If you ask me, without wetsuits the world of water sports, the world of surfing, would not be nowhere near to where it is today. Water sports would stay confined to those few warm water places and would never spread all over the world and become popular as they are today. This doesn’t sound too bad if you live in one of those places and it probably sounds horrible if you live someplace cold. I know that a few hardcore enthusiasts are ready to endure some really low temperatures and they would say things like wetsuits are for pussies arrrrgh, but you could count them using only fingers of your hands. So let’s learn a few things about wetsuits. In this guide you will learn how wetsuits work, how they are made, how to choose the right one for you, what is the difference between a quality wetsuit and not so good one and more. After reading this you will be better equipped to go out and buy yourself a ticket into the cold water. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask.
Wetsuit is an insulation suit made out of neoprene that is used in water sports for warmth and protection. Wet suits can also be called neoprene suits. One of the first people to experiment with wetsuits was surfer Jack O'Neill
in the sixties. While he was looking for ways to stay warm in the ocean he found that neoprene was the perfect material for this purpose. Neoprene is an elastic synthetic rubber material that has good insulation properties. Of course the quality of neoprene has hugely improved over the years... maybe an interesting fact - usually wetsuit manufacturers
, wetsuit brands
will not tell you this but - most of the neoprene for the wetsuits on the market today comes from Japan, most of it from the same company :).
Types of wetsuits, wetsuit models
There are quite a few different wetsuits and/or different pieces of neoprene used as a protection from cold water. We can divide them considering what temperatures they are meant to be used in and how good insulation do they offer/how much of your body do they cover:
: this is the lightest piece of clothing for water sports that is not actually a wetsuit since it is usually made out of lycra. It is used for protection against sun and rash.
- wetsuit top
: really thin neoprene (0.5mm-1.5mm) that covers only your body from the waist up + your arms. It can have short or long sleeves.
- wetsuit vest
: it's similar to wetsuit top
, it can be thicker and it has no sleeves.
- shorty wetsuit
: neoprene covers the body and upper parts of the arms and legs (short sleeves).
- spring wetsuit
: this one has either long sleeves or long legs, but not both.
- short john wetsuit
: a summer wetsuits that is a cross between shorty
and long john
. No sleeves for your arms at all and short legs.
- long john wetsuit
: a spring wetsuits that covers your body and legs, but has no sleeves for your arms.
- full suit: in full wetsuits neoprene covers your whole body, arms and legs up to your wrists and ankles. This is where warmer wetsuit models begin. Full suits can have different thickness from 2mm which is basically a spring wetsuits and 3/2mm wetsuit
that can already be used in cooler water, 4/3 wetsuit
, 5/3 wetsuit
and all the way up to 6/5/4mm thick wetsuit that is made for the coldest conditions possible (we will explain these numbers later on). Winter wetsuits are also called steamers. It is also possible that a full suit has an integrated hood
that covers your head.
Apart from wetsuits themselves you also have wetsuit boots, wetsuit gloves and wetsuit hood for additional protection when the water and the air get to cold.
So, how does a wetsuit work?
Wetsuit keeps us warm by catching a thin layer of water between our skin and the neoprene. This water is heated by the heat of our body and suddenly we are comfortable in the cold sea that would otherwise cause hypothermia in minutes. Just don't start thinking that water getting into the wetsuit is a good thing. A small amount of water will get in no matter what. But anything more that that is not welcomed. Why? Because this water is cold. Constant surge of cold water is too much for our body heat to handle and the end result would be pretty much the same as if we were not wearing a wetsuit. So the better the wetsuit fits, less cold water will get in and the warmer we will be. Every time we fall, wipe out, duck dive the pressure of water will try to push it into our comfy warm wettie and this is how we get cold.
The second thing wetsuit does to keep us warm is provide insulation. Thicker neoprene of course means more insulation and thinner neoprene means less insulation. This insulation comes from the fact that neoprene is full of small closed cells that are filled with air. More of these cells neoprene has the better and warmer it is. New technologies allow neoprene manufacturers to put more and more of these cells into the neoprene so it gets warmer and warmer (and lighter). So this is also worth checking when you are buying a wetsuit. Wetsuit thickness itself is usually given with two numbers like 3/2, 4/3, 5/3, or three numbers like 5/4/3.
