Buying Your Wetsuit – What You Need to Know
A wetsuit is the key to enjoying all that the water has to offer, whether we’re talking about the ocean or the lake. If you want to get beyond sunbathing and splashing on the shore, you’re going to want a wetsuit to help protect you and keep you comfortable. However, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all suit, and you will need to know quite a few things before you make a purchase. What works perfectly well for one person may be a completely wrong purchase for someone else. In our buying guide, we’ll walk you through what you need to know when comparing the best wetsuits on the market so that you can choose the right option for your personal needs and use goals.
Note that some areas of the world don’t really require a wet suit – if the water is in the 80s, then you are probably fine with a short suit, or just a pair of trunks and a surf jacket. However, those water temperatures only last for a few weeks every year and the water quickly chills. If you want to enjoy your preferred aquatic sport for more than just a handful of days each year, you’ll definitely want a wetsuit.
What Is a Wet Suit?
A wetsuit is exactly what it sounds like – a suit designed to be worn in the water. They are made primarily from rubber (neoprene) with additional materials thrown in to increase characteristics like flexibility or slip resistance. As you might imagine, a wetsuit does not keep you dry. It’s designed to allow water into the suit. In most cases, it will lock a small amount of water inside, which will then warm up to your body temperature. This then becomes a thermal barrier, helping to keep you warmer.
Why Is the Difference between a Full Suit and a Short Suit?
You will find two types of wetsuits on the market – short suits and full suits. The difference between the two should be apparent from the name, but we’ll explore this area a bit just so everything is completely clear.
A short suit is exactly that – a suit without legs. In most cases, short suits, or shorties as they’re often called, also have short sleeves, but this is not always the case. Some models offer short legs and long sleeves.
A full suit is generally made with long legs and long sleeves, but again, you may find a suit or two out there that combine long legs with short sleeves.
Which is right for your needs? It’s really all about you and your comfort level. Will you be enjoying surfing in 70-degree water? A shorty might be all you need. Will you be diving in 65-degree water? You’ll want a full suit (and probably long sleeves, to boot).
You will find a number of other styles and names out there. Let’s give you a brief rundown of what you will find on the market:
- Full wetsuit – long sleeves, long legs
- Shorty, springsuit, short john, wetsuit shorts – short legs, with short or long arms
- Long john/long jane – long legs with short sleeves
- Tops – short or long sleeves with no bottoms
- Pants, leggings and shorts – bottoms with no tops, either short or long.
- Rashguards – super-thin clothing worn under wetsuits to prevent chafing and the development of a rash
Why Does Material Thickness Matter?
If you read through our head-to-head wetsuit reviews, then you know that material thickness was one of the criteria we based our decision on. What does that matter, though? Actually, it’s pretty important.
Here’s the thing – the thicker the rubber, the more thermal protection you get. So, a suit that is 5 mm thick will be better suited to colder temperatures than one that is 2 mm thick. In fact, you’ll find that most buying guides focus on temperature first in order to help you choose a wetsuit.
For instance, if you will be in the water in temperatures from 39 to 46 degrees, a 6 or 7 mm suit would be appropriate. For those in 44 to 55-degree waters, a suit that is 4 or 5 mm thick would be a better option. For water that is between 53 and 60 degrees, 3 or 4 mm is sufficient, and 2 or 3 mm will be good for 59 to 66-degree water. From 66 to 71 degrees, a 2mm suit is enough and for water warmer than this, you need little protection beyond a surf jacket at the most.
You will also find thickness combinations on the market. For instance, a 5/4 mm suit combines 5 mm thick neoprene in some areas with 4 mm thick neoprene in other areas. This thickness difference is supposed to help ensure that areas like your chest and back stay warmer, while your arms and legs are not encumbered by thick material.
So, the general rule of thumb is this – the colder the water, the thicker the wetsuit should be. However, that’s not set in stone, as activity has a lot to do with things.
Related: Wetsuit Vs Drysuit
What Do You Want to Do?
Your level of activity, and type of activity itself, will impact the best wetsuits for you. For instance, if you are interested in deep, cold-water diving, then you will be fine with a 7 mm wetsuit in most cases. However, the greater your physical activity, the thinner you’ll want your suit. There are two reasons for this. First, the thinner your suit is, the more easily you’ll be able to move. Second, the thinner your suit, the less easily you will overheat.
