Choosing the right wetsuit may seem complex at first, but this wetsuit buying guide will help you choose the right suit for the right conditions. The type of wetsuit that you need will generally be decided by a combination of two major factors, neoprene thickness and wetsuit design. These key features will determine how warm the wetsuit will keep you in varying water temperatures and how flexible the wetsuit needs to be for your optimal performance.
Wetsuits are all constructed with neoprene, which is a stretchy rubber compound. Wetsuit neoprene varies in thickness and in general a thicker neoprene is required in colder waters to ensure you have more insulation around your body.
Wetsuits are often a combination of 2 or 3 different neoprene thicknesses, for example a 5/4/3 refers to a wetsuit with 5mm neoprene in the core body areas, 4mm for the limbs and 3mm in areas that require more flexibility.
Wetsuits are usually a combination of two different neoprene thicknesses.
For example, 5/3mm refers to a wetsuit with 5mm neoprene on the body (this ensures the core of the body is kept warm) and 3mm in the limbs (to provide minimal restriction to paddling and movement).
Neoprene technology is constantly advancing to provide more flexibility and greater heat retention at all thicknesses.
This table provides a great explanation of the neoprene thickness needed by surfers in a range of temperatures:
Back zips are the traditional entry method for wetsuits. The zip extends down the back of the suit and is made accessible with a cord attachment.
Chest zips are a more recent innovation where you enter through the neck opening and fasten the zip across the front.
Different surfers prefer the different systems for different reasons. Some prefer the chest zip as it means there can be a complete neoprene panel across the shoulder area. This means there will be less restriction to paddling movement. They also allow less water leakage than traditional back zips which will keep you warmer.
Others choose the back zip as they feel it is easier to get in and out of. Many back zips now have a batwing. This term is used to describe an extra layer of neoprene in the back of the suit. This provides more protection against water coming in through the zipper.
Made from either 0.5mm or 1mm neoprene, these are wetsuit tops that cover the upper torso. They are worn in warm or mild water temperatures and provide protection from the sun and wind. The thin layer of neoprene means there's minimal constriction to the paddling motion.
They also offer protection from the waxy surface of a surfboard rubbing against bare skin and causing a rash. 1mm wetsuit shorts are also commonly used in water sports such as wakeboarding, kite surfing and kayaking to provide additional padding and protection.
Shorty suits cover the torso (to maintain heat in the body's core) as well as the upper arms and legs. They are most used in warm water from 16C to the low 20C range.
Their thinner neoprene construction allows for a wide range of movement and, like 1mm wetsuits, they provide protection from the sun and wind.
They retain some of the features of full length wetsuits such as neck seals and zipper systems but do not deliver the same level of seam sealing. As they are designed for warmer conditions, this allows water pass in and out of the seams, arm and leg cuffs to regulate body temperature.
2mm wetsuits can also be found in other designs such as full suits, wetsuit tops, sleeveless jackets and neoprene trousers.
Designed to be used in temperatures from the low teens and upward, 3mm wetsuits are also known as spring suits and can feature several different wetsuit designs.
They are ideal for the warmer seasons such as spring and summer in the UK and will keep you warm in windy or cooler water temperatures (14-17C).
A "Jon" wetsuit design refers to a wetsuit which has no arms and can come with either short or long legs, thus there is both a "Long Jon" design and a "Short Jon". The Long Jon design is also referred to as a three-quarter length wetsuit.
Jon wetsuits are perfect for stand up paddle boarding as they give you completely unrestricted shoulder movement.
4mm wetsuits are most commonly used in water temperatures between 10 and 14C.
They are great for late summer and early spring when a surfer would typically be coming out of their thicker 5mm or 6mm winter wetsuits. With superior wetsuit technology, 4mm wetsuits are even being worn year round – although we wouldn't advise it for the very coldest months!
These will almost exclusively be full wetsuits and made in a 4/3mm neoprene combination. This means that the areas which require more flexibility, such as under the arms or between the legs, are constructed with more stretchy 3mm neoprene. The core body areas are covered with 4mm of neoprene to ensure warmth.
The advances in neoprene technology in 5mm wetsuits like these have enabled year-round surfing and opened up new wave frontiers across the planet.
These give you the protection you need from very low water temperatures (8-10C) and are essential kit for winter and the cooler autumn months. The normal thickness combination is 5mm in the core to retain body heat and 3mm in the limbs for greater movement to paddle and pop up.