What do these wetsuit numbers mean?
They represent the thickness of the neoprene used in the wetsuit in millimeters. So for instance a 4/3 wetsuit is made out of 4 mm and 3 mm thick neoprene. Wetsuits have two or three different neoprene thicknesses to make them more flexible. You usually have thicker neoprene in parts that do not need lots of flexibility - like your body. Parts that are constantly in motion like your arms have thinner neoprene. This makes wetsuits better suited for sports like surfing, windsurfing, rafting, swimming, kayaking, kite surfing etc... where you need your wetsuit to be flexible. On the other hand, diving wetsuits might not have two thicknesses since divers do not move so much that flexibility would be an issue and also - they need to keep their heart rate down so lots of movement is I think not really recommended. A 3/2 wetsuit is generally suited for summer and autumn and 4/3 wetsuit or 5/3 wetsuit are used in winter and spring. For more info check out our chart of water temperatures and wetsuit thicknesses. Wetsuits that are thicker than 5 millimeters are also used in really cold places like Norway, Iceland, and Alaska etc... but can already be a bit clumsy because of the thickness. Of course diving wetsuits have no problems with that and can easily be 7 millimeters thick.
On the other hand you also have wetsuits that are only 2 millimeters thick. They are used for summer surfing.
It is hard to say which is the best wetsuit on the market because things like your body shape, fit and personal taste have a big part in deciding what is the best wetsuit for you (check best cold water wetsuit question). But the main features that make a wetsuit good or a top of the line wetsuit are:
- neoprene quality and insulation capabilities
- how stretchy is the neoprene
- what kind of stitches are used and are the seams waterproof
- additional insulation inside the neoprene
- other not so crucial stuff.
We well look at each one of them. Some things improve the warmth of the wetsuit and some improve the performance. First let’s concentrate on what makes wetsuit warm. If we are talking warmth, the most important thing is to stop the water from coming into your wetsuit. I already said that we do not want fresh and cold water flushing our wetsuit while we are in the water. Constant surge of cold water is too much for the body to heat up and it will cool us down and we will start to feel cold. So the most important thing is to look for a wetsuit that is the right size. Better fit means less room for water and less chance of flushing through holes for your head, hands and feet. This is important! Even the best wetsuit won't keep you warm if it is too big. We are lucky that the modern wetsuits are stretchy and fit much better than they used to in the past. You can also check the wetsuit size guide and a how to put on a wetsuit guide.
Maybe this is also the time to mention that when you are trying a wetsuit it will probably be dry (if you're not buying it from someone's back lol). Dry and new wetsuit feels tighter that wet one. Neoprene loosens up in the water. So make sure that the wetsuit really hugs your body everywhere – snug fit. Just don't go to far... if you can't stand up straight it's to small :)!
There are three ways how water can get into the wetsuit:
- Obviously through holes for your head, hands and feet
- Through stitches that keep the wetsuit together
- Through the zipper
You solve the first one by choosing a wetsuit that fits you well (we already covered that) and a wetsuit that has a good seal on you wrists and ankles. Things like silicone cuffs or silicone bands on the inside of your wrists and ankles make wetsuit stick to your skin and less likely to open up to the water. If you are thinking why not also use silicone on your neck? You would get one hell of a rash! Wrists and ankles are static but your head turns around all the time and silicone would rub the skin off your neck in no time.
The next thing is zipper. Zipper helps us get in and out of our wetsuit. Long zipper makes it easier but also lets more water into your wetsuit. Zippers are not watertight! There are two things wetsuit manufacturers do to keep zipper flushing to a minimum:
- winter wetsuits usually have shorter zippers
- special size and shape of the teeth on the zipper that makes zipper more water tight.
Since we are talking about zippers let me also mention that metal zippers are more durable than plastic ones (the sliding part that is, the teeth of the zipper are always plastic). And also if you are wetsuit beginners - that small Velcro safety belt on the top of the zipper is there to stop the zipper from opening. Close it after you are zipped up.
