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How to Choose a Wetsuit

Wearing the proper equipment in any sport is critical. It helps improve performance but, more importantly, keeps us safe and protected. And when it comes to surfing, wetsuits are indispensable when the water becomes too cold for comfort. So if you are in the market for a wetsuit, read on and let us take a closer look into surfing wetsuits.

What is a wetsuit

A surfing wetsuit is a piece of clothing/equipment used when surfing in cold waters. These wetsuits keep us warm and comfortable, allowing us to enjoy more time in the water. Wetsuits are made from neoprene, a synthetic rubber that traps a thin layer of water between the suit and the skin. Hence, the term ‘wet’ suit.

How does a wetsuit work

Wetsuits are not waterproof but are designed to prevent heat from escaping the body. Wetsuits keep the body warm by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit. The water is heated by the body, acting like a small barrier that prevents excessive heat loss while you are in the water. Wetsuits are made using a synthetic and rubbery material called neoprene which is highly flexible and a good insulator. The thicker the neoprene, the better it can protect the body from cold water.

How to choose a wetsuit

Next to your surfboard, wetsuits are your second biggest investment. And with the right wetsuit, you can be sure of countless hours of fun without worrying about hypothermia and the dangers of surfing in cold waters.

What wetsuit thickness do I need

The thickness of a wetsuit has a direct effect on its flexibility and thermal properties. Thicker wetsuits are better at trapping body heat but are also less flexible, and the opposite goes for thinner wetsuits. There is a certain compromise between thermal protection and mobility. Thickness is not a zero-sum game. The best wetsuit is not about finding the right balance or the perfect thickness but finding the most appropriate wetsuit for specific surfing conditions.

Wetsuit thickness is measured in millimetres (mm). Sizes are normally given in two numbers (e.g. 4/3 mm). The first number indicates the thickness of the torso, and the second refers to the legs and arms. In our example ‘4/3 mm’, this means that the torso is 4 mm thick and 3 mm for the legs and arms.

So why not have the same thickness for the whole wetsuit? Wetsuits are thicker on the torso to better trap body heat in the core area while thinner in the arms and legs to improve mobility.

Wetsuit thickness temperature guide

62°- 68° F (16° - 20° C) 2 mm – 3/2 mm

58°- 63° F (14° - 17° C) 3/2 mm – 4/3 mm

52°- 58° F (11° - 14° C) 4/3mm – 5/4/3 mm

43°- 52° F (6° - 11° C) 5/4 mm – 5/4/3 mm

42° F and below (6° C and below) 6/5 mm

Other things to consider when selecting wetsuit thickness

The water’s temperature is not the only thing you should consider when selecting wetsuit thickness. Other factors include:

Your tolerance for cold – people living in warmer/tropical conditions are more likely to be sensitive to cold waters. To be on the safe side, you might consider a thicker wetsuit based on the wetsuit thickness – water temperature guide.

Wind speed – strong winds can amplify or bring the temperature down a few degrees. Wind chill factor measures the cooling effect of wind on air temperature.

Air temperature – water temperature is not the only factor bearing down your body. Air temperature should also be considered. For example, the absence of the sun also has a direct effect on the temperature.

Seam Construction

One of the things that are often overlooked when shopping for a wetsuit is how these are put together. Wetsuits are made of several pieces of neoprene, and the stitching used directly affects its flexibility, warmth, and durability.

Overlock stitch – this is often used on cheaper or summer wetsuits. These are highly visible, sticking out from the neoprene. Overlock stitches are also the least waterproof. The needle holes which pass through the fabric also make it easier for water to come in.

Flatlock stitch – ideal for wetsuits used in warm waters. This is a stitch that penetrates through both sides of the wetsuit. Flatlock stitches can be easily penetrated by water but are highly flexible.

Glued and blind stitch – commonly found on more expensive and performance wetsuits, are highly flexible and watertight. The neoprene panels are first glued and sealed together then stitched inside. This stitch is perfect for cold water surfing because of its watertight properties.

Liquid and neoprene tape works by sealing both sides of the stitch, thus creating a waterproof seam. Neoprene-based tape offers excellent waterproofing while maintaining optimum flexibility.

