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How does neoprene perform as a base layer for winter sports? Is it a way to be warm while remaining sweaty, as opposed to wicking sweat away? What are its disadvantages? What are best practices for how to use it as a layer?

By neoprene I mean typical neoprene wetsuit material (foamed neoprene, closed cell, typically with a fabric backing, typically 2mm to 8mm in thickness) assuming it will be covered with a wind-blocking shell and probably other insulating layers.

By winter I’m personally most interested in the 0F to 32F (-20C to 0C) range

I’ve used it winter kayaking a couple of times (a 2mm sleeveless “farmer John” wetsuit in conjunction with fleece layers and a goretex drysuit) when I didn’t believe I could manage layering just right to avoid sweat. It worked better than sweaty wool or fleece, and generally seemed like a decent option. But I have limited total experience (a few trips of a couple hours’ length). Curious what experience other people have had.

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  • Context is the key here. You need to further define what "winter activities" entails as the answer would vary depending on if it's a multi-day trip or not, if it's an English winter or a Canadian winter, etc.
    – Gabriel
    Aug 28 '18 at 12:53
  • @GabrielC. noted / edited
    – mmcc
    Aug 28 '18 at 21:45
  • @GabrielC. your multi-day comment raises the issue of drying neoprene so you can wear it again. That’s a great point, it may be a real limitation to consider and I have never tried to dry a wetsuit on a line in winter let alone in between my sleeping bag and bivy sack. If anyone has experience confirming drying neoprene overnight has or hasn’t worked, it would be valuable.
    – mmcc
    Aug 29 '18 at 11:57
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    That is my main concern. How do you put a frozen solid wetsuit back on in the morning?
    – Gabriel
    Aug 29 '18 at 13:14
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    I have managed to put a frozen wetsuit back on (draped over my tent overnight and frozen into a v shape). I don't recall it being particularly hard, but it was certainly unpleasant.
    – Chris H
    Aug 29 '18 at 21:38
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Neoprene is not a good idea - unless circumstances dictate it necessary.

It doesn't breathe well, it has a tendency to gnaw. It has a relatively high friction towards other textiles, so you'll have to work harder to move. And it doesn't isolate as well as alternatives, though it has some isolating properties. It is rough and tough, so I think it will be slightly uncomfortable over time as well.

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  • "gnaw"? rub? "isolate"? insulate?
    – Martin F
    Sep 17 at 17:19
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    @martin gnawing is the upgraded version of chafing. Try walking around in a scuba suit, you'll quickly catch on. Not. Pleasant. At. All. Isolate/insulate yes. Sep 17 at 18:44
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Wet suits are the perfect example of the name matching the application: they are intended to be wet.

They do provide a thermal insulation although your body is in contact with water. However, this isolation is limited. Cold water will drain heat from your body faster than your body can produce if the water is cold enough. It depends on the ability of your body to produce heat (which is heavily affected by the intensity of activity - fast swimmers can handle long swims in very cold waters).

However, it works poorly if the contact with water is only exceptional. It blocks evaporation, so you are quite likely to sweat up to dehydration and heat stroke in sun and dry, but in the same time, freeze to hypothermia, if you happen to fall into water and be wet.

The best choice for water sports in winter is the breathing dry suit. The membranes can breathe when dry, while being waterproof when wet, and the cuffs prevent getting water inside when you're in water.

Wet suit in winter works fine for surfing or swimming, where you have constant contact with water, but then those activities are strongly limited. For long time activities it's a very bad choice. It will cause overheating on the surface, while giving very poor protection against hypothermia in case of landing into water.

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  • "isolation"? insulation?
    – Martin F
    Sep 17 at 17:21
  • What is a "breathing wet suit"? Is there another kind?
    – Martin F
    Sep 17 at 17:22
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By a strange coincidence, your Question and the September/October Technology Review arrived today, with an article titled Super Suit.

When divers carry out rescue missions in frigid waters, standard wetsuits offer less than an hour’s protection. The Navy and researchers who work in polar waters have long sought ways of extending that survival time. Now a pair of MIT engineering professors and their students have come up with a simple and effective way of treating a conventional wetsuit so that it protects people three times longer.

The process works by simply placing a standard neoprene wetsuit inside a pressure tank autoclave no bigger than a beer keg, filled with a heavy inert gas, for about a day. The effects then last for about 20 hours, far longer than anyone would spend on a dive.....

The article does not say how well this suit would work for non-diving applications, nor when it might be on the market, nor anything about its likely cost. They do say:

....the process could be used to make wetsuits that are no more insulating than normal but much thinner, allowing more comfort and freedom of movement. (emphasis added)**

So it is something to bear in mind, although you can't buy one at REI in the immediate future.

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Last winter I tried cycling in a 3mm sleeveless wetsuit (I was on the way to swim in a river, and thought I'd save getting changed beforehand). The air temperature was a little above freezing, and it turned out to be very warm and sweaty riding in neoprene. Apart from that it wasn't uncomfortable to wear. Perhaps it was a little constricting on the joints, but there were no issues with friction. It seemed not at all breathable, and I suspect I would have cooled down fast had I sat around for long after the ride, though not as fast as I did in the 5°C water. Riding home in normal base layers etc. was far nicer.

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