Bat flap / bat wing / drain hole etc
Another way to stop the water from coming into your wetsuit through the zipper is bat flap / bat wind / drain hole etc... There are a few names for this, but the concept is the following - put an additional piece of thin neoprene under the zipper. This neoprene membrane is so thin and stretchy that it doesn’t bother you when you are putting on a wetsuit. But if the water comes into the wetsuit through the zipper this membrane will stop it and direct it back out through the drain hole at the bottom of your zipper.
The last solution to this problem is - eliminate the zipper! :) Almost every wetsuit company has their own zipperless wetsuit system that more or less successfully lets you into the wet suit. A big plus here, besides no flushing is better fit and better flexibility of your chest, back and shoulders. The design of the wetsuit can be different and the neoprene can be better sculptured to fit your body. And the downside of a zipperless wetsuit? Squeezing into a wetsuit through some ridiculously small hole can be tricky. This also usually relies on the stretching of the neoprene around the entry hole. So the neoprene around it takes a lot of abuse and can become stretched out in a season or two.
Now we come to the most important thing that makes wetsuit a warm wetsuit - stitches. The deal here is simple – to stitch neoprene together you need a thread and a needle. Needle makes holes in neoprene. Water and wind use holes to get inside the wetsuit. Less holes through the neoprene – warmer wetsuit.
So even if your wetsuit fits you perfectly and if you have the latest short zipper and batflap cold water will slowly trickle into your wetsuit through the stitches. Lets take a look at the types of wetsuit stitches and why and when are they used.
Over lock stitch
This is the most simple and basic way of sewing wetsuits and is a thing of the past. You can maybe find it in cheap, thin tourist wetsuits. Overlock stitch is very strong but it is uncomfortable because the stitches stick out into the wetsuit and press into your skin. And by using this sewing technique you get a lot of holes through the wetsuit and lots of flushing. Conclusion: cheap wetsuit, durable, strong, for summer wetsuits, for beginners (not very flexible).
Flat lock stitch
This is the replacement for over lock stitches. Here the thread and the stitches are on the outside. That makes it much more comfortable but also more exposed and easier to tear. Also the amount of holes through the neoprene is the same or even bigger so you get a lot of flushing. Conclusion: pretty cheap wetsuit, strong and durable, for summer surfing, good performance for demanding surfers (flexibility).
This is how all warm wetsuits are stitched. There are more versions of this one and they each have their upsides and downsides (warmth, durability, flexibility and price). If the wetsuit is sewn with blind stitches the seams are waterproof and this kind of wetsuit is called a steamer.
Blind stitch & glued
The trick in blind stitch is this: first the neoprene is glued together and then the sewing beings. The needle that is used is curved so it brings the thread through the neoprene on the same side where it went in and it never fully penetrates the neoprene - no holes! This is how you get a watertight stitch with no holes. Unfortunately theses stitches are not very durable because neoprene is much more flexible that glue. So the glue can crack up (salt water also helps) and stitches open up. Conclusion: warm wetsuit, flexible, variable durability and higher price.
Blind stitch, glued & spot taped
If you tape the main stress point of the wetsuit you can stop the stitches from opening. Usually you can find the stress points where three or more stitches come together. Durability is still not the best.
Double blind stitch & glued
Double blind stitch means that the neoprene is sawn twice (using blindstitch). Once on each side. This makes the seams much stronger but less watertight. Why? If you make holes from both sides sometimes these holes connect all the way through the wetsuit and once again - you have flushing. So this is used with some cheaper winter wetsuits. Conclusion: warm wetsuit, flexible, durable and not to expensive.
Blind stitch, glued & fully taped
If you cover all the stitches with a special tape that is applied together with glue at a high temperature you again get waterproof wetsuit. This process was expensive because it was very time consuming and wetsuit companies today use something else (read on…we will get to it). Conclusion: very warm wetsuit, OK flexibility, durable and expensive.
Blind stitch, glued & fully taped with neoprene tape
If you use neoprene tape instead of the "ordinary" tape you don't loose any flexibility when you tape over the stitches. So you get a wetsuit that is very warm, flexible, durable and also very expensive. Since the invention of the next type of seams this one is also pretty rare today I think.
