Buying a new wetsuit can be a little bit scary. Especially if you are new to surfing or haven’t bought one in a long time.
The wetsuit is a technical product that keeps getting better and better at performing its main job – keeping you warm in the water.
But as with any tech product, there’s jargon to get your head round to fully understand what you are buying.
We’ve put together this straightforward wetsuit guide to give you:
- An overview of the various wetsuit types
- A understanding of what the jargon and technologies are
- The confidence to go out and buy a new wetsuit.
If we’ve missed anything, drop a comment at the end of the article and we’ll make updates.
And if you want to jump straight to buying a wetsuit, check these online stores for great deals:
A wetsuit guide for surfers
How wetsuits work
Wetsuits are made from a material called neoprene which is a synthetic (man made) rubber. Very flexible and insulating.
Without going into too much science (check Wikipedia if you really need the details) a wetsuit works by providing a layer of insulation over the skin to prevent the cold temperature of the water getting to the body.
Some water gets into the wetsuit through any openings (wrists, legs, neck, zips and seams) but quickly warms up against the skin.
Ideally you want as little water getting in as possible so the snugger the fit, the better the performance of the wetsuit. If the wetsuit is loose, water will flow in and out and you’ll get cold quickly.
Some companies are looking at alternative materials to neoprene. Especially ones that are less impactful on the environment. The most notable development comes from Patagonia with their Yulex natural rubber wetsuits launched late 2016.
It remains to be seen if this will be the future of wetsuits but, for now, neoprene is the most common material.
Types of wetsuits for surfing
As the wetsuit is worn to keep the surfer warm in the water, the water temperature is going to determine what type of suit (and the thickness of the wetsuit) will be most comfortable.
There are a number of different types of wetsuit:
A. Vest / Jacket / Top
Even on those sunny days at the height of summer in a hot climate, spending a few hours in the line up can get a bit cold. A neoprene covering on your upper body is a perfect way to deal with the chill.
The vest without arms gives good freedom of movement for paddling and the jacket or top usually has no zips so also allows for flexibility.
You can also wear a vest under a full wetsuit to add a layer of insulation when it gets colder. It’s a useful piece of gear to have.
B. Shorty / Springsuit
The shorty or springsuit is, not surprisingly, ideal for wearing in springtime when the water is starting to warm up. And similarly in the fall / autumn. Obviously depends on where in the world your springtime and fall / autumn are (more on temperatures vs wetsuit later).
The short arms and short legs stop you from getting too warm but protect the body from the cold. Because the arms are short you get good flexibility for paddling.
C. Long Sleeve Shorty / Long Arm Spring
The same as the shorty but with long sleeves. Comes down to preference of style and how you feel the cold.
D. Short John
The short john is essentially a shorty but with no arms (a vest like top). Again, its down to personal preference and how you feel the effect of the cold but the lack of arms gives the advantage of far more freedom of movement for the all important paddle out.
E. Long John
The long john is a short john with full legs. Added warmth for the legs and some people just don’t like the look or the feel of a short legged wetsuit.
F. Short Arm Full Suit
This type of wetsuit is somewhere between the shorty and the full suit. A lot of people don’t like the look of the shorty or the way the short legs feel when you’re wearing it. The neoprene can start to ride up the thigh on the short legged suit.
The short arm full suit gives some flexibility for paddling and keeps the legs warm.
G. Full Suit / Steamer
Probably the most common wetsuit and gives full coverage to body, arms and legs. The wetsuit comes in a number of different thicknesses depending on how cold the water is.
H. Hooded suit
The hooded suit is for the crazy obsessed surfers who go out in the winter or head to quieter, colder breaks in the north. The suits will be thicker than the standard full suit.
If it’s cold enough for a hooded wetsuit, you probably want to think about gloves and boots as well.
Wetsuits come in different thicknesses. Stating the obvious, the thicker the wetsuit the warmer it will be.
The thickness is denoted with two numbers which are the thickness of the torso and the thickness of the limbs. Both in mm. So, for example, a wetsuit that is 4mm thick at the torso and 3mm thick at the limbs is a 4/3.
The chart below is guideline for the type and thickness of wetsuit suitable for different temperatures. But remember that different people have different tolerances to the cold.
Wind chill will have an impact as well. So although water temperature might look warm, you’re going to feel colder on a breezy day.
Wetsuits are made out of panels of neoprene which are then joined via stitching or glueing / welding. The problem with these joins is that they can let water in and are weak points for wear and tear.
Manufacturers try to use as few panels as possible but there will always be some kind of seam where a panel is joined.