Remember that wetsuits do not keep you dry. They lock in a layer of water that warms to your body temperature. In very active situations, that can lead to overheating if you have a thick suit. A thinner suit helps to ensure better overall temperature control in these situations. So, the more active you anticipate being, the thinner you’ll want your suit. That must be balanced against the temperatures you’ll be active in, of course.
Another consideration here is the way the suit will affect your performance and enjoyment of the activity in question. For example, if you are snorkeling in warmer water and plan to be relatively active, then a full suit of 3 mm neoprene might be quite restrictive. Thicker material limits your range of motion, which in term affects how well you’re able to perform within an activity, how much energy you must expend to perform an action, and your overall enjoyment.
The general rule here is that the more physical the activity you plan to ensure, the thinner you’ll want your suit simply so that you can move more freely and easily, and so that you do not expend as much energy.
Chest or Back Zip?
If you were paying attention during our wetsuit reviews, you noticed that all of the wetsuits we listed were back zips. However, if you have shopped around, you know that there are actually three different closure systems – back zips, chest zips, and zipless suits. Which is right for your needs? Why did we choose just back zip suits?
Back Zip – Back zip suits are an older design that features easier entry and exit from the suit. Back zip setups are also often cheaper than other types of suits on the market, but they sometimes do suffer from flushing (when cold water runs into the suit and cools the layer of water around your skin). Most of the suits we featured in our list have back zip systems, but have anti-flushing technology, such as adjustable necks.
Chest Zip – Chest zip suits are newer in style than back zip systems, but they are a bit harder to get in and out of. They are more expensive than back zip suits, as well. With that being said, some people prefer them as they tend to last a bit longer and sometimes offer replaceable components, such as the neck, which tends to be the first item to fail due to wear and tear on a wetsuit.
Zipless – Zipless suits, also called zipperless suits, are the newest style to hit the market. They’re much more expensive than back zip setups, and they are very difficult to get on and off. In reality, they’re performance oriented suits that would best for professionals or athletes. If you’re just getting started, buying a zipless suit would be overkill.
Finding Your Size
Finding the right size wetsuit for your needs can be very difficult. There are several reasons for this. First, the size of a wetsuit does not really correlate to the size of regular clothing. Also, you may have no idea what size clothing you actually wear, as manufacturers vary significantly (a large from one company might be another company’s XXL).
The best rule of thumb here is to use the sizing charts offered by each wetsuit manufacturer. Every suit we included in our list is accompanied by a sizing chart from the manufacturer to help you find the right fit. Note that you are unlikely to find a perfect fit unless you have a suit custom made (which is prohibitively expensive), but with the right mindset and possibly a little trial and error, along with adherence to the sizing chart from the manufacturer you choose, you’ll get one that fits you well.
What is a “good” fit, though? First, you will find that it is tight, but not confining or restrictive. The suit will fit like a second skin, and there should be no excess room. Note that the suit should also fit tightly around your neck, and the material may cause a rash. This is normal, and many people choose to wear a rash guard to prevent it.
With your suit on, check the torso, shoulders, crotch and knees. If there is excess room or bunching material, it is not the right fit. Putting the suit on when dry should be challenging.
Once you have the suit on, raise your arms above your head. Stretch your shoulders. You should feel only a light resistance. If you feel significant resistance, your suit is too large.
With your suit on, squat down. If you feel significant resistance, the suit is too small. You should also be able to move your arms freely without resistance. If you notice significant strain, the suit is too small.
However, note that the above sizing tips depend a lot on the thickness of the neoprene that you’re using. Suits that are thicker than 5/4 mm will be inherently thick and more difficult to move.
Seam, Stitching, and Gluing
We have talked about zipper systems and suit thickness, as well as many other things. As you can see from our discussion, not all wetsuits stack up to one another. There are many, many differences out there. However, the seams are perhaps the single most important area to consider.
Seams – Why are there seams in a wetsuit? Most of the models you’ll find out there are made from several different pieces of material, in much the same way your t-shirt or favorite pair of jeans is. There are seamless (or sealed) suits out there, but they are very expensive. Most of the ones you’ll want to consider here are stitched, or stitched and glued.