These suits feature highly advanced seam sealing technology to prevent water entry and thicker neoprene for greater insulation. They will not be as flexible as warmer water suits but the heat they provide in cold water is vital.
For when the warmth in the water is well and truly gone. These wetsuits are made for temperatures below 10C when the sea feels more like ice.
They are constructed with 6mm of neoprene in the core body area to keep heat in the vital organs. They also have 5mm panels in the torso to still provide warmth, but add an extra degree of movement. The arms and legs are 4mm to enable you to paddle and move and still stay warm.
They also feature highly advanced seam and zip technology to prevent icy water entering.
Wetsuits are sized in a two dimensional manner to ensure the user has a snug fit, no matter what their body shape is. Wetsuits are measured in both body width as well as body length. With regards to width - regular clothes sizes such as small, medium, large and extra large apply.
In temperatures reaching below 12-14C, many surfers begin to wear wetsuit boots or wetsuit booties to keep their feet warm. These mirror their body wetsuit partners in ranging from 1mm up to 7mm in neoprene thickness depending on the warmth you require.
Wetsuit boots feature rubber bottoms for durability and grip, Velcro straps to keep water out and can be round toe or split toe depending on preference.
The split toe simply means that there is a rubber strip between the big toe and the other toes to prevent the neoprene slipping around on the foot. Round toe boots keep the toes together which enhances warmth. Reef boots have tough, robust soles to ensure nothing can come through the sole such as sharp coral, rocks and sea urchins.
If your hands get too cold if will affect your ability to paddle and grip your board. Wetsuit gloves come in 5 finger, 3 fingers and mitten designs.
The popularity of 3 finger and mitten designs has been growing as they have the capacity to keep you warmer but do cut down on hand mobility.
Wetsuit caps are designed to cover the skull area, whereas wetsuit hoods cover the head and neck area and tuck into the wetsuit. They are also sometimes attached to the wetsuit.
A large percentage of body heat can be lost via the head and thus wetsuit hoods ensure longer and happier surfing sessions.
If you don't choose to wear a hood in the coldest waters you'll get an ice-cream headache and then you'll probably change your mind next time!
Getting in and out of a wetsuit Take care when you are putting on and taking off your wetsuit. They can be torn by pulling on the seams too hard. Also, remove any sharp jewellery or watches to prevent rips.
The best system for putting on a suit is to roll the body of the suit down inside out so that you can put the legs of the wetsuit on first and then pull it up to your waist. After that, put your arms through and fully adjust everything for a comfortable fit before pulling up the zip to finish the job.
When taking off the suit, take your time and try not to over stretch it. Sitting down will make it easier to remove it from around your legs.
How to clean a wetsuit Try and wash your suit as soon as possible in cold water – at the beach if you can. Hot water breaks down the seams and can affect neoprene integrity. This also means that if you have long commute home that the wetsuit is at least clean and any corrosive salt water has been washed away. When transporting the suit, a wetsuit sack is an excellent way to stop water leaking throughout your car's boot.
Wetsuits can be treated with special shampoos and cleaning agents (particularly when they get a little smelly). These are designed to remove the odour rather than the wetsuit glues.
Surf wax is tricky to remove and can damage the wetsuit neoprene, so is best left where it is. Never put your wetsuit in a washing machine, try to iron it or treat it with any strong chemicals.
How to store a wetsuit Store the suit in a cool place away from heat and direct sunlight, as UV ages and discolours neoprene. Always hang wetsuits inside out to dry out. It’s preferable to keep them on a plastic or non-metallic hanger although once they are dry they can be stored flat.
Taped seams – This was one of the original methods to strengthen wetsuit seams, every seam has nylon tape glued on, however this method is generally being replaced with the new liquid seams.
Liquid Seams – Every seam that links the panels together is covered by a layer of liquid rubber creating a completely waterproof seal, great for winter suits.
YKK Zippers – These zips are industrial marine grade systems used on nearly all zippers.
Polypropylene – This has recently started being used as an extra inner lining within the wetsuit and keeps you drier and therefore warmer.
Flatlock Stitches – Panels of the suit are layered in such a way that they overlap slightly before being stitched. This method is used in thinner wetsuits as it keeps a high flex rate and allows water to enter. This helps you to maintain an optimum body temperature and not overheat.
Glued and Blindstitched Seams - This construction is designed for cold water. The seams are glued and then stitched to ensure minimal water entry. It resembles flatlock stitching, but is not as wide.
Glideskin – Smooth-touch material found in the neck and cuffs that cuts down on irritating rashes and make the suit easier to enter and get off.