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The Ultimate Wetsuit Guide for Surfers (AKA What to Wear Surfing?)

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.

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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

Fullsuits

A full wetsuit is for surfing when the water temperatures drop to the mid to low 60s range. A fullsuit can also be useful when the air temperatures are cold or it’s particularly windy.

A 3/2mm wetsuit will typically be good for water temperatures around the mid to low 60s.

A 4/3mm wetsuit is good for mid 50s to low 60s.

A 5/4mm fullsuit is a good choice when water temps dip below the mid 50s.

Add in some surf booties, a wetsuit hood, or gloves as necessary to combat the cold.

Remember, the thickness numbers represent the thickness of the core of the wetsuit and the extremities. The higher number being the core and the smaller number being the arms and legs.

Spring Suits/Shorties

Good springsuits are about a balance between just enough warmth, comfort, and plenty of flexibility.

In many places, they’re a perfect choice for when the water’s a bit chilly, but the weather is hot or vice versa.

You’ve got options when it comes to spring wetsuits, too – depending on your exact locale and your own personal preferences.

There’s Long Johns/Janes, short sleeves, long sleeves, short legs, long legs, and all sorts of combinations of these.

For a place like Southern California and for a shorty wetsuit that’ll last you through multiple seasons (mid-Spring, Summer, early-Fall), a short sleeve long leg springsuit is the way to go.

These will offer the most comfort and warmth without sacrificing flexibility.

What is a springsuit?

A springsuit, or shorty, is a surfing wetsuit that typically features short sleeves or short legs (or a combo of these) and thinner neoprene throughout compared to a fullsuit.

The right springsuit for your really comes down to the water temperatures and your personal preference.

A suit without any sleeves (e.g. sleeveless Long Johns or Short Johns) are going to be more prone to washouts when you duck under waves. If the air is hot, that’s usually not an issue.

Some find that short legs can tend to ride up a bit and become uncomfortable – that’ll be something to consider as well, and is why we like the long leg short sleeve springsuits.

When to wear a springsuit wetsuit?

Choosing the right wetsuit is all about balancing warmth and flexibility. Obviously, the more neoprene you add, the more restricted your movements will be.

Too little wetsuit, and you’ll get too cold. That’ll negatively affect your surfing. Too much wetsuit, and you’ll overheat. Not good either.

A springsuit is a good option when the weather and water warms up. It keeps you warm and comfortable while maintaining excellent flex and range of motion.

Spring wetsuits are a good option when the water temperatures are around mid-60s and up and the air is warm.

They’re also a good option when the water is warm, but there’s a wind chill or the air temperature is cooler.

Surf Booties

Every wanted to look and feel like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle? Finally, a solution for you.

Tired of asking your buddies if you can drink their extra bootie-juice after a cold water surf? Look no further.

But really, if you’re looking for a way to keep your feet toasty while still retaining good board-feel and traction while surfing in the winter, surf booties are the way to go.

What thickness (mm) of surf booties should you get?

The proper thickness surf bootie you need depends on where and when you’ll be surfing.

As far as thickness goes, you’ll typically be safe by at least matching the thickness of the wetsuit you’ll be using.

A thicker 7mm bootie is going to be warmer than a 3mm, but you may find it restricts your movement/board-feel a little more too.

If you’re surfing in San Diego or Southern California, booties are typically going to be optional all year round. If you find that your feet are getting too cold, you probably don’t need anything more than 3mm booties.

If you’re surfing somewhere like SF or Santa Cruz in the winter, 3mm to 5mm surf booties should keep you comfortable.

Surfing somewhere like New England in the winter, some 7mm surf booties are probably called for.

How to Surf in Booties

If you’ve never surfed in booties before, it’s going to feel a little weird the first time.

The worst or ill-fitted surf booties will feel like surfing in wet socks.

The best surf booties will feel like a wetsuit for your feet.

Give yourself at least a few waves or a few sessions to get a feel for them.

The extra material between your toes and your board can tend to feel a little strange at first, but once you get used to the feel, you should be surfing like normal.

How should surf booties fit?

You surf booties should feel pretty snug when you put them on.

Not so tight that your toes start to turn purple, but tight enough to keep air and water out of the boot.

Surf booties are designed to be pretty well form-fitted to your foot, so if you’ve got space to move in the bootie, it’s probably too large.

