wetsuit buyers guide

The Surf Wetsuit Guide

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If you fall into the majority of surfers around the world, you’re probably going to need a wetsuit (or two or three) depending on the time of year and the temperature of the water you’ll be surfing.

There are a good deal of options when it comes to choosing a wetsuit – some nuances more obvious than others. This page is designed as an overview to understanding how to pick the best wetsuits that are going to suit your needs, keep you warm and comfortable, and maximize your surfing all year long.

How Do Wetsuits Work?

Wetsuits, or steamers, work by trapping a small amount of water between your body and the wetsuit. Your body temperature and the insulation of the wetsuit heats the water and helps to keep you warm.

However, most new, modern wetsuits have tighter stitching, seals, and seams that really aren’t going to allow much water to wash through the suit when they’re brand new.

As you surf in a wetsuit overtime, the material will stretch and the seams and stitching will begin to leak – making for a wetsuit that’s less effective at keeping you warm as time goes on.

Proper entry and removal, washing, and storage can extend the useful like of your wetsuit.

How Much Does a Wetsuit Cost? Does More Expensive = Better?

There are a number of factors that go into the cost of the wetsuit. You can find everything from uner $100 all the way up to $600+.

In general, fullsuits are more expensive than springsuits or sleevless wetsuits, but there are also from price ranges within each type of wetsuit.

Wetsuit price will come down to:

  • Thickness.
  • Size.
  • Stiching.
  • Entry-system.
  • Material.
  • Brand.

To make sure you’re getting the best suit for your money, do a little research on how it’s made and what type of material is being used so you’re not just spending money for the logo.

For the most part, a high-end wetsuit will last longer, be warmer, be more flexbile, and sometimes feature more eco-friendly materials.

Continue reading to learn how to pick the right suit.

Types of Surfing Wetsuits

The type of style of wetsuit you need is often dependent on the season and water temp you’ll be in.

  • Wetsuit Jackets & Vests: Wetsuit jackets and vests cover your torso and/or arms to provide you extra warmth, sun protection, and rash protection when the water and weather are warm.
  • Short & Long Johns & Janes: Short Johns feature short legs and no sleeves, while Long Johns feature long legs and no sleeves. These can be great for days when the weather is nice, but the water is a bit chilly. Good for summer and fall. These give you full range of motion in the arms, while keeping you a little warmer and with some more sun protection than you’d have without it.
  • Springsuits: Springsuits feature short legs and either short or long sleeves. Good for those in-between seasons when you’re not too warm nor too cold.
  • Fullsuits: Fullsuits have both long arms and legs. These will keep you warmer with a little more restriction of movement.
  • Hooded Fullsuits: Hooded fullsuits are fullsuits with a built in hood that you pull over your head. These are designed for extremely cold climates and water temps.

You’ll also be able to pair some extra neoprene equipment with your wetsuit if you surf in particularly cold places. This includes surf booties, gloves, and detached surf caps or wetsuit hoods.

Popular surfing wetsuit brands include:

  • Billabong
  • Body Glove
  • Hurley
  • Matuse
  • O’Neill
  • Patagoina
  • Quicksilver
  • Rip Curl
  • Vissla
  • Xcel
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Wetsuit Materials & Design Features

Most wetsuits you’ll find for surfing are made out of neoprene – either limestone-based or petroleum-based. Neoprene is a type of synthetic rubber that has flex and insulation properties that make it perfect for something like a wetsuit. The drawback being it’s not the most environmentally friendly product to produce nor retire.

However, Patagonia has developed a plant-based rubber that it uses in its wetsuits, and more and more sustainability-focused wetsuits and wetsuit manufacturers are becoming available.

You’ve got options when it comes to your wetsuit materials.

Aside from the material that its made of, you’ve also find a variety of design features in different types of wetsuits. Many of these will come down to personal preference.

Surf Wetsuit Entry Systems

The big difference between wetsuits is how you get in and out of them and how they’re closed up. Here are the common types of entry systems you’ll find:

  • Back-zip: Back zip wetsuits feature a zipper down the backside of the wetsuit. You get it by sliding the legs and arms on and reaching back to zip it up.
  • Front-zip: Front-zip wetsuits are the reverse of back zips. They feature a zipper running from the neck to the waist.
  • Chest-zip: Chest-zip wetsuits have a zipper in the front that closes the suit along your chest. You get in through the top of the wetsuit and slide it up.
  • Zipperless entry: Zipplerless wetsuits are entered the same way as a chest-zip, but seal up with a zipper. These often feature spandex and elastic to keep the suit closed.

Entry systems come down to personal preference.

I like the comfort of a zipperless chest-entry wetsuit when I need a fullsuit. I find that zippers are one of the first things to fail on many of the wetsuits I’ve owned. Removing the zippers helps my suit stay useful much longer.

Stash Pockets

Most wetsuits feature some sort of stash pocket designed to hold your car key. You’ll typically find these:

  • On the thigh.
  • In the chest flap.
  • Stitched into the zipper.

Some stash pockets feature an elastic tie to secure your keys, some can be zippered shut, and others are simply a folded over pocket.

Depending on the size, shape, and thickness of the key you need to surf with, the location of the stash pocket may cause some pain. If you have a key pressing right into the middle of your chest when paddling, it can be quite uncomfortable. Something to consider when selecting your suit.

Wetsuit Stitching Techniques & Other Materials

The performance, comfort, and durability of your wetsuit is also dependent on the secondary materials and stitching used in its construction.

For secondary materials, you’ll often find a variety of fabric-materials such as cotton, nylon, wool, or spandex on the interior of your wetsuit. These can make the suit more comfortable, insulating, and easier to get on and off.

You can also find reinforced padding around the knees of many wetsuits, which can help the suit stand up to abrasion and abuse as you pop-up and flex at the knees.

