How To Choose A Wetsuit For Surfing
Maximize Your Time In The Waves
Surfing is challenging enough on its own—let alone the harsh ocean environment you have to deal with. If you have the right wetsuit, you’ll not only stay warmer so you can spend more time catching waves, but you’ll also be protected from harmful UV rays and abrasion, while staying mobile and flexible when paddling out.
Modern wetsuits have come a long way since entering the market in the 1950s, though the basic concept remains the same. The suit traps a thin layer of water against your body that is heated by your body to act as a layer of insulation against the cold water. In the early days, wetsuits were quite fragile and really only kept surfers warmer in the water. Nowadays, innovations in wetsuit construction, material, and features mean that you can really hone in on a suit that is perfect for your body, the place where you’re surfing, and your surfing style.
Types Of Surfing Wetsuits
Like any type of gear, wetsuits are crafted to cater to different types of temperatures and conditions. You can find suits that cover your entire body, suits that look like rompers, and everything between. Different designs serve different purposes, and finding the right one is less daunting once you know all of your options.
Fullsuits fully cover your entire body (but can also have short sleeves or come with a hood). They are the most common wetsuits. Unless you only surf in tropical waters, chances are your first wetsuit will be a fullsuit. They come in a variety of thicknesses, and you’ll see them in action in water as cold as 30 degrees Fahrenheit or as warm as 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Johns & Janes
Long Janes and Johns, like the Patagonia R1 Lite Yulex Long John Wetsuit, feature a sleeveless upper and full, long legs, making them ideal for cool water on hot days. Your submerged legs stay insulated in the surf, while your arms enjoy unrestricted, full range of motion for paddling out.
Shorties, or springsuits, are designed for warmer waters and keep your core warm and protected. They come in both long-sleeve and short -leeve options, and are typically no thicker than 2mm.
Jackets & Vests
If you’re finding yourself out in warmer waters on chilly mornings and just need something to take the edge off, a jacket or a vest can do the trick.
In the coldest waters, you’ll also need to keep your extremities covered with some accessories. You can pick up hoods, gloves, and booties for extra warmth in frigid swells.
In the early days, wetsuits were made of a fragile neoprene that could easily tear when taking on and off. For a few years, surfers and divers would coat themselves in talc so they could slip in without damaging them. Manufacturers found a solution to this by lining the suits with nylon to make them easier to get on and off. That was just the beginning. Nowadays, you can find wetsuits not only made with specialized linings, but with innovative materials and construction methods that enhance durability, warmth, and flexibility.
A lot of beginner suits or less expensive wetsuits are made from a foamed neoprene which is a synthetic material derived from oil. As surfers see firsthand the harmful effects of climate change in the ocean, many companies are looking to do their part and provide more sustainable alternatives.
One of these alternatives is the slightly more sustainable limestone-based neoprene. It can be found in most high-end suits from big name brands, and brands like Vissla exclusively use it in their suits. Other brands, like Patagonia, have opted to use Yulex, a natural rubber derived from hevea trees that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. This material offers a more renewable solution for a more sustainable wetsuit.
Wetsuits range in thickness to help keep you warm in a wide range of water temperatures. While every body is different, there are general guidelines you can follow when choosing your wetsuit for surfing to make sure you’re finding the right option for your surf spot.
For surfing wetsuits, you’ll often see thicknesses denoted with two numbers like 4/3mm. This means that the body of the suit is 4mm thick while the extremities are only 3mm thick. The arms and legs are thinner than the body of the suit to provide you with maximum mobility. If there are three numbers, like in a 5/4/3mm suit, you’ll have 5mm of suit in the torso, 4mm in the legs, and 3mm in the arms.
The chart below is pretty standard for the industry in gauging the thickness you’ll need for your suit. Keep in mind, you may have slightly different personal tolerance for temperature—then factor in wind, rain, or snow and you’ll be able to decide which wetsuit will suit you best.
Water Temperature (°F)
65 - 75ºF
0.5 - 2/1mm
62 - 68ºF
2 - 3/2mm
58 - 63ºF
3/2 - 4/3mm
52 - 58ºF
4/3 - 5/4/3mm
Fullsuit with hood
GBS + taped
43 - 52ºF
5/4 - 5/4/3mm
Fullsuit with hood + more
GBS + taped
6/5 - 6/5/4mm
Fullsuit with hood + more
GBS + taped
Wetsuits are made by securing a number of panels of neoprene (or neoprene alternative) together. It’s a delicate balance finding the right ratio of panels to seams to achieve that sweet spot between flexibility and durability. There are several seam construction methods used in building wetsuits to help make finding that sweet spot easier. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. Recognizing what these are and understanding how they impact performance can help you narrow down your perfect wetsuit for surfing.
Flatlock Or Flatstitch
The most basic and least expensive option, flatlock seams rest flat against your skin for comfort, but require that the needle pierce the neoprene, allowing more water to move in and out of the suit. Flatlock seams are most often found on wetsuits designed for warmer waters and are recommended in around 62℉ water temperatures and up.
GBS (Glued & Blindstitched)
Just as stretchy as flatlock seams, GBS construction only allows a little water, if any, to pass through the suit, making it ideal for colder waters. They are made by first gluing the seams together, then stitching them. The needle doesn’t pass all the way through the fabric and is often only stitched on one side.
GBS With Seam Tape
A GBS seam with added taping increases durability and allows less water to seep through. Cold water wetsuits all have some type of seam taping. You can find suits with all seams taped, and some with only critical seams taped. Brands also use liquid taping to further enhance durability, though liquid sealing can impact flexibility. Some suits feature taping only in the legs, while the arms use a simple GBS stitching to keep you mobile for paddling out.
Welded seams require no stitching for maximum flexibility and watertightness. As a result, this construction method is found in higher-end, more expensive wetsuits.
There are three different ways to get in and out of your wetsuit. (Gone are the days of coating yourself in talc, thankfully): a chest zip, a back zip, and a zipperless. Back zips are commonly found in fullsuits. They are easier to get in and out of, but do allow more water to seep into the suit. Chest zips, on the other hand, are found in high-performance wetsuits as they allow more freedom of movement without letting as much water to flow in and out of the suit. That makes suits with chest zips the ideal choice for long sessions in the water. Some shorties, rashguards, and jackets are zipperless to maximize flexibility.
Wetsuit technology and innovation has been steadily improving over the decades. Aside from more sustainable, flexible, and durable materials and better construction techniques, wetsuits for surfing are built with specific features to maximize performance in the swells. Many offer UV protection against harmful sun rays during long sessions. You can also find knee pads on fullsuits to maximize durability. By creating your perfect blend of material, thickness, seam type, and features, you’ll have a wetsuit that keeps you comfortable and maximizes performance in the water so you can get to catching some waves.
Rachel Jorgensen is a freelance writer based in Michigan, but doesn’t stay put for long. She’s lived in three countries, four states, and is always after the next adventure. When settled, you’ll find her climbing, skiing, or trail running with Scuba, her Thai rescue dog. Follow along @rjorgie