Wetsuit Buying Guide
When buying a wetsuit, some of the questions you should be asking yourself are:
What are the types of wetsuits? Which one would I need?
What size do I need to buy? What's this MT / XXL stuff?
I know the water temperature, but which wetsuit is suitable for that temperature?
What thickness neoprene will I need? how do I tell the thickness by looking?
Will I need a blindstitched seam?
Types of wetsuit
The vest provides a little bit of neoprene coverage, giving protection from wind chill. The wetsuit vest is ideal to keep you more comfortable on a summers day surf. The image on the left shows it looks just like (depending on where you come from) a vest, tank top, or singlet. The vest is normally either 2mm or 3mm thick. Wearing something on your bottom half is optional (but advised).
A slight step up in the warmth stakes when compared to the vest. Jackets have full-length arms and offer additional warmth for the top half of the body. You'll be more protected from the elements, and your unsightly underarm hair can remain hidden. Jackets are normally constructed from 2mm/1mm thick material. Beware a full-length chest zip at the front, these can be quite uncomfortable for a surfer while paddling.
We're back to the exposed arms with the Short John Wetsuit. Your torso down to your thighs is now covered, giving you core warmth. Ideal for taking the chill off during a dawn patrol surf, while not becoming too hot as the sun gets higher. (Authors opinion: I think the short and long john wetsuits look a little silly).
Pros: Your arms are back on the show again, and with the additional neoprene between stomach and knees, you can dispense with board shorts. No more impromptu inner thigh waxing.
Cons: No more impromptu inner thigh waxing. (no pain no gain and all that!)
The Long John gives you full body coverage while leaving your arms uncovered. Great for easy paddling, you can flail your arms around with no neoprene resistance. The Long John is ideal in conditions where the air temperature is warm but the water temperature is a little chilly.
Pros: Your knees are now covered, no more chafing while working out how to pop-up properly.
Cons: People will think you are just too cheap to buy a wettie with sleeves.
The springsuit has arm and leg coverage, at least in part. It comes with short legs and can have both short and long arms. (Not at the same time, or with one short and one long arm, obviously)
Pros: Ideal for summer surfing, long arms, and full body keeps the sun off your skin, and your body core temperature increased.
Cons: If everyone else is in boardies, you'll look like a lightweight.
The Short Arm Steamer
This design looks like it's built for warmth, and that's the point. The Short Arm Steamer is normally made with a mix of 3mm and 2mm neoprene and covers the trunk and legs. It also covers the upper arms, while leaving the forearms exposed. Your paddling should not be affected unless you choose a suit that's a couple of sized too small, or you've overindulged over the weekend.
Pros: Much warmer, still easy to paddle, no waxy thighs or chaffed knees.
Cons: Your skinny little forearms are still exposed. Your comical knobbly knees no longer make you the life and soul of your local break.
The range is complete with the Fullsuit, or Long Arm Steamer. This wetsuit if for the cold water surfer, and comes in a range of wetsuit thicknesses, depending on the level of warmth required. For cooler temperatures, you would choose a 3mm/2mm wetsuit. For very cold weather you would need a 6mm/5mm/4mm wetsuit to allow you to stay in the water for longer. Some even come with hoods attached. A 6mm fullsuit with attached hood, wetsuit booties, wetsuit gloves, and heated rash guard, will see you stay in the water longer than all your mates!
Pros: Warmth, what more of a "Pro" do you need.( see how wetsuits work for more info)
Cons: A thicker suit is harder to paddle. The fullsuit is the most expensive type of wetsuit available (learn about wetsuit care to protect your investment).
Wich Wetsuit Size do I need?
Your choice of wetsuit will depend on the temperature of the water you will be surfing in. The main wetsuit brands all produce a range of shapes and types to suit every need. If it's something to keep you warm, or just to look good, there's plenty of choices.
Most brands produce ranges from XXS to XXL. The letters correspond to a mixture of sizes and heights. Here's what the letters stand for:
So, XL is extra large, MT is medium tall, and so on. Take a look at the size chart, use your own height, chest and waist measurements, and there you'll have your letters. For example, if you're 5'8 tall, weight 150 pounds, has a 40-inch chest, and a 32-inch waist, it's likely that you'll need an MS (medium-small) wetsuit.
The above chart is based on the Xcel men's wetsuit range. Women's sizing charts will be slightly different, with bust, waist and hip measurements used.
The above image shows where the measurements should be taken
Although you now know which wetsuits to choose from, there are a few other things to keep in mind. Not everyone will fit exactly into one size, and even if you do fit into a range on the size chart, the suit may just not feel right. It is a good idea to visit a surf shop and try on a range of wetsuit models, and suits from different brands. Different brands and different brand models will have a different fit and feel.
We've provided a chart with a range of temperatures, and the type of wetsuit that should be ok for those temperatures. We've included additional items of surf equipment that may be required for a little extra warmth. Keep in mind that it's a general guide only. If you feel the cold, err on the side of caution and get a thicker wetsuit.
Thickness of neoprene
If you take a look at a wetsuit description in a shop, or an online surf shop listing may well have noticed one, two or three numbers in the wetsuit description. These numbers represent the thickness of the wetsuit neoprene in millimeters. The thickness of this material varies, dependent upon the part of the body that's being covered. This is why there are often different numbers in the description. The wetsuit neoprene is almost always thinner on the arms and legs, to ensure that the movement of the surfer's limbs is not overly restricted while surfing.
The numbers will be separated with either a '/' or a '0', with each number corresponding to a different thickness. The larger number, usually the first number (the number on the left), gives the thickness of the torso. The second (and sometimes third) number gives the thickness of the neoprene on the limbs.
