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How to Choose a Wetsuit

More than 60 years ago, Jack O’Neill, a northern California surfer, opened up a surf shop in Santa Cruz and began selling his creations: the first neoprene surfing wetsuits.

Surfers and water-sport aficionados around the world can thank him for extending their seasons beyond a few short months of summer and their range of surf spots outside of balmy beaches. Wetsuits enable us to enjoy our favorite sports in colder waters by keeping our core body temperature above 95 degrees Fahrenheit and preventing hypothermia. From scuba divers to triathletes to surfers to freshwater rafters and kayakers, there are many outdoor pursuits that require wetsuits in order to fully enjoy them.

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Off-season or cold-water surfing isn’t really possible without a good wetsuit. Photo courtesy O’Neill.

First, you should be aware that wetsuits are not “one size fits all” for any activity. Different aquatic pursuits have different requirements, so what works for one may not be your best choice for another.

Diving: Dive suits are usually made from a denser neoprene that can stand up to changes in water pressure on deep dives, which makes them stiffer. Since you don’t move around a whole lot on a dive, they’re not designed with mobility in mind.

Surfing, paddling, kiteboarding: These are designed to balance mobility and warmth, and come in a range of thicknesses and styles. This is the kind of wetsuit we’ll be focusing on in this article.

Triathlon, open-water swimming: Triathlon wetsuits are especially designed for speed while swimming. They’re lighter in weight and much more flexible (particularly around the shoulders) than surf wetsuits, to allow for easy swimming. On the flip side, they’re less durable and abrasion-resistant than surf suits. The flotation in tri wetsuits has the added advantage of making swimming long distances less tiring. Some have strategically placed flotation to help the swimmer maintain proper body position in the water, which is very helpful for swimmers who aren’t as technically proficient.

Wetsuit Materials

Wetsuits are usually constructed of neoprene, a synthetic rubber polymer of chloroprene that is resistant (but not impervious) to degradation. This extremely water-resistant fabric traps a layer of water next to the body that is warmed by the body’s heat, while helping to keep cold water out. At the same time, the tiny air pockets in neoprene help minimize heat loss to cold water; these air pockets also make the suits somewhat buoyant.

Lately, wetsuit vendors have begun incorporating neoprene that’s not petroleum-based, such as Geoprene, a limestone-based neoprene that is less water-permeable, very durable, and lighter, and Patagonia’s plant-based Yulex neoprene, which is a more sustainable option than other types.

All neoprene is somewhat stretchy, but higher-end suits will feature much stretchier neoprene in strategic spots to enhance flexibility and mobility. You can expect to pay more for this, but if comfort is paramount, it might be worth it.

It is crucial to choose the right thickness of wetsuit according to the water and weather conditions where you are playing. Surfers in Bali might wear a short 2mm neoprene wetsuit that covers just the torso, while those in Montauk in March will be needing a 5 to 6mm full-length wetsuit accompanied by boots, gloves and a hood.

Neoprene Thickness

The thickness of the neoprene in a wetsuit will have a big impact on its relative warmth. The numbers you see to describe wetsuits–such as 3/2, 2mm, 4/3, etc–correlate to the thickness of the neoprene (in millimeters). The first number describes the thickness of the fabric in the torso while the second number describes the neoprene thickness in the arms, legs and hood. The higher the numbers, the thicker the suit. Thicker neoprene is much less flexible, so the thickest neoprene is used to keep your core warm while thinner fabric is used in the arms and legs for greater mobility.

Wetsuit Styles

In addition to neoprene thickness, the cut of a suit will also dictate how warm it will keep you. Keep in mind that the temperatures below are rough guidelines; a suit’s warmth will also be affected by air temperature, wind chill, and your activity level.

Type of Wetsuit Water Temp Recommended Use
Insulated Jackets >70℉ Warm/moderate water to keep core warm or over ‘farmer john’ wetsuit for additional warmth on cooler days
Typical thickness: 2mm, 2/1
148947_thumb_jacket
‘Farmer John’ Suit 60-70℉ Sleeveless style for maximum mobility and versatility; preferred style for paddling
Typical thickness: 2mm, 3mm
farmer-john_thumb
Springsuits 58-68℉ Moderate to cool water & air temps. Some combination of short/full sleeves and short/full legs
Typical thickness: 2/1, 3/2
148949_thumb_springsuit
Full Wetsuits 52-68℉ Full coverage, works in range of water temperatures, depending on thickness. Focus on both insulation & keeping cold water out
Typical thickness: 3/2, 4/3
In colder water, add gloves, booties
148943_thumb_chest 2
Hooded Wetsuits 50-60℉ Maximum coverage, designed for cold water/air temps. Almost always uses heaviest-weight materials
Typical thickness: 5/4, 6/5/4
Use of gloves, booties standard
148946_thumb_hooded

Wetsuit features

There are many wetsuit features that will affect not only how warm it will keep you, but your comfort, mobility, and the suit’s overall durability.

