A proper wetsuit makes the difference between a full, fun day of surfing and a short, miserable time. With a poor-fitting suit, it’s easy to feel like you’re freezing important body parts off. Conversely, a correct wetsuit’s sole purpose is to keep you warm so you can fully enjoy whichever variety of watersport keeps you going.
Picking the right wetsuit shouldn’t be about fashion, color, or going with what the pros wear. Instead, make your choice based on fit, water temperature, suit thickness and flexibility, air temperature, and wind temperature. Your personal sensitivity to cold also makes a difference in comfort based on the suit’s relative thickness. Accessories such as hoods, gloves, boots, and rash guards also affect your choice by helping conserve body heat with the same wetsuit on chillier days.
Keep in mind wetsuits aren’t strictly for surfing. The same suits often work for diving, body surfing and boogie boarding, spearfishing, waterskiing, paddle boarding, canoeing and kayaking, sailing, and even work for triathlons and Tough Mudder events — though some of those sports have special requirements.
To help you navigate the sea of available options, the following picks are for serious surfers willing to invest in a suit capable of lasting at least two or three years with routine use. If you only surf a few days a year, or even a few weeks, you won’t need the highest quality suit — in most cases, the same brands sell less expensive lines sufficient for casual surfers.
O’Neill Psycho Tech 4/3 FUZE Chest Zip
Why should you buy this: The O’Neill Psycho Tech F.U.Z.E. Closure wetsuit is an investment in comfort, durability, ease of entry, and quick-drying convenience.
Who’s it for: Serious year-round surfers looking for serious equipment that’s usable in all but the coldest temperatures.
How much will it cost: $420-425
Why we picked the O’Neill Psycho Tech FUZE 4/3:
O’Neill’s Psycho Tech combines the company’s TechnoButter 2 neoprene with a single seam weld and its latest entry system. According to O’Neill, its TechnoButter 2 is its lightest and most durable neoprene yet. It even retains 30 percent less water than its predecessor and dries much quicker.
The Front Upper Zipper Entry (F.U.Z.E.) closure has a 360-degree inner barrier to shield water entering the zipper from your body while three strategically placed drain holes guide water out of the entry. Other features include TechnoButter 2 Air Firewall insulation for extra body core warmth, Super Seal cuffs so water can’t enter the suit at your wrists or ankles, and Krypto Knee Padz so you won’t rub your knees while paddling.
The Psycho Tech F.U.Z.E. 4/3 suit provides ample warmth for most people when water temperatures are in the low 50s to low 60s, which makes it a great shoulder season suit. If the water temp drops into the 40s where you surf, you’ll want more protection but the 4 by 3 weight could suffice as a serious surfer’s only wetsuit — especially when paired with hoods, boots, and gloves on colder days. The suit is available in both men’s and women’s versions.
Xcel Revolt TDC Fullsuit 3/2
The best warm water wetsuit
Why should you buy this: The Xcel Revolt TDC Fullsuit 3 by 2 uses two different Thermo Dry Celliant lining thicknesses for maximum torso warmth and lower body flexibility.
Who’s it for: Avid surfers who surf where the water seldom drops much below 60 degrees.
How much will it cost: $395
Why we picked the Xcel Revolt TDC Fullsuit 3/2:
If you surf in the southern United States, or spots where low water temperatures range from the mid-50s to mid-60s, Xcel’s Revolt TDC 3 by 2 Fullsuit can be your one and only. The Revolt boasts a multitude of features that balance flexibility and warmth. Xcel’s Ultra Stretch lightweight neoprene has a tight weave for durability and maximum stretch. The suit’s rubber is also textured for wind resistance on the outer chest panels and hoods, while its Drylock wrist seals and thin bands of liquid neoprene inside the wrists and ankles add to the suit’s seal.
Xcel outfit the Revolt to use two types of Thermo Dry Celliant (TDC) pile lining, both of which are fast drying, lightweight, and naturally hydrophobic. High pile TDC helps to preserve core warmth with Smart Fiber Technology which converts body heat into infrared energy for greater warmth and endurance, along with faster recovery. Low Pile TDC has similar properties but is thinner and less restrictive for added flexibility.