There are a few different names for this, but this is the best thing that happened to wetsuit seams in a while. In the beginning it was only found in top models, now it made its way down to the intermediate models. Cheap ones are usually still without this. So what is it? A special liquid rubber is used when sewing the neoprene to seal the inner or/and outer side of the stitches. This rubber makes seams stronger and closes all the possible holes from the double blindstitching. You get durable, flexibly and 100% waterproof seams!
If I sum this up - remember two things here: look for double blindstitched wetsuit and liquid seal if you want a good winter wetsuit. You can easily recognize liquid seal on the seams. You will know it when you see it.
I need to mention another solution to the stitches problem – if you use less of them you have fewer holes, fewer problems... How can you use fewer stitches? By using fewer neoprene panels in your wetsuit. Generally more panels mean that the wetsuit fits you better because it is better adapted to the body shape. But by using some cool techniques you can shape the panels in such way that they still make a great wetsuit. I think the neoprene panels and the wetsuit models design it a bit shady field because it is hard to compare different wetsuits, it’s hard to say what work best. This is also why I kind of left out this feature.
What else do you need to know about wetsuits?
You will also hear expression single lined and double lined neoprene. What does that mean? In the past, way back when first wetsuits were made the neoprene was not lined with anything. This made it so vulnerable that you could tear it just by pulling it to hard when you were putting it on. It was also very sticky...well it was a whole other type of neoprene, nowhere near the neoprene we have today. Anyway - one of the better wetsuit improvements was lining the neoprene with nylon. Nylon is also very stretchy (still not as stretchy as neoprene, but we are getting there) and if you line the neoprene with it - it protects it and makes it much more durable. Now you can probably see what single and double lined neoprene means in a wetsuit.
Double-lined neoprene is surrounded by a layer of nylon on both sides and single-lined neoprene has nylon only on one side. Single lined neoprene looks smoother on the side that is not lined.
Mesh skin / sharkskin / smooth skin / glide skin / and any other skin
This is where surfing and windsurfing wetsuit differ the most. All those names represent some type of single lined neoprene. Why is it used? Single lined neoprene is as I said smoother and it makes the wetsuit warmer since it repels water (it runs off the wetsuit quicker) and wind and it doesn't get wet. If it is lined with nylon the nylon gets wet and cools you down. The other benefit is that it can be sticky. So it is used in places where you want the wetsuit to stick to your skin - like wrists and ankles. Since neoprene is also more elastic that nylon single lined neoprene is more flexible. But since there are many types of neoprene this is hard to generalize. For instance - windsurfing wetsuits use lots of single lined neoprene since windsurfers stay out of the water in the wind. But the neoprene used in windsurfing wetsuits is less flexible and more durable than one used in surfing wetsuits.
Additional wetsuit insulation
There are a few things that make a wetsuit even warmer. One of the older additions to the wetsuits was titanium. A layer of titanium is placed between the neoprene and the nylon and it helps reflect the body heat back into the body. I read that a test proved that a titanium wetsuit is 24% warmer. Since the technology improves we also have second generation titanium that works the same way but is even more effective.
Aero core / fire skin / air lite / air something etc
The inside of the wetsuit can be also lined with materials that:
- have really good insulation capabilities and
- don't get wet.
We are mostly talking about some sort of hollow fibers that are made of polyester and contain large amounts of trapped air. Air is one of the best isolators out there. These kind of fibers are also light, they can't get wet, the dry quickly and are pretty stretchy. So they are perfect for wetsuits. Or you can even go the natural way - Patagonia wetsuits use wool as insulation.
Super elastic and stretchy and x-stretch wetsuits
Which wetsuit brand has the stretchiest, the most elastic, and the most flexible neoprene on the market? Though call. A few of them claim that. I always found Rip Curl wetsuit to be really stretchy but since I never tried all the latest wetsuit models from all the wetsuit brands it's hard to say. What I can say is that today’s stretchy neoprene is way more flexible and comfortable than it used to be and that you can not even compare it to the old non stretchy neoprene. As I said - all neoprene comes from Japan anyway :)). At the beginning this kind of neoprene was only used in top wetsuit models but now only the cheaper ones are not using it. Today it's more about different levels of stretchiness. So what is the point of this flexible neoprene? The point is that a 4/3 wetsuit can fell like a 3/2 wetsuit used to feel. You loose less energy, there is less resistance to your movements, and the wetsuit fits you better, is warmer, and more comfortable because of that.
