Depending on the conditions, most surfers like to have some sort of thermal protection when surfing. Although abrasion protection can be obtained with clothing and rash guards, thermal protection is tough to achieve without a wetsuit. In this post, we discuss wet suit materials, features, and costs.
All wet suits are not built the same way. The days of one wet suit for all of your water sports activities have passed (those days likely never existed anyway :). Many of us have different suits for different conditions and it is recommended that if possible you have at least a few different wet suits for each condition type. In our household we have thermal suits for cold and warm water scuba and surfing. Then we have suits for Tri-sports and boat related board sports. You don’t need all of these unless you use them but the idea is wet suits can be very sport tailored.
Let’s first look at a full wetsuit. Benefits of a full suit include cost effectiveness, warmth in your midsection where separate top’s and bottoms would normally create a cold spot, and ease of movement even when the suit changes shape due to getting rolled in a wave. A full suit like this O’Neill Wetsuits Youth 3/2 mm Reactor Full Suit, Graphite/Bright Blue/Graphite, 14 is a good starter full suit. If the water is a little cold for this thickness it is easy to add a hood later on.
Now let’s look at a shorty, shorty suits are great when you just need to keep your core warm. I like these on warm days when the water temperature is stratified. On the surface or below a couple of feet there can often be a thermocline (a distinct line between the warm and cool water in the water column.) This line typically does not exist much in the waves themselves as the water is being mixed up. But once you get beyond the break or when you are diving through a wave you can often feel the cold water with a bit of a shock. On days like this, when the upper water column is warm and the middle or lower water column is cool, surfers typically like to put on a shorty. For people who don’t want to get too hot when riding or when on top but also don’t want to have their breath taken away when punching through a wave a shorty like the O’Neill Spring Suit is a good pick.
Shorties also come in long sleeves which can be good in the conditions described above. If your arms get cold or if you tend to be round in the middle and skinny on the arms these can be great. When your arms get get too cold you can get tired early when paddling.
Now let’s talk a little bit about materials. Most suits are now made of neoprene. These suits don’t actually keep you warm. They keep the water layer between your skin and the suit warm. This thin layer of water acts as a barrier between you and the water. Your body heat warms up the thin layer of water and then the suit keeps that layer in place. As you move through the water, the warm layer is washed out of the suit and your body re-warms the thin layer. This is why you get cold when you dive through a wave.
Finally regarding costs, a good suit can run as little as $65 or as much as $300+. Although you often get what you pay for, we recommend spending in the middle range. Cheap suits may not even last a season, and expensive suits often can not be justified when a new suit is often needed every few years due to wear and tear. If you have bought a new wetsuit lately, let us know. We would love to hear your experience.