Unless you live in the tropics where the water temperature is warm all year round, wetsuits are magical rubbery suits that enable divers, surfers, and swimmers to stay warm, even in cold water.
Picking the right wetsuit can make all the difference when you’re out on the water. Whether you’re surfing, diving, or just swimming for fun, having a wetsuit that fits well and is comfortable to wear will help you enjoy your time in the water even more.
There is nothing worse like an hour dive feeling so cold you’re chomping down hard on your regulator and shivering at your safety stop.
So how do you pick a wetsuit that’s right for you? We’re here to help!
❔ What Is Neoprene?
All wetsuits are made of neoprene, a versatile, synthetic rubber with a variety of applications. It is an excellent insulating material that traps a thin layer of water in the air pockets within the material. The water then gets warmed up by your body heat, which in turn, keep you warm and prevents heat loss.
🌊 Most neoprene wetsuits are petrochemical-based, and the thinner the neoprene, the less water it will be trapping. Thicker neoprene should be used for cold water while thinner neoprene can be used for warmer temperatures.
The neoprene thickness can also be variable throughout the wetsuit. Often, the core areas of the chest, abdomen and back have thicker neoprene than the arms and legs, which increases mobility.
For example, a 2/3mm wetsuit will have 3mm around the core area, and 2mm thickness around the arms and legs.
🩳 Can I Use A Surfing Wetsuit?
Yes, you can, but you’ll have to understand the limitations of a surfing or swimming wetsuit.
Diving wetsuits are designed to work under pressure, and the neoprene thickness, although the same, is made of denser material.
Surfing wetsuits work by having flexible neoprene panels to give a maximum range of movement. Divers on the other hand, only need to move their legs.
The fundamental difference between a diving wetsuit and other suits is the density of the neoprene material.
When a diver descends, the water pressure increases, compressing the existing gas bubbles in the neoprene. This makes the wetsuit thinner and less insulating.
The denser material used in diving wetsuits compresses way less as you descend, while the same cannot be said for a surfing wetsuit, which compresses and results in thinner wetsuit thickness.
In addition, diving wetsuits often have reinforced panels to protect from abrasion from the dive equipment such as weight belts, BCDs, and the tank.
🌡️ How To Decide Wetsuit Thickness – Water Temperature
The thickness of the wetsuit you’ll need is dependent on the surrounding water temperature. Of course, there is no hard and fast rule and if you are particularly susceptible to cold water (like I am!). Remember, the best suit is the one you feel most comfortable in!
As a general rule, some guidelines on how much thermal protection you’ll need are:
- 85°F / 30°C & above – Rashguards and boardies for sun protection and for abrasions. If you are particularly susceptible to cold (like I am), you can wear a 1mm vest with short sleeves to keep your core warm. You’ll be boiling in a full suit!
- 80-85°F / 27-29°C – 3mm shorties or a 2/3 mm full suit
- 73-79°F / 23-26°C – 3mm to 5mm full suit
- 66-72°F / 19-22°C – 5mm to 7mm full suit
- 50-65°F / 10-18°C – 7mm, 9mm, semi-dry suit or full dry suit
- 50°F / 10°C and below – dry suit
❗️ Be warned, there is no hard and fast rule. Everyone is different depending on cold tolerance, what you are used to, your body temperature, and your body’s physiological makeup. Fat is an excellent insulator!
I get laughed at a lot, because I dive frequently in boardies and a rashguard in 85°F / 30°C, but switch to a 3mm full suit when the “cold” monsoon currents come in, dropping the water temperature to a “frigid” 78°F / 25°C. Climatization is not a myth!
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Dry Suit Vs Semi-Dry Suit Vs Wetsuit
In colder water, a wetsuit simply might not be enough, especially if you are a warmer water wuss like me! I choose to dive in a semi-dry at anything below 72°F/22°C. Brain freeze happens underwater too.
A wetsuit traps a layer of water against your skin, and your body heat warms and retains it.
A dry suit requires special training to operate, and is used in extremely cold water temperatures. It is exactly what its namesake is, keeping a layer of air between the suit and your skin, and you’ll stay dry.
This is especially helpful when you surface and meet cold air temperatures. The air remains warmed by your body, and you don’t have to take off your suit immediately, staying warm and keeping out the wind chill.
A semi-dry is the best of both worlds but also operates only in limited temperatures. The extremities of the arms and legs are made of 7mm neoprene which get wet, while the core panels have a thermal lining that are kept separate and dry. Toasty, but a pain in the butt to take on and off.
📝 Features Of A Wetsuit
The first, and most important thing, is the thickness, as we’ve already explored.
Some wetsuits have variable thickness across each of the neoprene panels, mainly the chest, abdomen, back, arms, and legs. The panels around your core like the chest, abdomen, and back can be thicker than the arms and legs.
The thinner neoprene around limbs also maximizes mobility, giving you a greater range of motion in the areas that don’t need full-on thermal protection or a thicker wetsuit.
Consider the type of seams the wetsuit has. Seams can either be flat or glued and blind stitched. Flat seams are more comfortable but glued and blind stitched seams are more durable. They cause some kickass (but temporary) marks on your body when you take off your wetsuit!
Type Of Neoprene
Neoprene comes in three types: open-cell, closed-cell, and a hybrid of the two. Closed-cell neoprene is more waterproof and will keep you warmer, but it is also less flexible than open-cell neoprene.