The X2 Front Entry system has a front zipper that angles along the upper chest with an inner flap to keep water out of the suit. An inner Crossover Neck Entry feature has overlapping panels which stretch for easier suit entry. Other noteworthy Revolt TDC Fullsuit features include grooves in cutouts behind the knees for flexibility, Duraflex stretchable knee panels, and a design concept that minimizes seams for greater flexibility. The suit is available in both men’s and women’s versions.
O’Neill Heat 6/5/4 with Hood
The best cold water wetsuit
Why should you buy this: For winter surfing when you don’t want cold water to keep you from the waves.
Who’s it for: Anyone who surfs in water temperatures in the mid-40s.
How much will it cost: $400
Why we picked the O’Neill Heat 6/5/4 with Hood:
The O’Neill Heat 6 by 5 by 4 Full Wetsuit with Hood’s stand out feature is in its name: Heat. Constructed entirely of O’Neill’s “ultra gooey” Ultraflex DS Neoprene with FluidFlex Firewall material in the chest and back, the Heat wetsuit is all about keeping you warm in extremely cold water. If you insist on surfing when water temperatures sit in the 30s, this is your suit.
The Heat suit is a back zip design with a urethane-coated RedZone zipper with offset teeth that interlock to keep water from traveling in or out of the suit. The zipper panel has been re-designed for easier in-and-out which tends to be a major factor in thick suits. Additional functional design features include a seamless paddle zone and LSD — otherwise known as Lumbar Seamless Design.
All seams are triple glued and blind stitched on the inside for durable flexibility and have an 8-millimeter silicon-based urethane Fluid Seam Weld on the exterior. The Heat also features Krypto Knee Padz to shield your knees while paddling and an external key pocket. The Heat is a men’s wetsuit but women can check out the similar O’riginal 6/5/4 Hooded Chest Zip for cold water surfing.
Patagonia R1 Lite Yulex Front Zip Spring Suit
The best shortie wetsuit
Why should you buy this: Patagonia’s neoprene-free Yulex Spring Suit gives you an edge when the water approaches summer temperatures.
Who’s it for: Spring and fall surfers, or summer surfers who have low cold water tolerance, and like Patagonia’s statement about naturally sourced materials.
How much will it cost: $230
Why we picked the Patagonia R1 Lite Yulex Front-Zip Spring Suit:
Patagonia’s wetsuits are all constructed of neoprene-free Yulex, the company’s natural rubber-based material. The R1 Lite Yulex Front-Zip Spring Suit shortie is made from 85 percent Yulex and 15 percent synthetic rubber. The suit is lined with 100 percent recycled polyester for flexibility and fast drying time.
According to Patagonia, the natural rubber in Yulex is sourced from trees that are Forest Stewardship Council certified by the Rainforest Alliance. What that all adds up to is a greener look at the materials used in the suit’s construction than neoprene suits, which are petroleum-based.
The R1 suit is rated by Patagonia for water temperatures from 65 to 75 degrees. In many coastal U.S. areas, that’s as warm as the water ever gets, even in summer. This short suit also works for those who are more cold-sensitive than average and desire extra warmth, even in summer waters above 75 degrees.
The seams on the R1 Lite Yulex Spring Suit are triple glued and blindstitched, with additional spot taping inside at high-stress areas. The suit has a front-zip entry with a fully repairable, corrosion-proof Salmi zipper. The front entry on this lightweight suit makes entry and exit about as good as it gets. It comes in a long-sleeved version for women and short or long-sleeved versions for men.
Rip Curl FlashBomb Chest Zip 5.5/4
The best hooded wetsuit
Why should you buy this: It’s Rip Curl’s warm, flexible, and durable wetsuit meant for winter surfing where water temperatures don’t dip below the 40s.
Who’s it for: Winter and cold water surfers in all but the very coldest parts of the country, like northern New England.
How much will it cost: $460
Why we picked the Rip Curl Men’s FlashBomb Chest Zip 5.5/4:
Rip Curl‘s FlashBomb E5 Flash Lining is engineered for more stretch and faster drying times than earlier linings. The lining and liquid tape technology, along with the FlashBomb’s interior stress point E5 taping, work together to keep you warm and dry for longer days on the water.
Rated as a 5.5 by 4 wetsuit, the FlashBomb (with its hood) should be comfortable for most surfers when water temperatures are close to 40 degrees, especially if you wear gloves and booties. If you consistently surf in water in the mid to high 30s, you might need something extra.
