REVIEWED: Level Six Emperor Drysuit
I first heard about Level Six’s new Emperor Drysuit through this video made by Rapid Media at the Outdoor Retailer Show 2012, and understandably (I think so, at least) got quite excited about the release!
Level Six are a Canadian paddling equipment brand that have built up quite a reputation over the past couple of years for making outstanding equipment that’s not only highly durable, but also looks great too! That’s somewhat of a magical balance that a lot of other well known brands seem to struggle in striking as consistently as L6 have.
Having used their legendary Reign Dry Cag constantly for around a year, including a week-long Scotland trip and a two week stint in the French and Austrian Alps (on the not-so-sunny days), the seam tape unfortunately started to peel in a few places. I contacted L6 directly, and despite the amount of use the cag had seen, they couldn’t have been more helpful and agreed to replace the cag under warranty. At the time I was also using some Palm Sidewinder Bib Dry Pants, but the fabric socks had long since stopped being dry, so I decided to be cheeky and ask L6 if I could pay the difference and get the Emperor suit instead; in an even more strikingly awesome show of excellent customer service, they said yes!
So I was finally getting my Level Six Emperor suit (my first ever drysuit, after 7 years of kayaking!), and already being familiar with the Reign, I had some idea of what I was in for due to it being a combination of that and their bombproof Reign Dry Pants; but this drysuit is far more than just the sum of its parts. At an RRP of £599, the suit comes in around the same price as other manufacturers’ top end drysuits (the Palm Stikine suit has an RRP of £625), and I feel it justifies this price tag for the reasons I’ll detail below.
When my drysuit arrived, my first impressions were that it looked even smarter than in the photos and videos I’d seen so far and the fit was much more comfortable than I was expecting (I’d gone for the Large size in Tin/Charcoal/Kiwi Green, and I’m a 6’1” guy with a 36” waist and a generally ‘well-rounded’ character). After a few tries, I got the hang of zipping and unzipping the well positioned rear entry on my own and I was raring to get out on a river and really put the suit through its paces!
A week or two later, the opportunity finally came along in the form of a Manchester University Canoe Club trip to the mighty Tryweryn; what better way to test a drysuit than a day’s worth of standing in the water lining swimmers and unpinning boats! On putting the drysuit on for the first time with the rest of my paddling kit, I realised just how roomy the suit was as I spent a short while squeezing all the excess air out of it. The extra room is welcome on the cold days however when I’m swaddled in thermals and any excess is mostly taken in by the buoyancy aid and spraydeck over the top.
After getting on the river, I immediately realised what a good option the TiZip® Master Seal was on the shoulder-to-shoulder entry, as I could hardly notice it at all and it had no negative effects on my paddling. I had a decent 15 minutes before the inevitable first piece of carnage arose in the form of a swimmer’s set of paddles getting pinned out of sight underwater on the chipper (for those that aren’t familiar with the Tryweryn, the chipper is a large metal grate designed to catch tree branches and other debris which often includes boats, paddles and swimmers, before it heads down the main section of the river).
The carnage, for once, was actually welcome as it lead to the first impromptu ‘real’ test of my new drysuit; I climbed along the steps on the chipper and stood waist deep in the full flow against the grate at several points whilst I felt around for the missing paddles. The search continued for around 5 or 10 minutes before I eventually found the paddles and made my way to the river bank. When I was back on dry land, I checked the suit over and it had stood up well to being under the high pressure and wearing against the rusty metal grate. My only niggle was that the reinforcement panels on the knees had trapped some pockets of water between them and the waterproof panel underneath. There are drainage flaps to alleviate this occurrence, but as they are quite flat they weren’t opening up enough to allow the water out quickly, but nevertheless I still felt completely dry underneath and I wasn’t expecting the suit to be under those kind of pressures very often.