Wetsuit Entry – Zipper and zipperless wetsuits

Chest zip wetsuits – a zipper that runs from the neckline to the chest area facilitates entry to the wetsuit. Chest zip wetsuits are excellent in preventing water from coming in through the seams and neckline. This design also provides a more snug fit and gives better flexibility.

Back zip wetsuits – the best in terms of ease of entry and exit. The back zipper that runs down the spine's length provides you with a wide opening for egress and entry. However, one disadvantage is that this also gives a bigger area for water to come in through the seams. Modern wetsuit construction has been able to minimise this with better materials.

Zipperless wetsuits – entry points are usually found around the chest and neck. Zipperless wetsuits are designed for thinner wetsuits. This is because even the best wetsuit materials (neoprene) have limits in terms of flexibility. Entering or exiting a 5 mm thick wetsuit is not the easiest or most comfortable experience. Zipperless wetsuits also offer excellent flexibility due to their construction, which minimises seams and stitches.

Fit - How tight should a wetsuit be

Wetsuits should be tight-fitting leaving as little space as possible between the skin and wetsuit. This minimises the development of air compartments where water could flood in. In addition, a tight-fitting wetsuit ensures that only a thin layer of water stands between your skin and the wetsuit. Together with the wetsuit, this thin water layer acts as an insulator to protect you against cold water.

Types of wetsuits

Rashguard – are generally used in warm water conditions but can also be worn under a wetsuit. More like a second skin, a rashguard protects you against abrasion and the sun, for water temperatures of 72°F (22°C) and up.

Wetsuit tops, wetsuit jackets – one significant difference between a wetsuit top and rashguard is that this provides insulation. Usually, 2/1 mm thick, they are ideal for water temperatures of 65°- 75°F (18° - 24°C).

Full wetsuits – range from spring suits to full-blown wetsuits. Full wetsuits are primarily designed for surfing cold waters and come in various thicknesses. A wetsuit’s thickness is represented by two numbers. 4/3 mm wetsuits are 4 mm thick in the torso and 3 mm thick in the arms and legs. It is recommended that surfers wear wetsuits when the water temperature hits 62° F (16° C) and below.

How to put on a wetsuit

Step1. Fully open your wetsuit by unzipping and unlocking any straps or buttons. Then, do a quick check of your wetsuit and make sure that all zippers and locks are working before putting on your wetsuit. You would not want to go through all this trouble only to know that your zippers are not working.

Step2. Start from the legs going upward. This way, your hands are free to move as you methodically put on your wetsuit. Do this one leg at a time. Pull the wetsuit over your foot, slowly work your way up to the thigh, and proceed with the other leg. Straighten out any folds and creases.

Step3. Continue pulling the wetsuit up all the way to your hips. Continue adjusting the fit until the wetsuit is nicely snugged around the crotch and waist. Check your leg area for any folds. Air compartments where water could easily flood in can interfere with your wetsuit’s ability to trap heat.

You can get a good feel if the wetsuit is the proper fit once you have the wetsuit up to your torso. Again, make sure that there are no creases, and if there are, gently roll these to flatten them out.

Step 4. Now comes the arms. Once you have the wetsuit up to your chest area, insert one arm into the sleeves and do the same for the other arm. Stretch both arms to get that snug fit and check for folds and creases. Continue adjusting the sleeves until the gap between the armpit and wetsuit is as small as possible. These can interfere with arm movements and cause tightness in the shoulder area.

Step5. Once you have properly fitted the suit up to your shoulder and arms, it is now time to secure the neck area. This will create a tight seal that prevents water from rushing into your wetsuit. Next, lock the wetsuit by zipping up or fastening any straps or Velcro.

Tips when putting on a wetsuit

Have trouble slipping the wetsuit over your foot or legs? A plastic bag can do the trick. Simply put the plastic bag over your foot and slide your wetsuit, no trouble.

If you need some extra help wearing a wetsuit, then some water-based lubricants can help you glide into the suit. You do not have to lubricate your whole body. Instead, just place some lubricants at the ankles and wrists where the suit is at its tightest.