When shopping for a wetsuit you will probably see that there are a few different types of stitch and manufacturers might be using the stitching as selling point. Different stitches have advantages and disadvantages.
Be sure to ask about the stitching if not immediately obvious.
Over lock stitch
The over lock stitch is the kind of stitch you see on clothing like t-shirts. This is an older style of stitching and is now only found on cheap wetsuits (like the ones you hire from surf schools). Technology has advanced.
Because the stitches go all the way through the suit, there are many small holes which let water into the suit. Some water getting in is ok but a constant flow is bad for the insulation of the wetsuit. You don’t want to be wearing a wetsuit with this kind of stitch in colder water.
Also the stitches are on the inside of the suit so they can be irritating against the skin and restrict movement.
Flat lock stitch
The flat lock stitch is an improvement on the over lock. The panels of neoprene are overlapped and then stitched. This gives a flatter seam on the inside of the suit so not so irritating and improves the flexibility.
But, there are still many holes in the suit allowing the water to get in. You will probably find this kind of stitching on suits designed for warmer water where some breathability is a good thing.
Higher quality and winter wetsuits will use a blind stitch. This technique takes the two pieces of neoprene and glues them together. They are then stitched on the inside with the needle only going through half the thickness of the neoprene before coming back out.
This way there are no holes going all the way through the neoprene so helps to keep more of the water out.
In addition to the stitches there might be a tape covering the stitches and a liquid seam (liquid rubber) applied to the seams. This keeps the wetsuit seams totally waterproof.
This kind of wetsuit is needed if you are surfing in cold water.
Welded seams are at the high end of the quality scale. No stitches needed. The neoprene panels are glued together and then a liquid seam (a kind of liquid rubber) coats the join on the inside and the outside making it 100% waterproof.
The suit is perfect for cold water and is far more flexible than a suit that has been stitched.
Zips / Zippers
The style of zip on the wetsuit makes a difference to how much water can get into the suit. And also, how you get into the suit – less zip is more difficult but allows greater flexibility when wearing the wetsuit.
The older style is the back zip where the zip runs from the lower back up to the neck. This is relatively easy to get into but doesn’t give a tight seal at the neck allowing water into the suit. The back zip also reduces flexibility.
A lot more wetsuits are now using the chest zip. This involves a lot more effort to get in as the space is smaller but the reward is less points where water can flush through.
A third option is a zip free wetsuit. Similar to a chest zip but smaller entrance to climb you way into and uses velcro or some other kind of locking mechanism. An advantage is high flexibility and low weight due to the lack of zip. But can be tricky to get in and even trickier to get out of.
It’s worth trying the various zip options before you buy as it will come down to personal preference and your body size and shape in how well you can get in and out of the suit.
A lot of people complain that the chest zip and zip free although ok to get in, are a nightmare to get out of. Sometimes requiring help from someone else.
The below video will show you how to put a wetsuit on (both chest zip and back zip). The reality in a cold, windy car park can be a little different. But – remember the techniques.
This one shows how to use a plastic bag to make life a bit easier with a chest zip wetsuit (although works with any):
If you want an even more watertight wetsuit, then look for additional seals on the wrist with a thinner rubber membrane that fits tight against the skin.
Not exactly a heated wetsuit more of a top or jacket that you wear under your suit with some heating elements and a couple of batteries. It is safe (honestly).
Sounds like a great idea to keep warm and be able to stay in the water for longer but they don’t seem to have really caught on. On the products available on the market some people rave about them but others highlight problems with deteriorating battery life. They can also be expensive.
Each manufacturer generally has slightly different sizing. So a medium with one brand won’t necessarily be the same with another. However, there will always be a sizing chart for you to use so don’t assume your size – check the chart first.
Some key points to consider when trying on a wetsuit (shamelessly stolen from Hansen Surf):
- A well fitting wetsuit increases insulation and comfort
- The suit should fit snugly but not so tight that it restricts movement or breathing
- On the flip side, if it’s too loose it will let water in and will not keep you warm
- When the wetsuit is on there should be no excess room. A proper fitting wetsuit will be hard to put on when dry
- Lift your arms over your head and stretch out your shoulders. This move should only be slightly restricting so if there’s a lot of pressure then the suit is too small
- You should be able to squat down and move your arms easily (in a wetsuit less than a 5/4mm)
There you have it. Our complete wetsuit guide. I hope you have a better understanding of the various types of wetsuits, the jargon used and that you feel better armed to go out and buy one.
We’d love to hear what you think. Leave any comments and ask any questions below.