However, if your booties are hurting your feet, forcing your toes to bend, or otherwise preventing movement, you should probably size up.

When in doubt, go for a slightly tighter fit or smaller size than your shoe.

How to Dry Out and Clean Surf Booties

If you’ve ever used surf booties before, you’re probably familiar with the term “bootie-juice” or some similar variation.

This describes the smelly, foot water that pours out of your booties after a surf.

Properly cleaning and drying your surf booties will cut down on the smell and gnarliness of your own brand of bootie juice and keep your surf boots lasting longer.

Care for your booties like you would your wetsuit.

  • Rinse them out with fresh water after each surf.
  • Dry them out upside down so water and moisture can drain out.
    • A home-made PVC apparatus can be effective.
  • Don’t leave them in direct sunlight for too long, and avoid storing them anywhere enclosed while they’re still damp.
  • Every once in a while you can use some wetsuit cleaner or dish soap and clean them out.

Surfing Gloves

Cold-climate surfers have it tough. Harsher elements require more gear. The wrong gear can be the difference between a great session versus struggling to move or constantly focusing on how f’ing cold you are.

Every time you add more neoprene to your wetsuit, it becomes a fine balance between warmth and flexibility. Obviously you need to stay warm, but if you can barely move, you’re going to have trouble surfing.

If you’re surfing somewhere really cold, sometimes you don’t really have a choice.

In any case, you’ll want a surf glove that’s going to keep your hands warm while maintaining grip and allowing for adequate movement and flexibility.

What thickness surf gloves do you need?

If you’re surfing in water temperatures of about mid 50s and up, surfing gloves are going to be more of a personal preference. They’ll certainly help keep you warm, but they’re not going to be a session-breaker if you’re not wearing them. A 1.5mm to 3mm should suffice.

However, if you’re surfing in the PNW or New Jersey in the winter, a 5mm surf glove is probably going to be a good choice for most sessions.

How to put on your wetsuit gloves?

To put on your surf gloves:

  • Pull up your wetsuit sleeve to expose your wrist/forearm.
  • Collapse your fingers as you place them through the glove’s cuff and slide it down your wrist.
  • Open your fingers and position them in their slots until you get a comfortable fit.
  • Pull the glove’s cuff snug over your wrist.
  • Pull down the wetsuit sleeve over your surf glove and you’re good to go.

Full-finger gloves will be a little harder to put on than lobster-claw gloves.

Wetsuit Hoods

A standalone wetsuit hood will allow your go-to cold water fullsuit to be a bit more versatile. While an attached hood may be easier to get on and off and provide a better water seal, it can be a little uncomfortable to pull it down.

A detachable hood gives you the option for extra warmth when you need it, and allows you to surf more comfortable when you don’t.

A wetsuit hood is a game changer for wintertime and cold water surfs. You’ll avoid that ice cream headache from ducking icy waves and cold wind. You’ll also have the added benefit of some sun and glare protection with the full-head fit and built-in visor.

If you’re not used to wearing something on your head while you surf, a wetsuit hood is going to take some getting used to. But once you do, your winter sessions will last longer and you can forget about how cold it is.

How thick should my wetsuit hood be?

The thickness of your wetsuit hood depends on the water and air temperature where you’ll be surfing.

Obviously, a thicker hood is going to keep you warmer.

A 3mm wetsuit hood should be adequate in water in the low to high 50s range.

In California, a 3mm hood should get you by in most areas in the coldest of winter surfs. However, as you go further north, a 5mm might be a better choice.

If you’re surfing in water in the low 50s or below or there is a major wind chill, a 5-7mm wetsuit hood is going to be a good choice.

Boardshorts for Surfing

The feeling and freedom you get from surfing in boardshorts when the water’s warm is something every surfer should experience.

You’ll typically be able to comfortably surf in boardshorts when the water hits about the mid 70s and the air temperature is hot.

To give yourself some extra sun and board rash protection, you may want to pair your boardshorts with a rash guard or wetsuit top.

Rash Guards for Surfing

If your summertime surf spot allows for wetsuit-less sessions, a rash guard is a good idea to keep you protected from sunburn and board rash.

When the water is warm enough to forgo a wetsuit and trunk it, a rash guard serves a few different purposes.

