If you live in or travel to an area where water temperatures fall below the basic trunk comfort level, you’re going to need a wetsuit. And in case you didn’t know, here’s a newsflash: not all wetsuits are created equal.
The first difference you’ll notice between suits is the amount of coverage they offer. Fullsuits extend over both the arms and legs, while spring suits usually feature short legs, and full or half arm sleeves. The long-leg, short-arm suit falls somewhere between the full and spring suit. So which type of wetsuit do you need? The first variable you need to address is the current water temperature in your area.
Generally speaking, water temps below about 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) will require a full suit. Spring suits will work well in temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius). Once below 65 degrees, the thickness of the suit’s neoprene becomes important. Most wetsuit manufacturers make suits with three and two millimeter sections (3/2), four and three millimeter sections (4/3), five millimeter (5 mil) and six millimeter (6 mil). Every wetsuit should indicate the temperature range for which it’s designed somewhere on the tag. The thicker the suit, the warmer it will keep your body.
Wetsuits were invented for Navy divers working in cold ocean climates. They were first produced and sold to surfers in San Francisco, CA by surf shop owner Jack O'Neill. Wetsuits work by keeping your body insulated and retaining existing body heat. Today, surfers are able to surf literally anywhere in the world, from America to Antartica, thanks to the wetsuit.
Besides the wetsuit itself, there are several other neoprene items that you may need to ensure warmth in the lineup. The most common piece of gear after the wetsuit is neoprene boots, or booties. When the water temps become cold enough to cause numbing in the feet, surfers usually don booties in order to regain sensation in the area. Booties also provide the added bonus of increased traction underfoot.
Gloves are another popular addition to the wetsuit. Many surfers wear gloves when the water is cold enough to numb and cause throbbing to the bare hand.
Hoods are probably the last line of defense against frigid water temperatures. Because your body releases a lot of its heat from the head, covering it in a neoprene hood greatly increases your overall body temperature. Hoods are especially handy when surfing breaks require excessive duck diving because they eliminate the painful sensation caused by a sudden blood rush to your head. Surfing in a coldwater zone in windy conditions is also a great time to wear a hood, as the cold, whipping wind can cause ear damage and drastically lower your body’s core temperature.
Hoods can be bought attached to the wetsuit or separately. They can also be purchased attached to an undergarment vest, which functions as an extra layer of insulation beneath the wetsuit.
For the most part, you get what you pay for when it comes to wetsuits. Special features such as taped seams and the latest stretch material will add to the price tag of your suit. The three primary concerns wetsuit manufactures work to address are flexibility, warmth, and durability. Interestingly, many of the most expensive wetsuits do not last very long because they’re built with thinner, more flexible materials. However, the pricier suits will keep you warm for a time and allow greater flexibility than their less expensive counterparts. Evaluate the features that are most important to you and buy accordingly. Word of advice: if you’re surfing in a cold-water climate, taped seams are a must.
If you’ve yet to purchase a wetsuit, you may be in for a surprise when you take a look at the price tag. Not cheap. To make matters worse, wetsuits are inherently prone to rapid deterioration thanks to their constant contact with salt water. But there are a few ways you can protect your investment.
The two most important considerations when working to prolong the life of your wetsuit are sun and salt water, both of which are extremely harmful to neoprene. To counter the suit’s regular exposure to ocean salt water, get in the habit of rinsing the suit with fresh water after every surf session. Equally important is limiting sun exposure. Don’t leave your suit under the glare of the afternoon sun. Take care of your suit and the suit will take care of you.
Surfer’s Best Friend
A nice, warm wetsuit can be a true godsend when it comes to cold water surfing. There’s nothing better than being warm and toasty when the waves are as good as they are cold. Just remember to invest wisely; choose a suit that fits, and take care of it.