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Cagdeck header

Are cagdecks worth it?

Cagdecks, or top decks, are sometimes labelled as being expensive and dangerous in equal degree. Do they deserve this rep, or are they simply the most comfortable way to paddle a boat?

Recently Emily and I went to a kayaking shop to take a look at the shiny new gear there. It was a silly idea because of course there is always an instant need to purchase some ‘very important’ new kit that we ‘absolutely need’!

Now, I own two cagdecks (otherwise known as topdecks). For the unwary these are garments that have the dry or semi-dry top attached directly to a deck in one piece. I have a short sleeve one and a long sleeve. Both of which I bought second hand for an absolute fraction of the new price, but both were in almost as new condition. Result!

I got hold of these after I had used one for slalom practice, and I was so taken with how much easier it was to move around in them that I had to get some for my summer and artificial white water course kayaking. If you’ve never worn one I would suggest trying it. There’s none of the tight restrictive feeling that you get from a cag and separate deg combo, and there’s less chance for water to ingress through any gaps in the cag and deck either.


But cagdecks do divide opinion. When we went into the shop Emily was looking to see about getting one. But the shop owner put her right off the idea. He listed the following reasons:

  • If you aren’t doing serious competition there’s no point.
  • If the deck or cag gets damaged you have to replace the whole thing. Expensive.
  • On a river a cagdeck is certain death.
  • They leak at the waist.
  • You can’t swap and change decks

Let me go through these one by one. Firstly the point about competition. I can write that one off right away. Cagdecks are simply so much more comfortable than seperates. That is reason enough to use one. You don’t have to be Ottilie Robinson-Shaw or Quim Fontané Masó to get the benefit of wearing one.


Regarding damage, this too is a bit of a moot point. Any cag or deck replacement, separates or not, is going to be expensive. But I can tell you now that as long as your cag or your deck is still in good general condition, you will be able to pay one of the companies such as Peak, Immersion Research, or Palm for a new damaged bit (cag or deck) and get them to re-attach it to the non damaged part. They would need to assess it individually of course, but they can do it. Obviously if your so-called undamaged part looks like it has been in a draw full of clothes moths for the last 15 years then maybe not. But generally this is a moot point.


Safety. The received wisdom is that if the deck gets caught during a swim on a tree branch or other hazard, if you are wearing separates you can push the deck off you and make an escape.

This is actually a very valid point and I agree with it. But only to a point. For a start, in a state of panic you have to have the presence of mind to be able to make a rational decision such as pushing the deck off in the first place. So while in theory it is a good point, there have been a number of people who have not done this despite wearing separates when they have been in such situations, with the inevitable consequences.

If you did manage to push the deck off your feet could still get caught up and tangled as you try to get them through the deck tunnel.

Lastly, and this is a real world incident. In Uganda Emily got munched in a rather large hole on the Real Deal rapid. Needless to say she came out of her boat. The power of the water when she swam pulled her deck down to her ankles. In the chaos she couldn’t figure out how to push the deck off her feet easily from there, and at the same time it was preventing her from swimming properly. So she pulled the deck back up a bit. This is a case where having separates, while perhaps not particularly dangerous given the depth of the river Nile and lack of snag hazards, did still give problems in contradiction to ‘received wisdom’.

I think therefore that whether you use a cagdeck on the river or not is an entirely  personal consideration of the type of water you will be paddling and the risks you associate with it. Remember that wild water racers go long distances, on their own, on rivers up to grade 4, and every one of them is wearing a cagdeck. Therefore I do not think it is as easy as saying that a cagdeck on a river is automatically dangerous. There is a perceived potential risk, yes. But when real world considerations are made, are they really all that much more risky than separates, which can cause different issues in unforeseen ways?

A last point regarding safety. At the moment the vast majority of our paddling in the UK is done during the spring and summer. We haven’t been on many rivers this winter simply because either the rivers have gone absolutely nuts, the weather has been so bad that we haven’t been able to travel, or we simply cannot get a trusted crew all together on the same day to go and run stuff. So given that 90% of the use of a cagdeck will be made during the summer on courses such as CIWW and HPP, I would hope that we could be saved the safety lecture in the future each time the subject of a cagdeck is brought up.


Now regarding leaking at the waist. My cagdecks don’t leak at the waist. The whole point of them, along with comfort, is that you get LESS water in the boat. So please stop talking rubbish. You might get some dampness from the neoprene getting wet. But as a whole I find the inside of my boat far less inundated with water after using a cagdeck than separates.

Now about that point regarding being stuck with one deck and not being able to change it. Very true. This is why you buy a cagdeck for the boat you will be paddling most of the time with it. In my case a playboat, with a keyhole deck. However, the Peak decks are pretty stretchy so I never have an issue putting it onto my Veloc if I need to.


For summer use and paddling I am a total cagdeck convert. They are miles more comfortable to wear than a cag and deck separately. They are a lot less faff to put on and take off and they are much less restrictive to movement in the boat.

They are very expensive new, I’ll grant you that (but still usually a lot less than one single Sweet Protection dry cag!) But as I mentioned at the head of this article, if you keep your eyes peeled you can often get a good used deal on them. Emily has just found a clearance one from the Peak UK stock at a fraction of the original price. In fact it was much less than most dry cags on their own!

Give one a try. You’ll likely find that you won’t want to wear anything else on the water.

2 comments on “Cagdeck or separates?

  1. Gunter Letsch says:

    cagdecks are often very dangerous on alpine rivers because of their iften could temperature even in summer. The AKC tested cagdecks and other clothings and found the cagdecks are extremelydangerous to wear on cold rivers, because there is to much water coming in. The alpine rivers often are very cold even in summer. e. g. on the oetz two paddlers drowned wearing Cagdecks. it was August and very warm, but the oetz still had only 5 degrees centigrade. The two paddlers had a swim, but they had no chance because the water was so could and there was too much water coming into their clothing. They just drowned very fast bevore any one could save them beeing unable to move any more after getting too could after maybe two minutes in this water temperature.
    You can download the test on the himepage of the akc (alpina kajak club)

    1. kayakjournal says:

      Hi Gunter, thanks for the post, and the important considerations. As with all these things it is a case of dressing for the conditions. The Oetz and other alpine rivers are either snow melt or from glacial melt and are therefore very cold all year round. They are also fairly continuous rivers, especially at high levels. However, with a bouyancy aid I’m really not sure that any more water would enter a cag deck than a normal dry cag. Whenever I have swum in a dry cag with a separate deck I have also always become inundated with water. If a paddler’s skill is not really up to the Oetz or the river they are on and they are likely to swim in continuous conditions then they should be wearing drysuits.

      When the Sickline used to run, even the best in the world always wore drysuits on the Oetz. However on a river like the Soca in Slovenia, which is pool drop and where a swim is likely to be very short, a cagdeck would be fine. Again depending on the conditions. There’s no blanket answer to this. Just to say that each individual paddler needs to weigh up the conditions they are paddling in and dress appropriately.

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