The Best Surfing Wetsuit for You | Basic Wetsuit Types
A beginner's guide to surfing wetsuits
Wetsuits are both the bane and salvation of the surfer’s existence. They’re a pain to take on and off, a chore to wash out and hang up, a foul-smelling abomination when left - as they often are - to stew in their own juices, they restrict movement and muffle tactile sensations… but they're still generally preferable to hypothermia. For surfing in the UK, and indeed most other countries, wetsuits are an absolute necessity for most of the year.
A wetsuit’s job is to keep you not dry but warm, which it does by trapping and heating a thin layer of water between itself and your skin. The snugger the fit, the better it will do this job; an ill-fitting top-of-the-range wetsuit won’t be nearly so effective as a mid-range suit that fits perfectly. Different brands will differ in their sizings so it’s always worth trying a suit on before you buy; some brands, such as Snugg in Cornwall, even offer made-to-measure wetsuits with a custom fitting service.
The thicker the wetsuit the warmer it’s likely to be, but also the more restrictive, although these days neoprene is far stretchier than it used to be, and thinner wetsuits are now able to achieve the same results as the thicker wetsuits of yesteryear. Wetsuit thickness is measured in millimetres, and most wetsuits are composed of panels of two or three different thicknesses. This is expressed in the following manner: 5/4, or 5/4/3, for example. The thickest panels generally cover the torso and thighs, the thinner panels cover the arms, lower legs, and other areas requiring greater flexibility.
Do not try and surf in a dry suit.
The Winter Wetsuit
A standard winter wetsuit is 5/4 or 5/4/3. Surfers in the UK may appreciate a 6mm wetsuit (6/5/4, say) from January through to April, when the water can hover around the 5 or 6 degree mark on certain coasts; the thickest surfing wetsuits you can buy are 7mm, but they may impede movement too much for one's liking. A 4/3 will likely suffice in France, Spain and Portugal, and even in the UK is a useful purchase for those "in-between periods", freeing up your limbs somewhat whilst taking the strain off your other suits in the autumn and spring.
The Summer Wetsuit
Donning a 3/2 wetsuit for the first time after the winter is a singularly liberating experience. And almost as bad as being too cold in the surf is being too hot, so it’s well worth investing in a summer wetsuit; a good 5/4 winter wetsuit will be almost unbearable during the UK summer.
The Shorty Wetsuit
Summer wetsuits with short arms, legs, or both, are also available, and are often known, somewhat confusingly, as spring suits (blame the Australians). These are likely to be 2mm all the way through or 1mm in the legs and arms. Variations include long johns and short johns, whose completely sleeveless upper-halves are combined with long or half-length legs, and the high-cut shorty wetsuit for girls, which bridges the gap between a wetsuit and a swimsuit; usually just 1mm thick, these can be long-arm or sleeveless, and often come with a front zip.
Find a more detailed guide to the best wetsuits for different water temperatures here.
If you hope to surf year-round in the UK, you’ll definitely need wetsuit boots, probably a wetsuit hood and wetsuit gloves too. Many winter wetsuits now come with a built in hood, which you can raise and lower at your leisure.
Over the last 10 years the traditional vertical back zip has been replaced by the horizontal front zip, which is easier to use, lets in less water, and most would agree makes for a better fitting, comfier wetsuit. Some newer wetsuits even forgo zips altogether. Other factors to consider include the quality of the neoprene, the seams between the different panels of neoprene — they can be stitched, glued and blind-stitched, or sealed — and thermal lining, with which most pricier wetsuits are at least partially equipped. Top-end wetsuits now dry reasonably quickly, and some are marketed specifically on this basis.
Neoprene, the material traditionally used in wetsuit construction, is usually derived from petroleum in an energy-intensive process; the environmental impact of neoprene derived from limestone is smaller but probably not by much. Increasingly, however, wetsuit manufacturers are seeking sustainable alternatives to neoprene, and foremost amongst them is Patagonia, some of whose wetsuits combine neoprene with natural plant-based rubber in a 40/60 split. UK brand Finisterre is also known to pay particular care to its supply chain and the environmental implications of the materials it uses.
To Wee, or not to Wee
…That is the question:
Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of a bursting bladder,
Or to release an inner sea of troubles,
And, by discharging, end them.
Probably wee, but only if you're desperate. Obviously it's quite disgusting, covering yourself in a thin film of piss, but it's also (some would argue) strangely pleasurable. If possible get it out the way in the first half of the session rather than relenting just before you catch a wave in, especially if your surf is due to be followed by a long car journey. Always flush your wetsuit through in the immediate aftermath, and rinse it thoroughly later on (you should do this anyway after every surf if you want your suit to last as long as possible).