Here are some example product descriptions of O'Neill brand wetsuits from our wetsuit product pages.
- Heat 6/5/4mm Hooded Full Wetsuit
This is a wetsuit that would be used in very cold water. It has a thickness of 6 millimeters on the torso. The 5 is the thickness of the arms. The legs are 4-millimeter neoprene. A wetsuit with 6-millimeter neoprene all over would be very restricting, and make it hard to paddle and surf.
- Epic 2 Ct 5/3 Wetsuit
A cold water wetsuit, the sort of suit that would be worn by a surfer through winter when surfing in England. The torso material is 5 millimeters thick, the arms and legs are 3 millimeters thick.
- Heat 3q 302 Full Back Wetsuit
Here's an example of the numbers separated with a "0". This does not mean there is a hole in the wetsuit. (Nice idea though) It's a spring or summer wetsuit, and significantly thinner than the winter, cold water, wetsuit examples above.
- Epic 2mm S/S Full Back Wetsuit
This wettie only has 2mm in the description. It is a springsuit and is made of 2-millimeter thick neoprene all over.
A well-fitting wetsuit is essential for warmth, and the fit is achieved by the use of separate, tailored panels. These panels are joined to each other by stitching along seams. The seams are less flexible than the sheet neoprene. In a good quality wetsuit, seams are kept away from areas where high flexibility is important. Seams should not run along the shoulders or underarms, where they could intrude on paddling areas. In a poor quality wetsuit, water will flood through the seams, quickly turning your nether regions blue!
- a better fitting wetsuit
- can be glued to prevent water coming in
- reduces flexibility
- Increases the likelihood of chafing caused by a seam,
- Less chance of water entering the suit
- Poorer fit, although this is becoming less and less a problem with new neoprene technology
There are three types of stitching used in wetsuit construction. As you might guess, stitching involves making holes in neoprene and passing a thread through. These holes can let water through the waterproof neoprene, so the type of stitching is important when considering how warm a wetsuit will be.
This method is the simplest way of stitching, and the least effective at keeping water out. It is not used on high-end wetsuits, and would only be found on summer wetsuit or cheaper wetsuits. The two edges of the panels are rolled together and then stitched to hold them together. This method drastically reduces the flexibility of the seam. It also leaves a bulge on the inside of the wetsuit, which can be uncomfortable and result in chafing - ouch!
Flatlock stitching involves laying one-panel edge over the other, then stitching through the neoprene. The resulting seam is flexible and strong. The drawback to a flat locked seam is that the process involved creates many holes, and is prone to high water penetration. This makes it more suited to summer or warmer water surfing.
The edges of the panels are placed end on end and glued together. They are then stitched on the inside, but the stitching does not go all the way through to the outside of the panels. Result: watertight, flexible seams. This is the ideal seam for cold water temperatures and is the one found in higher quality, more expensive wetsuits. If you are a cold water surfer, do yourself a favor and pay extra for blindstitching.
Double blindstitching can be used on thicker wetsuits, where a seam is blindstitched on one side, then again on the reverse side.
Water seepage will reduce the effectiveness of the suit. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to increase the warmth of a wetsuit, (without constantly peeing in it) and to increase the strength of a wetsuit's seams.
- Glued Seams: The panels are glued together prior to stitching, increasing the strength of the seam and creating a waterproof seal
- Spot Taped Seams: Tape is glued to the inside of the seam in critical areas to add additional strength where needed
- Fully Taped Seams: Tape is glued to the inside of every seam. Neoprene tape can be used to ensure there is no loss of flexibility
- Liquid Taped: The ultimate seam seal. A special liquid rubber is applied to the inside seam which makes it 100% waterproof.
We cannot stress how important a good fit is. Every wetsuit has a different fit and cut, and one brand's size may not be the same as another. The fit that you find on the size chart might not be suitable for your body shape.
If you can, try before you buy. Bend, stretch, sweep your arms around - it doesn't matter that you'll look like an idiot in the surf shop, but it does matter that you get a great fit. Underarms, the backs of the knees and the groin are all potential trouble spots, so pay particular attention to these areas. (Your own, not other peoples areas —we'd hate to take the blame for giving you license to study someone else's groin area)
If you have any concerns about fit or have a "non-average" body shape that may not be suited to an off-the-rack purchase, there is the option of a custom-made wetsuit. It's the best way to ensure the correct fit. There are a number of companies that offer a custom service. The process involves supplying a complete set of your specific measurements, and a one of the custom suit to be made, just for you! It's also worth considering a custom because they provide such a good fit.
Do brands really matter? Well, not really. The mainstream manufacturers all use top quality materials and construction techniques. If you are buying from a surf shop, the ranges from the likes of Quiksilver, Rip Curl, and O'Neill will all be available. The choice of a suit should be down to fit, stretch and suitability, not who made it. In general, you'll have to pay more for the surf brands than you will for a no-name brand from a discount store, but this is a reflection of the quality of the suit. In this case, you get what you pay for.
When it gets too cold
If you are surfing in extremely cold conditions, then you're going to have to consider something a little different.
There are several possible options:
- A semi-dry suit; a completely different type of protection. It's not a wetsuit and works by stopping the cold water from coming into contact with your skin. They are not for the average surfer and are only for extreme conditions.
- A heated suit; there are a couple on the market now. Basically, it's a wetsuit with a heating element that warms the core of the surfer throughout the surf session. Check out the Bomb Series video on the Rip Curl wetsuits page here, which has a section on the H-Bomb, Rip Curl's heated wetsuit.
- Heat packs; these are like mini water bottles for a surfer. These are chemical heat packs that fit into a belt worn underneath the wetsuit. Once activated, they remain hot for about an hour. They are re-useable and add a nice bit of comfort.