  1. Rash Guards protect you from sunburn and harmful UV rays.
    • Whereas sunscreen will wear off and be difficult to get full and proper coverage everywhere, rash guards offer more complete sun protection.
  2. Rash guards protect you from board/wax rash when you paddle.
    • Paddling with a bare chest on your wax can lead to some major irritation and cause a friction rash.
  3. Rash guards provide you with some minor warmth and wind protection.
    • Even in the summer, you can still get chilly in warm water. A rash guard will provide you with a little extra comfort to help extend your session. If you need some more warmth, a wetsuit jacket or spring suit is probably a better choice.

Wetsuit Jackets & Tops

Whether you go long sleeve, short sleeve, vest, zipper, or pullover wetsuit top, the little added layer of neoprene for your core can go a long way in keeping your comfortable while surfing in the summer.

Having a solid wetsuit jacket allows you to ditch the fullsuit or spring suit sooner when the water and air temperatures haven’t reached their summer peak.

In the summertime, it’s a good addition to your board shorts or bikini, and a step up in warmth from a rash guard. Plus you get the added benefit of easy sun protection.

What water temperature do you need a wetsuit jacket?

Yeah, it’s hot out, the water’s warm. You head out in your boardshorts or bikini, of course.

Uh-oh, now your cold because a breeze kicked up. Or some upwelling made for some chilly water temps. Or you’ve got a righteous sun burn because you forgot your shoulders or couldn’t reach your back. Or you’ve got a nasty board rash from paddling on your sandy wax.

Need a solution to any and all of the above? Get yourself a wetsuit top, amigo.

A wetsuit top is a good choice when the water starts warming up.

When the water temperature hits the high 60s, you can usually get away with a wetsuit jacket and trunks.

It’ll keep your core warm and provide you with some wind protection. It’s especially handy when the water is warm, but the air is chilly or a bit breezy.

Wetsuit tops do have a greater tendency to washout and shift around more than a full-length wetsuit if you’re wiping out frequently or having to duck under lots of waves.

If it’s warm enough, it’s not that big of a deal, but if it’s a bit chilly, it can be annoying.

However, wetsuit jackets are the perfect choice for those small, hot days when you’re longboarding.

How should a wetsuit top fit?

A wetsuit top should fit similar to a fullsuit or springsuit – snug and comfortable, but not so tight that it restricts movement or hurts.

It should be snug enough so that it doesn’t shift around and move too much as you paddle, surf, and duck under waves.

At what point do you need a wetsuit hood, booties, and gloves?

Once the water dips down into the mid to low 50s, you’ll definitely benefit from some wetsuit accessories like a hood.

Below 50, you’ll definitely want to be covered in neoprene from head to toe.

A wetsuit hood is not only going to protect you from cold water, but it will also help with wind chill and sun protection too.

It’s a great way to make those cold, winter surfs a whole lot more enjoyable.

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.

How to Change Into a Wetsuit

First, you find a fairy godmother, and then you ask nicely, and POOF, you’re a wetsuit.

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.

If you grew up around a pool deck or started surfing as a grom, you’ve probably already mastered the deck change with a regular beach towel. This involves wrapping a towel around your waist as a skirt-type of deal and changing into your wetsuit or swimsuit or clothes by stepping into them and pulling them up.

To the inexperienced, a towel change can lead to all sorts of troubles. Dropped towel, improper roll to keep it in place, loss of balance as you try to hold your towel and change at the same time, etc, etc.

If a towel change gives you trouble, you can make your life a whole lot easier with a surf poncho.

Surf Ponchos

The best part about a surf poncho like this is that you can repurpose it on Halloween and go as the grim reaper – grab a SUP paddle and you’re good to go.

If you’re not used to towel changing/deck changing, getting into and out of your wetsuit might present some challenges.

A good changing poncho takes the trouble out of putting on your wetsuit, and keeps you warm and dry when you’re changing out of it.

A must-have if you don’t know how to change with a towel, and a nice to have in the winter to keep you warm while you’re getting ready to surf.

It’s not that complex of a product – it’s basically a large beach towel with some holes in it and a hood. It’s barely even worth the space on this website’s servers to mention it, but here we are.

All you need in a surf poncho is something that’s made out of decent towel material with enough room to allow you to easily change and without any overly-obnoxious logos.

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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