Buying the right wetsuit for surfing
One of the most important pieces of surfing equipment is the wetsuit. For cold-water surfers, you might even say that buying the right wetsuit is second only in significance to buying the right surfboard.
How do wetsuits work?
Wetsuits use neoprene of various thicknesses to insulate and protect your body. The tiny air pockets inside the neoprene hold heat, thereby providing insulation. The suit also traps a thin layer of water between your body and the suit. This water is warmed by your body heat and then holds that heat to help prevent your body temperature from dropping too much or too quickly.
What to consider when buying a wetsuit
Longevity: A decent wetsuit should last for at least 2 – 3 years for an avid surfer and much longer for those who just surf occasionally. All wetsuits, so long as they fit well, will feel good the first few times you are out on the waves. A poorly made suit, however, will start to show some definite signs of wear and tear after only 6 weeks. It may even start to come apart.
Water temperature: Do you surf in cold water, warm water or both? You may be able to find a good wetsuit that you can use in all conditions you normally surf. Consider the temperature when and where you do the most surfing and then take it from there. The main features to keep in mind are…
A short or “spring” suit vs. a full suit
In milder waters, you may only need a suit that protects your core, while colder waters will demand a full suit, allowing you to spend more time in the water.
The thickness of your wetsuit’s neoprene material
Modern semi-dry suits generally come in three grades: 3/2mm (mild to warm), 4/3mm (mild to cold) and 5/4mm (cold to very cold). The first number stands for the thickness of the neoprene at the torso and the second the thickness at the legs and arms. Thicker neoprene provides more warmth, but less flexibility.
*Some brands count the thickness of the lining as well as the neoprene when stating their measurements. Other brands use the first number to refer to a smaller or larger section than the entire torso. For example, the first number may sometimes refer only to a thicker chest panel, while at other times the second number refers to only areas where greater flexibility is needed, like on the shoulders and behind the knees. It is important to check each wetsuit individually so you know what kind of insulation and flexibility you are getting.
A wetsuit’s lining (Firewall) can also significantly influence its ability to insulate. Some linings repel water and retain heat. Some suits are fully lined, while others aren’t.
Thickness and temperature
Besides these basic alternatives, there are more options to choose from in order to find the right wetsuit to fit your specific needs as far as temperature.
- If you only surf in very warm water (above 22° C (72° F) you might want to forgo a wetsuit all together in favour of a rash guard, a wetsuit vest or top only.
- Above 18° C (65° F) will generally warrant a thin spring suit of 1mm – 2/1mm with both short legs and short or no sleeves.
- A couple of degrees colder and you can move up to the 2mm – 3/2mm suit with either long sleeves and short legs, short or no sleeves and long legs or a full suit.
- Colder temperatures sinking to 14° C (58° F) may demand a full, sealed 3/2mm – 4/3mm suit plus a pair of boots.
- Moving down to 11° C (52° F) and a 4/3mm – 5/4/3mm suit, which is sealed and taped, is recommended, along with boots, gloves and a hood.
- For temperatures dropping down to 6° C (43° F) a sealed and taped suit of at least 5/4mm or 5/4/3mm is recommended, together with boots, gloves and a hood.
- Water temps of 5.5° C (42° F) and below demand the same, but with an increased thickness of 6/5mm – 6/5/4 mm.
- Battery-powered, heated wetsuits are available for the coldest of waters.
Seals are either flatlock stitched for warm temperatures, sealed with glue and blindstitching for mild to cooler water and for colder temperatures, seals are also fully taped.
Besides the previous guidelines regarding water temperature, also consider the below when buying the best wetsuit for you:
- How sensitive you are to the cold
- The wind speed where you surf
- The air temperature where you surf
- How vigorously you surf
Everyone is a different shape and size, so although wetsuits are stretchy and formfitting, they have varying fits. Nor are size charts universal across brands or even models.
It is important that your wetsuit fits you well in order for you to get the best insulation and flexibility/mobility necessary for performing at your absolute best. Basically you want your wetsuit to be skin tight, but still be comfortable and allow plenty of movability. Make sure there are no areas that sag or bunch up, especially at the back, crotch, arms and legs. Also check that it fits snuggly around your neck. You may want to wear a rash guard underneath to prevent chafing.
To test the fit of a wetsuit, perform movements such as squats and full shoulder rotations with your arms stretched out straight (windmill arms). You should be able to remain comfortable and not feel too much restriction while doing these movements.
*When dry, a good-fitting wetsuit should be a bit of a struggle to put on.
Though it’s often tempting to take advantage of great deals and order online, you may be stuck with a suit that doesn’t fit very well. If possible, try it on! It can make the difference between buying the right wetsuit and wasting lots of time and money on the wrong one.
Whether the right wetsuit for you has a front/chest zipper or back zipper depends on personal preference. Many find wetsuits with chest zippers more difficult to get into, while others find that wetsuits with back zippers let in water more easily. However, modern innovations on quality suits have generally dealt with these problems, at least to some extent.
Boots or booties are necessary when surfing in colder waters, as well as at breaks with sharp bottoms of coral or jagged rocks.
Hoods, which can be bought separately or come attached to wetsuits, help protect against the cold and prevent surfer’s ear.
Gloves and mittens (for very cold temperatures) also help insulate and protect your hands. Hybrid three-finger gloves or “claws” compromise between the dexterity of the glove and the higher insulation of the mitten.
When buying the right wetsuit, the aphorism “you get what you paid for” may have more than just a grain of truth. Most high-end wetsuits will set you back at least $400 or €400. However, it is possible to purchase a great, quality wetsuit for under $200 or €200. Check out some reviews (below), ask experienced surfers and talk to the staff at your local surf shop in order to find the right wetsuit for you.
For more help finding and buying the right wetsuit, consult these reviews and buyers guides: