What’s the Best Wetsuit to Hike In? (July 11, 2020)

I started this blog during my first thru-hike so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself for both friends and family. As there’s more to life than thru-hiking, I eventually decided to preserve memories of overnight backpacking trips here as well. Today we take the next step in this blog’s devolution: day-hikes, gear-reviews, and guest posts.

My earliest distinct memory of Michael was that we both attended an annual backpacking trip to the Olympic Coast arranged by our then church group. Much has since changed for both of us. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why we never drifted apart. Perhaps it’s for the same reason that last weekend we could be found walking through the local mountains in wetsuits with drybags on our backs. I’ll let him tell you about that.

Hi, my name is Michael Moshofsky and I am honored to be the first guest to author a post on IsaacTakesAHike. Isaac and I have been friends going on 7+ years and during that time we have experienced a number of adventures together.

One of my favorite memories was when Isaac almost ran me over with his car… During the winter before Isaac hiked the PCT, he wanted to gain some experience hiking a snowy trail during a rainstorm. He is always prepared! Well, his usual hiking friends were smart enough to check the weather and didn’t agree to join. I was dumb enough to not check the weather until the morning of the trip and was already committed. Anyway, Isaac’s car got stuck in the snow, so I volunteered to get out and push. I walked to the front of the car and started pushing. The plan was for Isaac to gun it in reverse to get us out of the snowy ditch that we were stuck in. It turns out he was mistakenly in “Drive” rather than “Reverse”. I survived and have been on many adventures with Isaac since!

For our latest adventure, Isaac and I decided to hike ~13 miles and swim 5 alpine lakes along the way. This was inspired by some of Isaac’s friends, Ella and Claire, who thru-swam the Enchantments last year [Ella’s write-up]. Isaac and I are also training for the Panama City Ironman coming this November, so we wanted to find a fun way to get some much needed swim training in.

The adventure started with an audible given road closures, but we quickly got hiking after starting our departure from the Denny Creek Trailhead. Our first alpine lake, Melakwa Lake, arrived just 4 miles later. We proceeded to put on our wetsuits at the water’s edge with campers watching in horror. It wasn’t even 9 am yet. The water was cold. Snow still lined some sides of the lake. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get in. The cold hurt, but I did conquer my fear after being inspired by some heckling onlookers.

Sleeves make wetsuits much harder to put on. Doesn’t Isaac look awkward?

This is where our first wetsuit question occurred: sleeves verses no sleeves? My wetsuit was purchased primarily for use during triathlons. For that use case, I prefer sleeveless. In this situation, having sleeves is much more desirable.

We were also faced with a second question: thickness? In terms of warmth, thickness is to be desired. However, I had a much easier time both storing the wetsuit and taking it on/off. During the hike we thought this was due to it being thinner. It turns out Isaac’s was 4/3mm and mine was 5/3mm. It was probably lack of sleeves, capri length legs, and a longer zipper which made my transitions faster.

Isaac in Melakwa Lake. Despite it being summer, it was too cold to put our heads in.

After a short (~100 yards), but chilly, swim. We were faced with our next dilemma: to hike in the wetsuit or to transition back to normal hiking attire? I chose to wear my wetsuit with the top folded down in front and a t-shirt on. Isaac transitioned back to normal clothes, strapping the wetsuit to the outside of his bag. My reasoning for wearing the bottoms was that it would give me a chance to experience hiking in something similar to woman’s yoga pants without the funny looks. Though, I still received some confused and funny stares from hikers along the way…

Hiking with a wetsuit top off.
Drybag-backpack with Isaac’s wetsuit folded up under the exterior shock cord loops.

From this experiment, we learned that your socks and shoes get much wetter when hiking in your wetsuit.

Our second lake was Lower Tuscohatchie Lake. The water was much warmer and we swam 600+ yards. Afterwards, it was a longer trek to our next destination, so I opted to transition back into my normal hiking clothes. We were reminded that after summits the best views are from the center of lakes. Unfortunately, neither one of us was brave enough to risk dropping our phone to snap pictures mid-swim.

Our third lake was Pratt Lake. It would be our first lake where we would be required to pull our gear in our bags while swimming. We were prepared. We both brought the drysack-backpack that we received as a part of the Victoria Ironman 70.3 from 2019 – another one of Isaac and my previous adventures. The bags worked flawlessly. They were so buoyant that seal was hardly tested because it remained above the water line. Note, we cleverly used the backpack straps as a waist harness and trail line: one strap went around our waists while the other was used to attach to the trailing bag. Another tip, bring a plastic bag for your muddy shoes. I had one while Isaac was left with a muddy bag interior. Pratt lake added about 700 more yards to our ledger.

Muddy shoes. Bring a plastic bag so that mud doesn’t get in your drybag during the swim.
Towing a drybag while swimming point-to-point across Pratt Lake. No, we didn’t swim north, this was posed.

Isaac used a second drybag inside his drybag-backpack. It wasn’t needed, but I recommend this strategy and will steal it in the future myself.

Russian nesting drybags.

After Pratt Lake, we both changed out of our wetsuits for the hike up to a ridge along a mountain and into a new drainage. At our fourth lake, Rainbow, we met an extremely nice couple who graciously let us use their campsite as a launching pad into the lake. We swapped some hiking stories given that they had just run across a black bear the previous day. Rainbow Lake was a short 50 yard swim. Together, we decided to hoof it to our fifth and final lake in our wetsuits. Isaac went all out and wore the entire thing from ankle to wrist.

Hiking in a wetsuit – not generally recommended.

We determined this strategy was not so pleasant for the groinal region and do not recommend others try it. Also, this is where the wetsuit’s thickness works against you as your body starts to overheat.

When we arrived at our final lake, Mason, we were greeted with a full audience given the popularity of the destination. All of the campsites near the water were full, so we were forced to put into the water next to a group of tents and hammocks. A confused onlooker unzipped their hammock to the two of us standing a few feet away in wetsuits. We again pulled our drybag-backpacks behind us to one-way swim the lake. We exited the water at a hidden and unoccupied campsite- the best camping location at Mason lake. Isaac knew about this campsite because he had discovered it while swimming on a previous trip. You really only know that it exists if you adventure by water. Mason lake added another 250 yards rounding the day out at a total of 1,700 yards (or about a mile). Note, that it was a mile swimming the more difficult “heads-up” versions of freestyle and breaststroke given it was too cold to put our heads in the water.

So what is the best wetsuit for hiking? If you aren’t asking this question, you’re missing all the fun!

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