco sandals on the advice of a friend who will wear nothing else; she swears they are the most ingenious, comfortable sandal she’s worn in all her river days. The heart of the design is pull-through strap that yields a precise fit. I tried the Chaco Z/, sized for women, and can testify that my friend is right. Chaco recently enhanced its women’s offerings; Z/’s are now available in sizes 5-11 in two widths. And of course, the classic river sandal, Teva, has been available in women’s sizing for many years, in a variety of styles. (For more information on footwear checkout Into the Wild on page 87.)
Mountain Surf recognized the frustration of smaller hands stretching drum-tight spray skirts over cockpit rims and decided to do something about it. Quite a few companies offer a lower rand tension, but usually in their cheaper, entry level models. Sprayskirt is designed keep you dry in all but the most extreme whitewater and provide years of reliable service.