You will lessen the effects of cold water, maintain your flexibility, and surf in comfort for hours if you make informed wetsuit choices. It pays to have the basics down, since this will be your biggest purchase after a surfboard.
HOW WETSUITS WORK
This first misconception about a surf wetsuit is that they keep your body completely dry. This is not true. Even with today’s high-tech construction, a wetsuit will allow a small amount of water in, however they are designed to keep your core body temperature very warm, even with a little water in the suit.
Wetsuits are made of neoprene rubber and are designed to keep you warm and flexible. They are often black, but you can fine them in a variety colors if you look. Some come with zippers in the back, while others are zipper-free. Basically, they come in all shapes and sizes, but the basic principles are consistent.
The science behind a wetsuit is straightforward – a thin layer of water is trapped between the wetsuit and you, enabling your body to warm the water to a comfortable level. Your local water temperature will shape your decision when choosing a wetsuit, so it is important to educate yourself on the local surf environment. A wetsuit with ample body coverage and thickness will allow you to enjoy your surf session in relative warmth and comfort.
WHAT SHOULD YOU BUY?
Ask yourself two questions before you go shopping:
- How cold is the water in your surfing region in fall, winter and spring? This will determine the length of the wetsuit, as well as the thickness of the neoprene. In temperatures capable of numbing your extremities, booties are recommended to keep your feet warm. For really cold water, you can also opt for gloves and a hood.
- How often do you surf? If you’re a weekend warrior, you can probably get away with spending less on a suit than someone who will be surfing every evening. Plus, if you live in a cold-water state, like California, you will be wearing your wetsuit for most of the year, or all year, as opposed to Florida, where wetsuits are generally worn from late November to early March.
Two of the most popular options are spring suits and full suits. A spring suit is a short sleeve/short pant combination, while a full suit covers your entire body from your neck to your ankles. If you can only afford one wetsuit, I would recommend a full suit for most places. It’s better to be too warm than too cold.
HOW TO BUY A WETSUIT
There are four main factors you need to consider when buying a wetsuit:
- Wetsuit construction
- Neoprene quality
Wetsuit Guide to Thickness
This is the most important factor for warmth. Today’s wetsuits are made from neoprene, a type of synthetic rubber, which comes in varying degrees of thickness. The thickness of a wetsuit is indicated by two numbers separated by a slash mark. The first number is the thickness of the wetsuit in millimeters (mm) for the portion that covers your torso. The second number is the thickness in mm for your limbs. Therefore, a 3/2 is 3mm covering your torso and 2mm covering your arms and legs.
Thickness ranges from 2mm, and goes to 3/2mm, 4/3mm, 5/4mm, 6/5mm and 7mm. Generally, more thickness is given to the torso are to increase your body’s core heat. Less thickness is given to the extremities to increase flexibility and range of motion.
Generally speaking, a 3/2 or 4/3 will do the job down to 53 degrees. If it’s colder than that, you need to either stay in your car or buy a thicker wetsuit. Of course, when you get below 60 degrees, you may also want to start pricing booties, gloves and a hood to keep yourself good and warm.
Below is a general guide to which wetsuit thickness is right for your area’s seasonal ocean temperature:
|80 to 74 degrees||rash guard|
|73 to 66 degrees||2mm Neoprene top or Springsuit|
|65 to 58 degrees||2mm Long Sleeve Springsuit or 3/2mm full suit|
|58 to 55 degrees||3/2mm full suit + booties|
|54 to 49 degrees||4/3mm full suit + booties|
|49 to 43 degrees||5/4mm full suit + booties + hood|
|42 degrees & below||6/5mm full suit + booties+ hood|
|Antarctica||Dry suit + booties + hood|
Wetsuit Construction – How the Pieces Are Put Together
With advances in neoprene came big advances in wetsuit construction. Today, wetsuits are made of several pieces of neoprene that are stitched together. Stitching is an important factor in the wetsuit’s construction. Good stitching can make a suit more comfortable, durable and warm. Cheap stitching, on the other hand, can allow water to seep in, chafe your skin and may even unravel.
Here are descriptions of the most common types of wetsuit stitching:
Flatlock Stitching – Each panel is stitched both on the outside and inside of the suit. Stitched seams are clearly visible when viewing the outside of the suit.