Lining

Wetsuits have traditionally been lined inside with nylon that’s bonded to the neoprene, which enhances durability and against-the-skin comfort. Most companies have started using stretchier materials with spandex, and heavier suits may feature better insulators like wool, polyester microfleece, or even advanced infrared technology for maximum warmth.

Zippers

For zippers, the primary choice is between back and chest zip. Back zippers are designed for easy entry/exit from the wetsuit but are not as good at keeping water from entering through the neckline and can restrict your overall movement when you have your suit on. Chest zips are a little trickier to use, but are better for thicker wetsuits and colder water since they seal the neckline more efficiently. Some wetsuits now feature a ‘zipless’ design; you’ll only find this in wetsuits with very flexible neoprene.

Seams

The number, placement, and type of seams on a wetsuit will affect its fit, comfort, and warmth.
Different types of seams include:

Flatlock: Two pieces of neoprene are butted up to each other and then sewn together. This style is usually found on lower-end suits or suits designed for wear in warm water, since the seepage along these seams can help prevent overheating and offer some breathability.

Glued and Blindstitched: The two pieces are glued together and then reinforced with stitching along the inside, without the needle going all the way through. Seams are usually finished with tape.

Fluid seam weld: The pieces of neoprene are glued together and then sealed on one or both sides by rubber tape or liquid sealant. This type of seam is very flexible, airtight, and completely blocks out cold water.

Cuffs/Neck

Most companies have developed technology to prevent “flushing,” or the entry of cold water into a wetsuit through the neckline and cuffs.They may utilize internal panels or stretchy gaskets under the zipper to keep out cold water.

Hood

While it’s a myth that the majority of your body heat exits through your head, wearing a hood will undoubtedly help keep you warm in cold weather and water. You’ll usually find hoods on suits designed for cold water; hoods may also be purchased separately.

Knee pads

The knees are a spot on wetsuits that see a lot of wear and tear, so knee pads are a great extending the life of a suit. They also make paddling out on your knees a bit more comfortable.

Fit Tips

When choosing a wetsuit, fit is crucial to ensure good mobility and to prevent heat loss. The suit should have no baggy or loose spots or large wrinkles in the arms and legs; your suit should be snug in all areas but not uncomfortably tight or restrictive. Likewise, make sure all openings are snug but don’t restrict circulation. Many people wear rashguards underneath for protection from chafing.

Sizing differs between brands, and some will offer tall or short sizes; make sure to check sizing charts specific to each manufacturer and take your measurements to select the correct size.

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Photo courtesy O’Neill

Wetsuit Accessories

When you’re out in cold water and cold weather, covering up your extremities is going to be important, too.

Booties

Booties are usually made of neoprene with a rubber sole; they give you added traction while keeping your toes warm. They’re rated for warmth and thickness on the same scale as wetsuits (e.g., 3/2 or 4/3). In addition, they offer protection from sharp rocks, coral, or other underfoot hazards, which makes them great not only for surfing, but for many water sports such as kayaking, rafting, or stand-up paddleboarding.

Booties come in split-toe or round-toe versions. A split-toe bootie has a separate chamber for your big toe; this design prevents your toes from slipping around in the boot and gives added stability for board sports. Some people opt for the round-toe design because it may be more comfortable for their toes and they are slightly warmer.

Booties should fit snugly to keep you warm and stay in place, but not so snug they are uncomfortable. The neoprene will mold to your feet over time, and booties should feel quite tight on the first time out. Straps across the ankles add support and enhance fit

Hoods

If you surf in cold temps a hood is a necessary accessory that will keep you out on the water longer. Some full suits will come equipped with a hood, but having a separate hood is nice for seasonal use. In addition to providing warmth, hoods protect from cold water slaps and the dreaded surfer’s ear. Some feature bills to protect your eyes from the sun and splashing water.

Gloves

Cold fingers are one of the first things sending you paddling for shore; gloves warm your fingers and can prevent water entering the sleeves of your wetsuit. They’re available in different thicknesses for various temperature ranges.

Rashguards

Rashguards are primarily used in warm water as a substitute for wetsuits, but are also often layered underneath wetsuits for comfort. Most are constructed of blends of Lycra, nylon, spandex, and/or polyester; they therefore don’t provide much warmth but offer excellent sun protection, keep sticky surf wax off your skin, help prevent chafing from your board. They can also protect you from scrapes against coral or stings from jellyfish.

rashguard
Backcountry athlete Monica Purington in a Rip Curl number.

Care Tips

You should always rinse your wetsuit and booties or gloves after use, especially if you’ve been in salt water. This will ensure a longer life and prevent the fabric from getting smelly or breaking down.

You can occasionally soak your gear overnight in cold water with a mild detergent but avoid using a washing machine, which will compromise the neoprene. Let wetsuits fully dry before stowing away. They should be stored in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight, preferably hung on a wide (not wire) hanger.

In my opinion, spending a day out in the water is a day well spent, and the right wetsuit can make it all the better. If you have any questions about choosing a wetsuit, feel free to contact me.

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