Wetsuit stitching is one of the big factors in determining the suits overall flexibility, durability, and price-point.

You’ll find 3 main types of stitching and seams on wetsuits designed for surfing:

  • Flatlock Stitch: Flatlock stitches are the least expensive of wetsuit seams, and are used in most entry-level suits. Flatlock stitches work by stitching together butted-up pannels of neoprene and stitching through each side, locking over each loop. This type of seam allows for the most water to enter the suit and the least amount of flexibility. However, the flatlock stitch is durable. It’s a good option for when the water and weather are on the warmer side.
  • Glued and Blind-Stitched: Glued and blind-stitched seams are stitched together on one side of the material (usually the outside) and glued on the other (usually the inside). This results in a seam that’s more flexible and lets less water through.
  • Taped and Welded Seams: Taped and welded seams are typically blind-stitched seams that have been sealed with more glue and strips of elastic tape. These offer the greatest seal, flex, and durability of the variety of wetsuit seams and stitching.

The locations and amount of seams on your wetsuit is something to consider too.

Since a seam will typically fail before a solid piece of neoprene, I’ll typically opt for a wetsuit with fewer, but stronger seams and larger panels of neoprene throughout. I also consider the location of seams – of course there will be seams between the limbs and upper and lower parts of the suit, but I try to avoid seams placed down the center.

Wetsuit Thickness & Water Temperatures

How much wetsuit you’re going to need depends on the water temperature, the air temperature, the wind chill, and your personal preferences.

Wetsuits are typically a trade off between warmth and flexibility. So you don’t want to wear too thick of a suit if you can avoid it. However, if you get too cold, movement becomes just as difficult as it would be in a thicker suit.

First, you’ll need to know what the different wetsuit thickness numbers actually mean. Depending on the type of wetsuit, you’ll usually find 1 or 2 numbers that are meant to describe the thickness of the neoprene.

These numbers are presented in millimeters.

If a wetsuit only has one number, that means that number is the thickness of the neoprene throughout the entire suit.

If a wetsuit has two thickness numbers, the first number represents the thickness of the neoprene in the torso, and the second number represents the thickness in the arms and legs.

How Thick of a Wetsuit Will You Need?

Thickness and style of wetsuit will ultimately come down to personal preference and your tolerance to cold, but you can use this as a general guide:

Water TemperatureWetsuit Style -Thickness
70°F+Jacket, Vest, Long/Short John – 1mm to 2mm
60-69°FSpringsuit/Fullsuit – 2mm to 3/2mm
50-59 °FFullsuit – 3/2mm to 4/3mm
49 °F & BelowHooded Fullsuit – 5/4mm to 6/5mm

Wetsuit Sizing & Fit for Surfing

Proper fit is the most important aspect to ensuring your wetsuit is going to be as warm and comfortable as its supposed to be.

A wetsuit that fits well is going to be the best at insulating you and keeping your comfortable in the water and surfing your board.

Too tight a wetsuit and your movements will be overly restricted – making it difficult to surf. Too loose a wetsuit and you’ll constantly be flushed with water – defeating the purpose of the suit.

Wetsuit sizing will vary from brand to brand, but most rely on a set of body measurements along with height and weight to categorizes the fit.

Chest and height are typically the most important measurements when you’re deciding which size category you fit into for a given manufacturer.

To get your chest measurement, measure at the widest point around your chest.

How Should a Wetsuit Fit?

To test if you’ve go the right fit:

  • It should be a little difficult to put on when completely dry.
  • You should have no excess room inside the wetsuit.
  • Lift your arms above your head and stretch. If you feel too much restriction or pressure, it may be too small.
  • Bend your knees and squat – too much restriction or pressure, it may be too small.

If you’re between sizes, size up – and make sure there’s not too much room in the suit. It’s better to have a little longer of a wetsuit than too small of a wetsuit.

Storing & Cleaning your Wetsuit

Proper wetsuit care and storage will ensure your suit lasts as long as possible and doesn’t smell too funky. Follow these tips to care for your wetsuit:

  • Rinse your wetsuit in cold to lukewarm fresh water after every surf.
  • Scrub any zippers or velcro to remove all sand and salt build-up.
  • Hang the wetsuit to dry by its waist, not by the shoulders.
  • Keep it out of direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time.
  • Soak the wetsuit in cold to lukewarm water with wetsuit shampoo or a mild soap every so often.

If you have any rips, tears, or seams coming loose, you can repair your wetsuit with some needle and thread and some neoprene glue & tape.

Putting on and Removing Your Wetsuit to Prolong its Life

Taking on and off your wetsuit can feel like a real pain if you’re not used to it.

If you get frustrated and rush or force your way into and out of it, you’re going to increase your chances of damaging the suit.

Tips for putting on and taking off your wetsuit:

  • Use a changing mat to protect the suit from rocks, sand, and dirt.
  • Pull the suit gently rather than forcing and tugging on it.
  • Wet or dampen the suit if necessary.

What do you wear under a wetsuit?

You don’t need to wear anything under your wetsuit when you’re surfing. Most wetsuits are going to be more comfortable if you’re naked underneath.

If you must wear something underneath your wetsuit, choose something that’s tighter so it won’t bunch up.

Retiring Your Old Wetsuit

Unfortunately, the day will come when your wetsuit becomes beyond repair.

It may bust a seam, the zipper may break, or it may become riddled with holes and tears.

While it’ll be a sad day indeed, don’t worry. You can recycle and upcycle your old wetsuit into something new and useful.

You can find donation programs that will recycle your wetsuit into new products like yoga mats, bags, or koozies.

If you’re the DIY-type, you can use your old wetsuit to make things like:

Your old wetsuit certainly doesn’t need to end up in the landfill.

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