According to Rip Curl, E5 Flash Lining funnels water out of the suit rapidly for maximum comfort. Additionally, Rip Curl’s E4 neoprene is extremely flexible, meaning wearers can expect a nice range of movement while in the water. The FlashBomb’s chest zip also boasts a lock slide design closure for easy operation and water impermeability. To top it off, Rip Curl included a magnetic stash pocket for storing car keys. The 5.5/4 is a men’s wetsuit but it comes in a 5/4 for women.
Picture Oskana 3/2 Front-Zip
The best eco-friendly wetsuit
Why should you buy this: It’s an eco-friendly alternative made from limestone-derived neoprene foam.
Who’s it for: Those who surf in waters ranging from the low 50s to upper 60s and are keen on preserving the environment.
How much will it cost: $320-370
Why we picked the Picture Oskana 3/2 Front-Zip:
Made from Picture’s brand new LimeStone Stretch technology, this innovative wetsuit boasts a slim carbon footprint the company says is half the size of a standard neoprene suit. The eco-friendly material relies on a process which combines limestone chips and recycled rubber tires to create NaturalPrene stretch technology. Additionally, the wetsuit forgoes all toxic adhesives, instead substituting a water-based aqua-glue.
The liner is made with a recycled polyester fiber called DryNow that’s insulating and ultra-wicking. The neck features a silky Glideskin seal that keeps water from entering the suit while remaining comfortable and non-constricting. On the knees and underarms, you have an ergonomic design with embossed flex for excellent range of motion. Aside from durable knee pads, the torso area also features double NaturalPrene for extra protection around the ribs.
Picture says the suit was inspired by triathlon-style wetsuits, using a seamless motion pattern under the arms to offer full shoulder mobility. In all, this is one of the most mobility-friendly wetsuits available and the most environmentally conscious, too. The Oskana is designed for women but men can wear its counterpart, the Equation 3.2 Front Zip.
Mystic Diva Fullsuit Back-Zip 5/3
The best for wind sports
Why should you buy this: It’s a super stretchy, well-insulated wetsuit made specifically for wind sports.
Who’s it for: Kiteboarders and windsurfers who want a suit designed especially with those sports in mind.
How much will it cost: $330
Why we picked the Mystic Diva Fullsuit Back-Zip 5/3:
The Diva is built with Mystic’s ultra-stretchy, high-grade M-Flex 2.0 neoprene with an Aquaflush perforated neoprene system that allows water to drain from the ankles — helping prevent kankling when your leg cuffs fill up with water. It also boasts velcro ankle straps to ensure the spray from your board doesn’t shoot up your legs, either.
This warm, quick-drying suit showcases feather-light foam and isoprene mesh, while Mystic’s Glue Blind Stitched (GBS) tech means each panel is glued together and stitched midway through the seams, making them completely waterproof. For extra warmth, it’s built with the brand’s Polar Lining that reflects body heat, along with a reinforced panel in the lower back.
Inside by the collar, the suit features a velcro patch which allows you to fasten your tag so it doesn’t ruin the lining. It boasts a smooth Glideskin neck, overhead backup, and a handy nylon key pocket. The Diva is a women’s wetsuit but men can check out the comparable Majestic Back-Zip 5/3.
What do the numbers mean?
If you haven’t shopped for wetsuits before, you’re probably wondering what the numbers signify. Each suit boasts a number rating which represents the thickness of the wetsuit material in millimeters. Thicker wetsuits hold body heat better and wetsuit thickness ratings also translate to comfort in a range of water temperatures.
Ratings are given as one, two, or three numbers. With one thickness rating, the suit has a uniform thickness throughout. It might look like this: Hailey’s Comet Shorty 2. The “2” means the suit would be suitable for water temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s and stands for 2 millimeters.
If there are two numbers, the first refers to the suit’s torso material thickness and the second to the thickness of the material in the arms and legs. So a Jones Beach 3 by 2, for example, would have a 3-millimeter thickness for the torso and a 2-millimeter in the arms and legs. Extra weight for the torso helps to preserve core temperature and the lower weight for arms and legs helps with flexibility. The fictional Jones Beach 3 by 2, by the way, would probably be a good thickness combination for many people when the water temperature is between 58 and 66 degrees.