Stitching – Stitching is important for a couple of reasons. The better the stitching, the longer the suit will last, for one thing. Also, the better the stitching, combined with additional steps, the more comfortable you will be while using the suit. There are a few different types of stitches used in the industry, and they’re not created equal.
- Overlock: An overlock stitch is used on suits designed for warm water use primarily. The stitch is inside, giving the suit a smoother look. However, this is not particularly suitable for diving – more for surfing.
- Flat – Flat stitching, or flat-lock stitching, is visible on the exterior of the suit and is better for suits that will be used in cold water. Because the seam is on the outside, it does not lead to bunching, and it does not create additional pressure while wearing the suit.
- Blind Stitched – Blind stitching is also visible on the outside of the suit, but the stitches are much tighter and narrower, meaning that less water penetrates the suit (flushing). Blind stitching is used for suits that will be taken out in colder water.
- Glued and Blind Stitched – This method combines blind stitching with gluing for even stronger holds and better prevention of cold water from penetrating the seams of your suit. Several of the suits on our list use this method.
- Taping – Taping is usually used in conjunction with blind stitching and gluing. It offers even greater protection against cold water flushing, but can be very expensive.
In most cases, warmth is created by your body and then maintained by the thermal barrier of water between your skin and the wetsuit itself. However, there are some suits on the market, and one on our list of the best wetsuits, that use additional technology. Called far-infrared, or FAR, it captures body heat and then redistributes it through fibers built into the suit itself. There is another type that relies on a battery in the suit that runs a heater, although these are rarer and more expensive.
Do You Need Accessories?
If you take a look at any of the options on our wetsuits reviews chart, you’ll find that only the suit itself is included. However, depending on the activity that you want to enjoy, you may need to invest in some accessories. There are many options out there that can add additional warmth, protection, or usability, and these include:
Most manufacturers also offer matching accessories designed to work with their products. Note that if you plan to snorkel, you’ll also need a facemask, snorkel, and flippers. If you plan to scuba dive, you’ll need a snorkel mask and flippers, as well. You can rent tanks and regulators from dive companies, or you can invest in them yourself if you have the budget for this.
How Do You Care for a Wetsuit?
Your wetsuit is a vital part of being able to enjoy your preferred aquatic activities. It is an investment, and you want to make the most of it. That means you need to ensure you’re caring for it correctly. While there’s not a lot that must be done to prolong its lifespan, there are a few important steps, including:
- Rinse your suit and all gear immediately after using it.
- Always use cool water to rinse your suit – hot water reduces the flexibility of the neoprene.
- Never use a washer to clean your wetsuit.
- If necessary, use a specific wetsuit cleaner to remove salt, dirt, or other contaminants. Bleach should never be used.
- Let your suit hang dry in an area away from direct sunlight. UV rays accelerate the aging process for neoprene and will shorten your suit’s lifespan.
- Always hang dry your suit inside out.
- For storage, hang your suit using a padded, thick hanger or fold the suit flat.
- Protect your suit’s zipper with a cleaner/protectant against salt-related corrosion.
- Do not attempt to remove any stains from the suit – they’re permanent and stain removers will damage the neoprene.
Is a Wetsuit the Same as a Dry Suit?
No, a wetsuit and a dry suit are very different. As the names imply, you use a wetsuit when wet – the water enters the suit itself. With a dry suit, water is completely prevented from entering. In some instances, dry suits can look a bit like thick wetsuits, but they are much stiffer and more expensive. They are also really only useful for diving in cold water – in the 30s or below.
In the end, there is no one-size-fits-all wetsuit that will work for everyone. Your needs, your usage patterns, the water temperature, the time of year – all of these are factors that will influence your ultimate buying decision. Someone who will be spending two weeks on a surfboard off the coast of San Diego in the middle of summer will need a very different wet suit than someone who plans to enjoy scuba diving off the coast of Maine, or someone who planned to enjoy kitesurfing all year long.
With that being said, there are multiple options on the market, and we’ve assembled some of the best wetsuits in our list. Whether you’re interested in surfing, snorkeling, scuba, or something completely different, there is a suit out there for you. You will find big-name manufacturers like O’Neill, as well as relatively new upstarts, women-centric brands like Roxy, and those that design unisex suits for use by everyone. With a bit of time, some careful consideration and comparisons, you will find the right suit to help you get out and enjoy all that the water has to offer.