Wetsuits—the under-appreciated workhorse of a surfer’s quiver. Pele has only blessed a small few of us with access to balmy magma-heated breaks surrounded by undulating palm trees. The rest of us? We wrap ourselves in rubber. We know that we get to surf otherwise impossibly cold waves for hours at a time because we have a slightly smelly and sometimes smothering but otherwise amazingly protective and generous friend, a.k.a. the wetsuit.
If you are looking to buy a wetsuit for the first time or the fifth time, here is our guide to finding the perfect wetsuit for your water woman needs.
All wetsuits are not created equal. While most resemble one another—black is the new black—there is a range of types and functions for wetsuits, and they are not often transferable. Here is a partial list of suits designated for specific activities:
- Triathlon or Swimmers’ Wetsuits
Although a triathlon suit may look similar to what we call a Farmer Jane/John wetsuit in the surfing world, their construction is quite different. Triathlon suits are designed to reduce drag. They have a shiny coating on the outside to repel water. Shiny and slippery? Not great when lying on your surfboard.
Triathlon suits do not provide the same flexibility in the legs that surf suits do. Swimmers need elongation over compression; surfers need that bend in order to thrash the gnar, or really just to get it over that annoying ankle bone. Stitching placement on the wetsuit also follows the different logic of bodily position. Even if you’re Michael Phelps, you won’t want a triathlon wetsuit if you plan on popping to your feet.
- Dive Suits
Most wetsuits are made from neoprene, an oil-based sponge-like material. As you submerge yourself, wetsuits allow a bit of water to flush in, hence the word “wet” in the name. Your body heats this bit of water creating an additional insulating layer. Don’t get me started on drysuits.
The neoprene in dive suits is stiffer and less flexible than the neoprene in surf suits. This is so the wetsuit can keep its integrity as you descend deeper under water. Remember physics class? The deeper you go the more pressure on your body. If the neoprene is light and nimble the pressure will compress the neoprene, making it thinner and making you colder.
This said, surf suits are TERRIBLE dive suits, as their neoprene can be compressed. For example, a 5mm dive suit and a 5mm surf suit may have the same thickness but the construction of the dive suit retains its structure as you descend.
- Surf Suits
Captain Obvious here says these suits are fantastic for surfing! But once again not all surf suits are the same and are subject to a variety of factors: intentions, warmth, fit, price, material, style (80s fluorescent anyone?!). Below is your checklist for a surf specific wetsuit suited to your needs.
Wetsuits are like puppies. You must be clear about what you want and you must never leave it in the car for too long or it will rot. And like puppies, they’re a lot cuter new; similar to rescuing a full-grown mutt (which we do endorse), used wetsuits come with some baggage.
- What are your intentions?
First and foremost, is this suit for surfing? Yes? Then don’t buy the triathlon suit just because it’s on sale.
- Warmth, or more specifically, water temperature
The majority of wetsuits will tell you their temperature range. Know where you will primarily be surfing! They often measure in millimeters and use a variety of thicknesses to maximize warmth while maintaining flexibility.
For instance, you may see a suit advertised as a 4/3. This means the suit is 4 millimeters thick in the abdomen and 3 millimeters in the arms and legs. Or may also see a suit advertised as a 5/4/3 which means it is 5 mm in the abdomen, 4 mm in the legs, and 3 mm in the arms. If you get cold easily, consider buying a suit a millimeter thicker than suggested.
Wetsuits come in every length from full suits with a hood and no zip to the best bootylicious Beyoncé style shortie and everything in between. Obviously the more coverage the warmer.
There is no such thing as a perfect suit. All of us have at least one complaint. That said, wetsuit brands make very different fits of suits which benefit some body types more than others. Unfortunately, it pays to sweat profusely and flail around in a dressing room to try wetsuits on. Once you know your size and preferred brand, go peruse the internets at your leisure.
Wetsuits work because they’re form-fitting. There is no business casual here, it is all body-con. Please no leg folds but retain blood flow. Make sure that the shoulders fit (if the neoprene gets shiny and reveals the weave, size up or try a brand with wider shoulders (here’s hoping). Back zip, front zip, hood, etc. This is all personal preference. You’d be surprised how different various brands feel.
Flexibility—there is a tenuous balance between warmth and flexibility. More mobile=usually less warm….unless you find that magic suit in which case give me a call ASAP!
More to consider…
- Material / Production
Wetsuits are typically made out of neoprene with a fabric backing that is smooth on skin. Neoprene is a petroleum-based product often made overseas. The majority of wetsuits are still made out of ever warmer and more flexible neoprene.
Some companies (e.g. Matuse, Patagonia, Axxe) are at the vanguard of new wetsuit technologies. They create suits out of limestone, agave, and other organic materials and line them with FUZZY(!) fabric, e.g. wool. They tend to have transparent production processes and a better ecological footprint. They’re well reviewed but are more expensive and are still fairly new on the market.
Stitching gets complicated, but it is important to consider for warmth. Full disclosure: I really only recommend the double blind stitch for both warmth and longevity. (These will get more expensive but they’re worth it for full suits. This matters less for spring suits and shorties—for those choose the one that makes you feel too cool for school.) Types of stitching include:
- Blind double stitch
- Tape: More expensive wetsuits tape over stitching. Tape does not make a new wetsuit warmer but as the stitches wear out it will extend the life of your wetsuit.
For longer life spans, make sure to rinse with fresh water after every use and don’t hang in direct sunlight. If you surf regularly you won’t get more than a few years out of your wetsuit. You can tell when you start getting cold.
Warning: the new wetsuits don’t flush like their older models; remember the old adage on how to keep yourself warm?! Be very wary or make sure to rinse well!
Good luck on choosing your new best friend! Hopefully you will have it for a long long time and never sell your bestie on Craigslist!
Do you have any tips or tricks for finding the right wetsuit? Let us know in the comments.