Over the next few months I used the Emperor drysuit fairly regularly (more or less every weekend), during which time it saw a couple of cheeky swims, a heap of time wading into rivers to rescue boats, one or two livebaits and some hacks through forests and over rocks on portages or on the way to Get Ins and from Get Outs (including a few of my usually graceful moments where I end up falling on my ass for no reason or crawling up muddy slopes on all-fours). Through all that use and abuse, the suit remained completely dry and sustained no visible damage (with the exception of the neck adjustment Velcro® tab delaminating, which is cosmetic at most). Anyone who knows the epics my club gets into will know that the above is a real testament to the durability of the Level Six Emperor! I particularly like the Cordura® reinforcement as it’s in all the right places, including on the shoulders which is a high-wear area (due to abrasion from the shoulder straps on BAs and carrying boats) often overlooked by other manufacturers.
The Emperor suit is constructed mainly of Level Six’s eXhaust 3-ply material, which is billed as being breathable and lives up to it for the most part. I’m always dubious of breathable paddling kit as this property is lost as soon as the material becomes wet, but the Emperor suit is far from sweaty even during the most strenuous paddling (usually when I’m miles off my intended course and staring at an ominous horizon line). The suit is, however, thick enough to keep you comfortably warm without becoming a human mountain of fleece on the coldest winter days (it pairs up very nicely with the Level Six Hot Fuzz Undersuit at times like that). I would say it is slightly too warm on some sunny days, but this is arguably not what the suit is designed for and a time when I should be wearing my Palm Fuse Semi-Dry Cag and Sweet Shambala Shorts instead.
Level Six’s DCS (Dual Cinch System), which they use on the majority of their whitewater cags and drysuits, provides an absolutely fantastic seal on your spraydeck. I originally felt a little unsure of whether the strap buckles would be uncomfortable or get in the way, but I’ve had two or three L6 items that feature the DCS now and barely noticed the straps on any of them (I did sell my Astral GreenJacket however due to constantly getting the straps on that mixed up with those on my cag, amongst other reasons).
My main criticism of this drysuit would be the fitting on the legs; the crotch is quite low (my inseam measurement is around 32”) and I found that this restricted my movement quite a bit, meaning I couldn’t easily lift my legs to get over anything higher than a fallen tree during portages without pulling the suit up. I did eventually end up accidentally splitting the seam on the inside of the leg, but in another show of infallible customer service, Level Six replaced the suit immediately (I went for the red this time, which also features some reflective piping as opposed to the green piping on the tin coloured suit). A couple of simple solutions for the leg fitting would be a double stitched seam on the inside leg, raising the cut of the crotch and/or adding adjustable braces to the inside of the suit (which would also be useful when you’ve got the suit half on before/after rivers) to hold the legs up higher; hopefully L6 will implement some of these on later models.
The Emperor comes as standard with a TiZip Master Seal pee zip and you get plenty of lube for it too, which I’d recommend you use regularly on both zips on the suit as it’ll make your life a lot easier when you’re bursting for a wee or trying to get out of the suit as your mates run the shuttle. Fabric socks are also a standard feature and L6’s are bombproof and roomy, I find wearing warm socks underneath and thin neoprene socks (such as the Palm Index socks) over the top help increase their durability and warmth and also control any baggyness if your feet don’t fill the dry socks.
Other neat little features are water resistant hip and chest pockets (the chest one even contains a little key pouch and emergency whistle) and a fleece lined hand warming pocket on the front, although I find this completely inaccessible under my Palm Extrem Buoyancy Aid. I should also mention that despite the seam tape issues with my Reign Cag, I haven’t had a hint of a problem with the seam tape on the Emperor (in stark contrast to my Palm Fuse and Zenith cags which have both been back for retaping twice in a year, although Palm’s repair turn around and customer service was fantastic).
In conclusion: The Level Six Emperor Drysuit is a reliable, highly durable suit with a plethora of awesome extras that is great for Autumn/Winter/Spring boating and will stand up to the harshest of creek boating. The suit is by no means perfect, but it’s up there with the other top suits on the market; if you want something a little cheaper and aren’t too bothered about the extras, check out the Typhoon Multisport 4 suit (RRP £499), and if you’re an exceptionally tall person, have a look at the PeakUK Whitewater One Piece suit (RRP £599) instead.