A wetsuit with three number ratings such as 5 by 4 by 3 refers to the thickness in the torso/legs/arms. Wetsuit thickness inversely correlates with flexibility, so lighter weight material on the arms won’t restrict paddling as much as a heavier weight. So a Wild Bird 5 by 4 by 3, if it existed, would be a decent suit for most people when the water temps are 45 to 55.
Temperature range ratings vary a bit, but the following is a general guide:
|Water temperature||Wetsuit thickness|
|Mid-30s to mid-40s||6mm x 5mm x 4mm|
|Mid 40s to mid-50s||5mm x 4mm or 4mm x 3mm|
|Mid 50s to low 60s||4mm x 3mm|
|Mid-60s to upper 60s||3mm x 2mm|
|Upper-60s to mid-70s||2mm|
Above the mid-70s, most people do not need to wear a wetsuit to be comfortable, although some prefer to wear a short suit or just a top or rash guard.
Types of wetsuits
In addition to wetsuit thickness ratings, you may also see suits described different depending on its type. Here are the most common variations:
- Full wetsuit: Full torso with long sleeves and long legs, covers everything but neck and head, wrists and hands, and ankles and feet
- Full wetsuit with hood: A full suit with an attached hood
- Shorty or Spring wetsuit: A wetsuit with short arms and legs
- Short John: A Shorty with no sleeves
- Long John: A full suit with no sleeves
How to choose a wetsuit
Many factors go into choosing a wetsuit. Unless you know your size for a specific brand, it’s always best to get fitted for a suit at a surf shop. Buying an ill-fitting wetsuit isn’t the same buying a sports jacket that’s too big or too small — or too short or too long — and who really cares? If you buy a wetsuit that’s the wrong size, you’ll likely be miserable due to too much water getting in for your body to heat. Conversely, buying a suit that’s too tight might exhaust you after the first time you paddle out to the waves. So with that caveat, here are the major factors to consider in buying a wetsuit.
- Fit: The most important factor is fit and wetsuit sizing varies greatly between brands — sometimes even between different lines by the same manufacturer. Different cuts also make a difference. For example, many people find there’s extra sag with some suits in the lower back, a place you certainly don’t want cold water to settle.
- Thickness and water temperature: When you know the average water temperature in the areas you’ll most often surf, you can then choose not only the style of the wetsuit but also the thickness. If you’re unsure, ask a few of the locals, preferably at a good surf shop. You can add accessories such as hoods, gloves, and booties to extend your season a bit with a lower rated wetsuit if it differs by 1-millimeter from the optimal thickness for that area.
- Air temperature and wind speed: Water temperature matters more than air and wind temperature but if an area is exceptionally windy, you may want to choose a thicker suit than usual.
- Activity: Most of this article refers to surfing, where you are likely to be in the water a great deal. If you’re choosing a wetsuit for paddleboarding or kayaking, for example, you might make different choices, especially if you need maximum flexibility for paddling.
- Personal sensitivity to cold: You probably already know if cold bothers you more than it bothers your friends. Simply bump up the thickness, or be sure to add accessories, if you have greater than average cold sensitivity.
- Chest or back zip: The choice between back zip or chest zippers is complex. In general, back zip wetsuits are somewhat less expensive and easier to get in and out of than chest zips. However, back zip suits have the zipper in the back where leaks tend to become bothersome, plus back zip designs are less flexible. Chest zip wetsuits can be much tougher to get in and out of, especially with a thicker suit, but leakage and the slight rigidity of the zipper area aren’t as much a factor with these compared to back zips.
- Seams: Wetsuits are constructed of pieces of material. Sometimes the pieces are different thicknesses or even have different compositions, while other times the material is the same throughout. Wherever two pieces meet they have to be attached and the seams can be sources of water leakage and discomfort. More expensive wetsuits, especially those rated for cold water use, often have the most waterproof seams. This isn’t the place for great detail but in general, these are the main types of seams:
- Overlock stitched seams — Best when the water will be 65 degrees and above.
- Flatlock stitched seams — Rated for water 62 degrees and higher. They lie flatter and are more comfortable than overlock stitching but can allow water to enter the suit.
