Choosing the Right Wetsuit

by Mike McDaniel on January 12, 2012

Choosing The Right Wetsuit
On safari in Mexico, we enjoy nice warm water and surf in our swimsuits about 98% of the time. Lucky us! Occasionally, maybe once every few years, the water temp might unexpectedly drop 5-7 degrees and then we get in our wetsuits for a few days. So far this season, it’s been nothing but toasty warm days and beautifully warm water. We’ve forgotten where we put the wetsuits!

But as it is winter at home for most of us, now might be a good time to get some neoprene on. And “getting it on” seems to be the main issue when it comes to wetsuits. If you’re not used to wearing one, it can feel odd and slightly uncomfortable at first. If you’re not used to buying them, it can be a little daunting. This week, we want to offer you some tips for selecting the right wetsuit, and some encouragement to get out there, even when the water isn’t as warm as you wish it were.

Your First Wetsuit?
If you know nothing at all about wetsuits, you need to know this—a wetsuit is not meant to keep you dry. It’s job is simply to keep you WARM. It does this by allowing a small layer of water to seep into the suit and get next to your skin. Your body warms that water and the wetsuit acts as a barrier to keep that warmer water next to you. In general, the thicker the wetsuit, the warmer it will be.

Thickness is measured in millimeters and you’ll see combinations of numbers, like these…3/2mm, 4/3mm, 5/4mm. The first number refers to the torso area (3mm, for instance) and the second number (2mm) is the limbs. The thicker torso keeps your core well insulated, and the slightly thinner arms and legs allow for better flexibility. The thickness you need depends on the temperature of the water you’ll be in, and you might factor your personal thermostat into that equation as well. If you chill easily, or have very low body fat, you might need a slightly thicker wetsuit than someone with more, um… nature’s insulation.

The following chart is just a guide, but offers a starting point for reference…

-50º water = 5/4/3 Fullsuit, plus booties and a hood. Welcome to the Pacific Northwest.
51-56º water = 4/3 Fullsuit. Think Northern California in winter. And bring your booties.
57-64º water = 3/2 Fullsuit. You’re getting warmer, SoCal in the summertime.
65-74º water = Springsuit. Don’t forget to put sunscreen on those pale arms and legs.
+75º water = No wetsuit, yay! You’re in Mexico, baby.

The key word is SNUG. A wetsuit needs to fit your body snuggly, and yes, it is going to feel restrictive at first. That’s ok—it’s going to feel a bit looser when it’s wet, and that snug factor is going to help keep you warm in the water. If you try it on, and there are obvious air pockets where the neoprene is not making contact with your skin, especially around the neck or torso, that wetsuit is going to flood with cool water, and will not keep you warm enough. Go down a size. Conversely, if you can barely get a suit on and you feel like it’s squeezing the breath out of you, go up size.

There are two main types of full wetsuits, with regard to entry; back zip and neck (or front) zip. For many recreational surfers, back-zip suits work well and they are easier to get into. The zipper runs down the length of the spine and allows you to slide in relatively easily from the back.
Neck, or front zip wetsuits, while offering a more secure fit, allow less room to enter (through an expanded neck opening, essentially). These work well, especially for the leaner surfers, who have an easier time squeezing down into that reduced opening. Regardless of what type you think you might prefer, you’re going to want to…

Try. It. On.
If at all possible, you want to try a on wetsuit before you buy. If you are ordering online, make sure you can make an exchange in the event your suit doesn’t fit quite right. Try different sizes, try different types, try different brands in the same size. Most of us who have used wetsuits for years, and experimented with different makes, have found that some brands fit us better than others. Like clothing manufacturers, everybody uses their own patterns and they can vary slightly. If you can sort out which brands suit your body type before you buy, that can make the difference between liking your wetsuit, and loving your wetsuit… and staying out an extra 30 minutes to surf, if you’re perfectly warm.

Once you’ve tried a wetsuit on, move around in it, make a paddling motion with your arms. Now—before you’re in the water—is the time to find out if it doesn’t feel right when you move, if it pinches or binds. But remember, it WILL feel a bit looser once it’s wet.

Now Featuring…
These days, you can get a ‘loaded’ wetsuit with tons of extra features, if you feel like paying a little extra. Different types of neoprene offer different levels of stretchy-ness; the higher priced suits will have more ‘super stretch’ neoprene built in, offering more flexibility and reduced bulk. Likewise, there are different types of seams; flat-lock stitched, sealed, sealed AND taped. And again, you get what you pay for. Flat-lock stitching is the standard and works just fine in waters that aren’t too cold. For colder climes, sealed seams are first glued, then stitched, offering a more water-tight seal. And if you’re going to surf anywhere there is snow on the beach, you’re going to need a wetsuit with sealed AND taped seams, ensuring minimum seepage and maximum comfort.

In addition, you’ll see other bells and whistles that may tempt you… Poly-fleece linings, different qualities of zippers, built-in hoods, wind barriers, and key pockets. These are all fun and interesting to consider, but don’t choose neat features over fit. Fit is critical.

Depending on where you’ll surf and how cold it is, you may consider a hood, booties and/or gloves. If you have enough neoprene, you may only have a small oval of face exposed to the icy water… if that’s the level of warmth you’re going for. And regardless of how cold the water is, a good poly/lycra rash guard (worn under the wetsuit like a t-shirt) often guarantees that the seams of your wetsuit won’t rub uncomfortably against your skin.

Retail Therapy
OK, now you know what you’re looking for—here’s where to look. If you can visit a surf shop(s) and try some wetsuits on, that’s best. If you are nowhere near a surf shop, then you’re going to want to surf the web, and these are some good spots to score. Happy shopping!

*Aleeda will custom fit a suit to your measurements

*Heat Wave will custom build you a one of a kind wetsuit, that fits you perfectly… if they aren’t out surfing.

Mike McDaniel is the Las Olas Surf Safaris Operations Manager and fifteen year veteran of surf travel. With surf missions to Baja, Costa Rica, Japan, Hawaii, Fiji and over 70 safaris in mainland Mexico, Mike’s insights on air travel, surf culture and coastal geography have kept Las Olas’ surf safaris on course for a decade.

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