Reinforced wetsuit knees
If you are just starting out or if you are going to use your wetsuit in sports that include lots of throwing yourself on the rocks (like canyoning or surfing shallow reefs :) ) then one more thing to check out are the reinforced wetsuit knees. If you are learning how to surf you will spend some time on the knees and some padding here helps. Some wetsuits only have anti-skid print on the knees, some have a patch of neoprene sewn onto the them, and some have knees reinforced with Kevlar. The efficiency of protection kind of rises in that order too.
As far as I am concerned those were the most important things when it comes to choosing a wetsuit. Other features are either so wetsuit brand specific that can not be generally described here or are things that are cool but not really that important. I'm talking about key pockets here and stuff like that.
So are you ready to buy a wetsuit?
I think you are. The first you need to ask yourself is - where are you going to use it?! Find out what is the usual water temperature for the place where you want to surf (or go into the water) at the time of the year you will be mostly in the water. This will determine if you need a shorty, full suit or a thick steamer with booties, hood and gloves. Or maybe you do not need a wetsuit at all. If you want to travel it is impossible to be prepared for all the possible condition that can be found around the world. From my experience, you are best prepared for travel if you have a 4/3 full wetsuit. I think it covers the widest range of water temperatures and if I would only own one wetsuit I would own a 4/3. If you will be in the water a lot and if this is an important part of your life you will probably have more that one wetsuit. A thicker one for colder water and colder days and a thinner one for warm times. Even if 4/3 is a great all-round wetsuit it still feels much better if you have just the right (not to thick) wetsuit.
Next you need to decide what is important to you, how much money do you want to spend and how "into" the water sports are you. If you will be in the water a lot, invest a little more money and get the best wetsuit there is. You won't be sorry. If you will need it only once in a while then it's up to you, if you have the money get a good one, if not, just get whatever fits your wallet (off course keeping in mind all that you learned here!).
How to choose a good wetsuit?
If you read the whole wetsuit guide you should now have a pretty good idea what works and what to look for. Maybe I'll just point it out again:
- get a stretchy wetsuit, the more flexible the better,
- get a wetsuit that has neoprene with lots of air bubbles - it will be lighter and warmer,
- double blind stitch + liquid seal are a must,
- make sure it fits,
- try different wetsuit brands since their wetsuits are shaped differently and wetsuit from one brand can fit you better than wetsuits from another brand,
- go somewhere where they have more than one wetsuit brand, this way the advice from the people working in the shop will be more unbiased,
- if you use wetsuits for a while you probably have a brand and a model that works for you, so you can just get the same size and same model every time your old wetsuit wears out, this way you can shop online and save some money,
- some fancy expressions that wetsuit companies use can describe simple unimportant things :) don't be fooled.
If you need some more info - try how to buy a wetsuit guide.
There are two things I would like to address at the end of this wetsuit guide.
First - my wetsuit experience comes mostly from surfing and using surfing wetsuits. If basically all wetsuits are made the same - from neoprene, when it comes to features and details they can be quite different. Every water sport activity has its own demands. Some are so similar that you can easily wear a wetsuit from one sport and use it in another and others can be a bit less appropriate to be used across other sports. Diving wetsuits would be an example here. Still wearing a wetsuit beats not wearing one or staying out of the water altogether so... Anyway, while this wetsuit guide is written with surfing wetsuits in mind most of the things you read here also stands for diving wetsuits, swimming wetsuits, triathlon wetsuits, windsurfing wetsuits...etc. In my opinion surfing is the most demanding sport when it comes to wetsuits (check my rant on surfing wetsuits) and surfing wetsuits are the best suits on the market so what works here probably works everywhere.
And secondly, apart from my experience this guide is based on a few sources which I would like to give credit to: wetsuit guide from littlepinkshop.com, wetsuit stuff from 360guide.info, wetsuit stuff from wikipedia and surfline.com. Although this one that you've just read is the most updated one.
Hope you enjoyed this wetsuit guide. If you did, please give us some feedback!
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