By Alex Smith
Wetsuit Buying Guide
Alex Smith clarifies the core issues to consider when buying a wetsuit
With frequent extremes of temperature, humidity and movement, the marine environment puts enormous demands on the equipment we use – and that’s just as true with clothing as with boats, engines and electronics.
We all use thermal layers and foul weather gear to keep ourselves comfortable while boating in cold or exposed conditions, and some of us even go as far as to put on a drysuit. But when a day out is likely to involve a significant amount of time in the water (for instance, when driving a personal watercraft, doing a little diving, or enjoying some towed watersports) a wetsuit is usually the best way to go.
What is a wetsuit?
A wetsuit is a skin-tight neoprene bodysuit, designed to keep your body temperature stable while exposed to the water. As the name suggests, it does this by allowing a limited quantity of water to come into contact with the body, which then warms up to provide insulation. In essence, this trapped water creates a temperature gradient, which reduces heat loss and extends the length of time you can operate comfortably when immersed.
These thermal insulation suits tend to be used for a variety of active watersports, so they come in several forms. You can get a shorty (with short arms and legs), a full suit (with coverage right down to the ankles and wrists) or a hybrid version somewhere between the two. You can also get Neoprene thicknesses from 2mm (for light summer use) to 6mm (for cold weather use), with prices ranging from as little as $100 for a basic lightweight warm weather suit to more than $700 for a professional quality, full winter wetsuit from a top manufacturer.
Size definitely matters
The warming process of a wetsuit works best when the insulating neoprene fits close against your body. This keeps the flow in and out of the suit to a minimum, allowing the water trapped inside more opportunity to get up to temperature. If the suit does not fit closely, particularly around the feet, hands and neck, you get flushing of cold water in and out, cooling the body and causing substantial irritation to the skin.
What you need is a suit that is as tight as possible, while still being comfortable to wear. The trouble is it can be tricky to gauge exactly what a good fit is, as a suit that feels peculiarly tight in a changing room can feel much more comfortable once you get into the water. So to maximise your chances of the right fit, take your measurements over nothing more than very light clothing and measure your wrists, ankles and neck directly against the skin.
What features should I look out for?
The human body is not designed to cope with long periods in cold water. We lose heat 25 times faster when we’re wet and a well chosen wetsuit can certainly help with this, but what happens when you’ve done your session of wakeboarding and you’re back in the boat, wet through and travelling at 25 knots?
To help with wind chill, some wetsuits offer a substantial rubberised back and chest panel, which radically reduce heat loss through evaporation, thereby keeping your vital organs at a serviceable temperature. If you plan to spend significant amounts of time above the surface at speed in a damp suit, this is certainly a useful asset, but if in doubt, it is always best to take a little time either to dry off or to change into some fresh clothing.
In addition to picking the appropriate size, type and thickness of suit, you should also consider the use of flexible panels to aid movement in particularly vigorous watersports, as well as strategically placed reinforcing pads to help improve protection in common wear areas like the knees, elbows and backside. And while you’re considering the finer details, take a closer look at the seams, as they tend to give a fair indication of a suit’s general calibre.
At the bottom of the seam spectrum, overlock stitching is the least expensive but also the least comfortable method, as it creates an internal ridge that can dig into the skin and allow water to penetrate. A better bet on a basic summer suit is the flatlock seam, which substantially reduces water penetration. At the upper end of the product range, blind stitching is a more expensive, more sophisticated and more comfortable method of construction. It involves gluing the neoprene pieces, before ‘shallow’ stitching them to keep the seam watertight. Naturally, most winter wetsuits are made this way, but so too are the better quality summer versions.
Plenty of modern winter wetsuits come with built-in head protection, but if yours doesn’t, a separate neoprene hood is a good idea. Some are now available with a small sun-deflecting, cap-style rim above the eyes, but whatever you go for, a hat with a cord to stop it flying off is a great idea. Hands and feet also need protection but make sure you consider grip as well as warmth for both items – and as with the suit itself, look for a perfect fit and a neoprene thickness that is well matched to your intended usage.
Caring for your wetsuit
A good wetsuit will last a very long time if it is looked after properly. It should be rinsed with fresh water directly after use and then left to dry before you put it away. This is particularly true if you operate in salt water; salt will speed up the corrosion process, damaging the glue on wetsuit seams and corroding the zipper.
After rinsing, turn the suit inside-out and hang it up to dry. Then turn it back the right way and make sure you use a thick hanger to prevent the development of any stretches, creases or cracks that might compromise the suit’s performance. Sunlight can also cause discoloration of your gear so when you put it away, make sure you leave it in the shade – and I don’t mean in a dirty, greasy corner of some damp, forgotten shed. Hang it somewhere dry and clean, with adequate space to avoid having to fold the suit.
If you get a graze, snag or hole in your wetsuit, you need to repair the damage before it worsens. Seam damage in particular can spread at a frightening pace, so it should be repaired as soon as possible. You can either repair it yourself with a readily available wetsuit repair kit or send the suit back to the manufacturer. Even if it’s no longer under warranty, wetsuit companies tend to charge only a small fee for a professional quality repair.
Alex Smith is an ex-British Naval officer, with extensive experience as a marine journalist, boat tester and magazine editor. Having raced as a Pilot in the National Thundercat Series and as a Navigator in the inaugural Red Sea RIB Rally, he has now settled in the West Country of England, where he lives and works as a specialist marine writer and photographer from his narrowboat in Bath.
For more on wetsuit basics, see Jeff Hemmel’s Wetsuit 101.