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Surfing Wetsuit Temperature Guide | Which Wetsuit to Buy?

Do you need a wetsuit for surfing? And what thickness? Make sure you have the best surfing wetsuit for the water temperature

About to surf a new coastline for the first time? Learning to surf and not sure which type of surfing wetsuit to buy? Wondering what thickness of wetsuit you’ll need, or whether to wear wetsuit boots, or whether you’ll be able to wing it in boardies?

This is a very rough wetsuit temperature guide for surfing, featuring advice on how much neoprene to wear. I refer mostly to water rather than air temperatures, but bear in mind that the latter can make a big and often decisive difference, as can the wind. Other obvious factors to bear in mind are the amount of time you’re likely to be in the water, the surf conditions on the day, yearly (as opposed to seasonal) fluctuations in water temperature, and your own susceptibility to the cold. Some surfers prioritise warmth above all else, others are prepared to sacrifice a little warmth for the greater flexibility of thinner neoprene, or the freedom of no neoprene at all.

Wetsuits

Very generally speaking:

  • 18-23 °C: short-sleeved and/or short-legged wetsuit
  • 16-21 °C: 3mm wetsuit (3/2 fullsuit)
  • 11-17 °C: 4mm wetsuit (4/3 fullsuit)
  •  6-15 °C: 5mm wetsuit (5/4 or 5/4/3 fullsuit)
  •  8 °C or under: 6mm wetsuit (6/5/4, 6/5 or 6/4 fullsuit)

As you can see, there’s a degree or two of overlap. You can lead a perfectly happy existence without owning, say, a 4/3 wetsuit, but there will come a time of year when you’re either slightly chilly in your 3/2 or slightly hot in your 5/4.

O’Neill’s Psychotech F.U.S.E. 5/4mm wetsuit.

In Cornwall, where water temperatures rarely get below 9 °C, and probably in Devon, Wales and Ireland, where they rarely get below 8 °C, a decent 5mm wetsuit will be sufficiently thick for most surfers even when the water’s at its coldest, which is usually between January and April. Surfers in Scotland, and on England’s east and south coasts, should consider acquiring a 6mm wetsuit for the winter. A good 4mm wetsuit does the job in SW France and northern Spain, although many surfers prefer a 5/4 or 5/4/3; in Portugal you’ll never need more than a 4/3.

In England and Wales the water heats up to roughly 17 or 18 degrees in summer; in Scotland to around 14 °C, and in Ireland to somewhere in between, getting colder the further north you go.

Narval’s “Malnacido” short arm wetsuit is 2mm throughout, and ideal for summer sessions on the continent.

SW France and northern Spain tend to peak around 22 or 23 degrees; in Portugal the water temperature  in summer can be anywhere from 16 to 23 °C.

Wetsuit boots, wetsuit gloves and wetsuit hood

If you intend to surf in the UK during winter, then you’ll also be needing wetsuit boots and possibly gloves and a hood too, depending on which part of the British coastline you surf and on which parts of your body feel the cold most acutely. Boots usually come first; most opt for a hood before gloves, others wear boots and gloves but no hood, some peculiar people even wear a hood but no boots or gloves, only idiots wear gloves but no boots.

Xcel’s Drylock round toe wetsuit boot is available in 7mm.

It varies greatly from person to person but generally speaking wetsuit boots become necessary around the 12-13 °C mark and below, wetsuit gloves and wetsuit hood around the 9-10 °C mark and below. Thus in Cornwall surfers tend to don boots in November, December if they’re well ‘ard; most will also wear a hood and possibly gloves from January through to April, though some manage to make do without either. (Remember, the more you’re likely to duck dive in a session, the greater your need for a hood.) In Scotland and on England’s east coast, hood and gloves are all but essential in winter, and are often the norm by early December.

In southwest France and northern Spain, almost all surfers wear boots in winter and many opt for a hood as well, but the vast majority find gloves superfluous.

Different thicknesses of boots and gloves are available, and while in France, say, you may be able to get away with boots as thin as 3mm in winter, in Scotland, say, it might be worth investing in some 6 or 7mm boots. 5mm is the most common thickness, and should be sufficient for Cornwall, Devon, Wales and Ireland.

Boardshorts, bikinis and wetsuit tops

Once the water temperature gets over twenty degrees celsius or so you can start to think about surfing in boardshorts or a bikini.

The Billabong Foil long sleeve wetsuit top. This one’s composed of 1mm and 0.5mm panels.

If the water’s between, say, 20 and 22 degrees you’ll probably start to get chilly within an hour or so of surfing, particularly if the sun’s not out, and so it may be better to stick with a shorty wetsuit if you want your session to be a long one. Alternatively, wetsuit tops or thermal rash-vests — usually 1 or 2mm thick — do a great job of providing extra warmth and preventing wind chill, and may come in useful even in water as warm as 25/26 degrees. Many girls opt for neoprene bottoms, paired with a bikini top, rash vest or t-shirt.

Billagong’s “Sea Legs” for girls are available in 1 or 2mm neoprene.

Boardshorts and bikinis are just about doable in the UK summer, but even with a very good wetsuit top on the hottest day of the year, you’d do well to last much more than an hour or two.

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