Wetsuit Buyer's Guide
Buying your first wetsuit can be a confusing and even stressful experience if you don’t know what to look for, or what type of suit you need. A quality wetsuit is an investment, so read on to learn how to buy smart.
About Wetsuit Fit
We often hear from customers who say they believe they've ordered the correct size wetsuit, but it seems too tight. This makes them wonder if our sizing charts are inaccurate.
The answer is no. Wetsuits are supposed to fit very snugly, that’s partly how they keep excess water out.
A tight wetsuit is harder to put on and take off though, and there’s some risk of tearing or permanently stretching the suit during the process. There are lubricating skin lotions, sprays and creams available to make the task easier, but if you don’t have much experience with wetsuits it’s probably best to go with a snug, but not tight, fitting suit until you’re confident you can put the suit on and take it off easily, without damaging it.
There are many how-to videos available on YouTube that demonstrate the proper technique for donning and doffing a wetsuit without damaging it.
First Things First: What Are Wetsuits For, and How Do They Work?
When you enter water that’s cooler than your body temperature, the water rapidly absorbs and disperses your body heat. Different people have different levels of sensitivity to cold, but most healthy adults can handle water temperatures down to about 77F (25C) with no added protection. If the water’s any colder than that you’re going to need help to retain as much body heat as possible.
Wetsuits help keep you warm in three ways. First, by providing a physical barrier between your skin and the water. Second, by trapping a thin, insulating layer of water, warmed by your body heat, between your skin and the suit. Third, by trapping air warmed by your body heat in the tiny air pockets inside the neoprene material of which wetsuits are made, to provide another layer of insulation.
Thickness and Coverage Are Key
Thicker neoprene makes for a warmer wetsuit because it contains more of those tiny air pockets. However, thicker neoprene is also less flexible, so thicker suits offer less range of motion.
Wetsuits are commonly available in neoprene thicknesses ranging from 1 - 7mm, and will often be labeled with two thicknesses (e.g., 3/2mm, 5/3mm, etc.). The first number refers to the thickness of the neoprene around the torso and the second can refer to side panels, sleeves or pant legs that are constructed of thinner neoprene to provide greater flexibility and range of motion.
You can strike a balance between mobility and warmth with a “shorty”: a wetsuit with short sleeves, short legs, or both. A shorty insulates your core while leaving elbows and/or knees uncovered to move freely.
Neoprene Protection For Hands, Feet and Head
In water cold enough to require a full length suit you may also need neoprene booties and gloves, and if the water’s very cold, a neoprene hood as well. Keeping your body warm won’t make a difference if your hands, feet or ears are so cold they’re numb or painful.
Deciding Which Thickness and Type of Suit You Need
There are two primary considerations when choosing a wetsuit:
- Water temperature / season in which the suit will be used
- Activity for which the suit will be used
In general, the colder you expect the water to be, the thicker suit you’ll want to buy. But don’t forget that second bullet: if your intended activity will demand maximum flexibility and range of motion, a very thick suit may be too constricting or even too warm---remember, physical activity generates body heat.
Follow the guidelines below, adjusting up or down according to your personal cold tolerance and intended activity level.
50F (10C) – 59F (15C): 5mm – 7mm full length suit, booties, gloves and hood recommended; suits in this range are typically labeled as appropriate for cool to cold water
Below 50F (10C): 7mm full length suit, booties, gloves and hood required; suits in this range are typically labeled as appropriate for cold water
5mm Thickness Is The Most Versatile
If you only want to buy one suit to cover a maximum range of water temperature conditions, a 5mm, full-length suit is the way to go. It will keep you warm in water ranging from 50F (10C) to 68F (20C) while providing good range of motion.
Features to Prevent Dreaded Flushing and Seepage
While all wetsuits are designed to allow a little bit of water into the suit to create an insulating layer against your skin, the quantity of water needs to be kept to a minimum. Most wetsuits include features to help keep excess water out.
When a large amount of water enters the suit at the neck, arm or leg openings, it’s called “flushing”. Some wetsuits employ features like adjustable Velcro straps, zippered arm and leg openings, or seamless, “skin seal” neoprene cuffs for a snug fit that discourages flushing.
When smaller quantities of water enter the suit along its seams or zipper(s), it’s called “seepage”. No wetsuit can be absolutely guaranteed to remain waterproof for the life of the suit, but blind stitched and glued seams will be more resistant to water than flat-lock stitched seams and seams that are blind stitched but not glued. Be sure to check the product description or ask the dealer to verify how the suit’s seams are constructed.
Full-length, neoprene gussets under zippers will also discourage seepage.
A Tight Fit Is A Good Fit
Wetsuits are supposed to fit very snugly, that’s partly how they keep excess water out. A tight wetsuit is harder to put on and take off though, and there’s some risk of tearing or permanently stretching the suit during the process. There are lubricating skin lotions, sprays and creams available to make the task easier, but if you don’t have much experience with wetsuits it’s probably best to go with a snug, but not tight, fitting suit until you’re confident you can put the suit on and take it off easily, without damaging it.
What’s A Rashguard, or “Rashie”?
In tropical waters where no wetsuit is needed, you may still need a protective layer to guard against sunburn, stings from aquatic creatures, sand flea bites, or the skin chafing (“rash”) caused when your body rubs against sand particles on your surfboard, body board or other water sports equipment. Under those circumstances you will want to wear a rashguard, often called a rashie.