Sealed – Panels are blind stitched, and then glued to prevent water from entering through the seams. Generally this is needed if water reaches below 60 degrees.
Sealed and Taped – Panels are blind stitched and glued, and then tape is applied over the glue on the inside of the suit. This prevents water from seeping in through the seams, and helps keep warm air trapped inside. This is the warmest method of wetsuit construction. Generally this is needed in water that is below 54 degrees.
Choosing the right style is also important:
Full Zipper – This wetsuit has a zipper that runs the full length of your spine, from the lower back to the back of the neck. This option offers the least amount of flexibility.
Half Zipper – Just as the name implies, this zipper covers half the length of your back, starting at the middle of the back and closing at the back of the neck. This style offers increased flexibility and range of motion.
Zipperless – You have to step into these wetsuits from the neck, which opens very wide, and then pull it up one leg at a time, just like a pair of pants. You then do the same for your arms. Entry and exit into the suit is not as easy, but this kind of suit offers the warmest, most watertight construction. Plus, flexibility and range of motion are greatly increased.
Neoprene Quality and Prices– You Can Feel (and Stretch) The Difference
Neoprene was first invented back in 1930, and first used in wetsuit construction in the early 1970s. Today, lycra and spandex are combined into the neoprene for much improved flexibility and strength.
The two main types of neoprene used today are Super Stretch and Water-Repellent Super Stretcht. Now, not all Super Stretch wetsuits cost $300. Wetsuits are being made with 30%, 60% and 100% Super Stretch neoprene. Of course, the more Super Stretch the wetsuit incorporates, the higher the price.
Here is a breakdown of how Super Stretch neoprene is distributed within the wetsuit at different price ranges:
- 30% Super Stretch: covers the back, shoulders and arms. These areas need the most flexibility. The chest/stomach area and bottom half of the suit is made from standard neoprene. Least expensive, most start at about $150.
- 60% Super Stretch: covers the back, shoulders, arms, and the top of your legs (thighs to knees). These suits range from $175 to $225.
- 100% Super Stretch: covers the entire suit. This is the best you can get. Snug fit and super flexible, these wetsuits are noticeably lighter in weight. These wetsuits start at $250 and can climb to $500.
Does It Fit: Snugness, Flexibility and Range of Motion
Above all, this is the most important factor to consider when buying a wetsuit. A wetsuit should fit like a second skin on your body, without any bunching in the arms or legs. A good fitting wetsuit will be tight enough to maintain a warm layer of water between you and the suit, but not so tight that it cuts off your circulation.
Every inch of the suit needs to fit snugly against your body, while still allowing plenty of flexibility. It should be snug around your neck; in fact, many people wear a rash guard under their wetsuit to prevent neck rash. Lift your arms over your head and stretch out your shoulders: it should only be slightly restricting. You should not feel any resistance from the wetsuit when you lift your arms overhead.If you feel too much pressure, then the suit is too small. If you can easily squat down and move your arms freely, you probably have a good fit.
Sometimes your wetsuit can fit great, but still not offer the flexibility you need for paddling. Each brand cuts their wetsuits differently, so standard sizes will differ with each brand. From my own experience, I cannot wear an O’Neill wetsuit. Now, there is nothing wrong with O’Neill, they make a fine product; however they cut their suits for narrower people. I have very broad shoulders and am also short, 5’7” tall. So, an O’Neill typically does not fit me properly in the shoulder area. I can hardly zip them up.
WEARING YOUR WETSUIT
If you have purchased a wetsuit, now comes the fun part… squeezing into your new rubber skin. The first time you put one on can be a real workout. Here’s a great tip: use a plastic bag around your feet to help slide your legs thru the pant legs. Men usually go naked under their suits since baggies will find annoying places to hide. Women may also go sans clothes or wear a bikini under theirs. If it rubs against your neck, consider wearing a rash guard underneath.
The name of the game is warmth and flexibility; once you have these qualities wedded, your wetsuit should feel like a second skin.
VIDEO WETSUIT GUIDE
THE MAJOR WETSUIT BRANDS
- Quiksilver & Roxy
- Rip Curl
- Body Glove