If you are diving in warm water, you can get away with a thinner suit made from open-cell neoprene.
The vast majority of wetsuits are zip wetsuits. Some come with a chest zip which zips up front, but most wetsuits are a back zip wetsuit which the zip on the back. Chest zips have the added bonus of being easy to zip up yourself, but usually have a smaller opening and are more difficult to put on.
In addition, chest zip wetsuits also have a tendency to feel tight around the shoulders.
Back zip wetsuits are the diver’s go-to. A long pull cord comes attached to the back zips, so you can easily zip yourself up, although many a helpful diver will offer to zip you up.
📖 How To Fit A Wetsuit
Every body type is different, and while you can certainly shop for a wetsuit online, it is so highly personal that finding the perfect wetsuit requires you to try it on.
A well fitting wetsuit will effectively trap water, while a loose, or ill-fitting wetsuit will simply let the gloriously warm water escape out from the suit and let cold water in. Brrrr.
Most dive shops and sports stores will have fitting rooms. Be sure to wear a swimsuit or underwear underneath the wetsuit to properly fit your suit.
🥽 Pro Tip: Placing a plastic bag over each foot will have your leg slide more easily through the suit, making taking the suit on and off way easier.
The wetsuit should fit snugly, but not be too tight. It should be comfortable and not restrict your movement. You should be able to easily move your arms and legs. When you have it fully on, do a couple of squats, or fin your legs a little and see if your movement is restricted.
If you are still unsure about which size to choose, ask the store employees and other divers for help. They will be able to tell you which size is best for your body type. Often, each brand is known to have certain characteristics like wide hips or shoulders.
Of course, everyone has a personal preference for different wetsuit styles. In addition to functionality, and a comfortable fit, the wetsuit should also be aesthetically pleasing to you.
You don’t need the best wetsuit or the most expensive wetsuits, but your suit will last several years, so don’t be afraid to splurge a little.
🤿 Wetsuit Accessories
Paired with a reliable wetsuit, you can also have a few accessories to give you just that little extra warmth.
Your head loses up to 30% of your body heat. By keeping your head warm, you’ll feel way toastier than if you continuously lost body heat through your noggin’. Probably not a must in warmer water.
Gloves are a great option for those who want to stay warm while diving, helping your hands and fingers stay warm in cold water and keeping you way more comfortable.
Try the gloves out on your equipment, or you’ll be fumbling around for the whole dive and constantly taking your gloves on and off to operate your equipment. Also not a must in warmer water.
Note that if you are doing underwater photography, fumbling around with the controls will be trickier with gloves, so if you’re bringing down the camera, you might want to leave behind the gloves.
Booties are a must if you are wearing open-heel fins anyway. However, make sure you have booties of the appropriate thickness. There is nothing worse than cold feet, so keep your feet warm!
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🥶 Do You Need A Dry Suit For Cold Water?
Of course, it depends on your definition of “cold”. As long as you are comfortable, always go for something that has you warm and toasty throughout the dive. Doesn’t matter if you get laughed at! (I do, a LOT).
Temperatures below 65°F/18°C can already warrant the use of full dry suits, while at a temperature below 50°F / 10°C, a dry suit is most definitely recommended.
While shivering throughout the dive is obviously no fun, hypothermia takes it a step further and makes being cold dangerous.
While most dry suits are back zip, try to find one that is chest zip. Taking on and off a dry suit is no joke!
🧠 Frequently Asked Questions
Chest Zip or Back Zip?
Whether you want a front closure or back is a personal preference. While the most popular style of wetsuits is usually back zip wetsuits, chest zips are easier to access. However, chest zip wetsuits have smaller openings and are more difficult to get into.
When Do I Need A Wetsuit?
Whether you need a wetsuit depends on your cold tolerance and personal preferences. I for on, love to be nice and toasty throughout the dive, and will wear a 3mm full suit when the water temperatures hit 80°F / 27°C and below. Those with a high cold tolerance can probably wear a rashguard and boardshorts at those temperatures.
How Do I Fit A Wetsuit
When you’re trying on a wetsuit, you want to make sure that it’s snug but not too tight. You should be able to comfortably move your limbs.
If the suit is too tight, it will restrict your movement and make it difficult to breathe. If the suit is too loose, it will let in too much water and you’ll get cold.
When trying on a wetsuit at a dive store, bring two plastic bags and use them over your feet. That will make your feet slide through the wetsuit way easier and make trying the suits on a breeze.
How Do You Pick The Thickness Of A Wetsuit?
When choosing a scuba diving wet suit, you need to pick the thickness of the suit. This will depend on the water temperature and your own body temperature. If you are diving in warm water, you will not need as thick of a suit as someone who is diving in cold water.
As a general rule, a rashguard and boardshorts can be worn at temperatures of 85°F / 30°C & above. If you are particularly susceptible to cold, you can wear a 3mm shortie in the place of a full suit.
Can I Use A Surfing Wetsuit To Dive?
Yes you can, but the performance of a surfing wetsuit under atmospheric pressure is different from a diving wetsuit. Surfing wetsuits are made with neoprene that is less dense, and under pressure, will compress and give you less insulation. Diving wetsuits are made with dense neoprene that compresses less under pressure.
You can certainly use a surfing wetsuit to dive, but you’ll be less protected with a thinner layer of neoprene.