- Sealed, glued, and blindstitched seams — This type of seam is usually watertight and fine for water 55 degrees and above.
- Sealed and taped or glued, blindstitched and taped seams — Best if not essential for water temps below 55. Interior tape reinforces the stitched and glued seam’s water tightness and strength.
Common wetsuit accessories include hoods, boots, gloves, and rash guards. Here’s a quick rundown of each add-on:
- Hoods: Full suits with attached hoods are best if you surf in cold water frequently because the seam around the neck is less likely to leak. Adding a hood to a suit prevents heat loss from your head and makes a significant difference in comfort on cold days.
- Boots: Boots are either round toed or split-toed. Round toe boots keep your toes together for more warmth. Split-toed boots can be split externally or internally and provide better balance.
- Gloves: Major glove styles include mittens, fingers, and lobster claws. Lobster claw gloves usually have the thumb and index finger on one side of the “claw” and the three remaining fingers on the other side. Mitten-style gloves are the warmest but provide the least dexterity.
- Rash guards: Rash guards are shirts some people wear while surfing in the summer for protection from the sun and from the surfboard surface. Some people also wear a rash guard under a wetsuit for added warmth and comfort.
Wetsuits for other sports
Detailing specific wetsuit requirements for sports other than surfing is beyond the scope of this article. Many people wear the same wetsuit they surf in for paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking, and spearfishing.
Divers often wear dry suits instead of wetsuits which are entirely different. There are also specific requirements for wetsuits worn in triathlons, mud racing, water skiing and wakeboarding, body surfing, and boogie boarding. Because different sports require extra strength, padding, or grip in different parts of a wetsuit, your best course is to ask friends or salespeople who are knowledgeable of the specific requirements for each sport.
Most wetsuits are made of neoprene, a petroleum-derived type of rubber composed of chains of cells. Wetsuits are permeable, meaning they allow a little water to enter the suit. Inside the suit, your body quickly warms the water which remains as a thin layer between you and the wetsuit.
Two neoprene alternative materials are currently on the market: Yamamoto or limestone suits (also called geoprene) and Patagonia‘s Yulex natural rubber suits. Limestone and Yulex suits are more expensive than neoprene suits and companies that use them both claim that the alternative materials are warmer and more flexible than neoprene. Proponents of limestone and Yulex suits also claim the materials are more environmental-friendly than neoprene. The best known U.S. brand of geoprene wetsuits comes from Matuse.
How to take care of a wetsuit
Wetsuits are expensive. Prices start just above $100 for the least expensive suits up to more than $600 for the most costly. Top quality suits generally cost from $400 to $500. In any price range, the wetsuit is an investment that will last longer, be more comfortable, and perform better with proper care.
Surfing happens in salt water. People will often spend hours in a wetsuit and it’s a rare person who does not pee in the wetsuit during the day. Wetsuits also hold in your sweat in a salty brine.
For all of the above reasons, the first thing you should after you remove a wetsuit, or shortly after if you go home, is to rinse off the suit, rinsing the inside first and then the outside. The best advice is to next wash the wetsuit inside and out with a cleaner and conditioner specifically made for wetsuits.
After you’ve washed your suit, you then want to hang it so it can dry. Don’t hang it on a thin metal hanger or on a hook, the neoprene will deform around the hanger or hook. The best course is to use a wide hanger or a group of thinner hangers to spread the support inside the suit.
After your wetsuit is dry, the best way to store it is hanging up, again with a wide hanger. It’s better not to fold wetsuits if you can avoid it because creases can become permanent, but if you must fold the wetsuit fold it loosely.
Wetsuits that are used often typically last for two or three years. The care you give your wetsuit can help you get the maximum useful life from the suit or drastically shorten its life.
Buying a used wetsuit
If at all possible, do not buy a used suit. You can probably get a great buy on a used suit from a wetsuit rental company but don’t. Rental wetsuits likely have been worn and at least slightly stretched by different body types. No matter how well wetsuits are cleaned after each rental, the suits were exposed to enough body fluids from the various renters that the prospect of putting on the suit is just too gross.
There are times when renting may be the only choice. If you’re traveling, for example, and decide that’s the time to learn to surf or if you’re in an area where you own suit would be either much too cold or hot. However, for your own suit for continued use, this is one of those cases where it’s much better to buy new than used.
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