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How to Choose a Wetsuit, Thickness, Temperature Ratings & More

Wetsuits are a fantastic tool that lets surfers, swimmers, and water lovers stay in the water all year long. Choosing the proper thickness for the area and activity that you will be doing is the first step to staying warm and happy, ready to focus on fun. In the following article, we'll break down the complete process, so you can feel confident that you're getting the very best wetsuit for you.

Wetsuit Thickness & Temperature Guide

Water Temp. Range (°F) Water Temp. Range (°C) Wetsuit Thickness Recommended Wetsuit Type Seal Type
>72° >22° N/A Rashguard N/A
65° - 75° 18° - 24° 0.5 mm - 2/1 mm Top / Shorty N/A
62° - 68° 16° - 20° 2 mm - 3/2 mm Springsuit / Full Suit Flatlock
58° - 63° 14° - 17° 3/2 mm - 4/3 mm Full Suit + Boots Sealed
52° - 58° 11° - 14° 4/3 mm - 5/4/3 mm Full Suit + Boots + Gloves + Hood Sealed and Taped
43° - 52° 6° - 11° 5/4 mm - 5/4/3 mm Full Suit + Boots + Gloves + Hood Sealed and Taped
42° and below 6° and below 6/5 mm + Full Suit + Boots + Gloves + Hood Sealed and Taped

Also, consider:

  • Air Temperature
  • Wind Speed
  • Your Sensitivity to Getting Cold
  • Activity Level / Rigor

Please note: For cold air temperatures, more wind, an activity with less movement or if you get cold easily, consider a thicker wetsuit. These are general temperature guidelines. Many brands will provide their own temperature recommendations that may differ slightly from those listed above.

How do wetsuits work?

Wetsuits are neoprene insulation suits made for warmth and protection in watersports. They work by trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit. This layer of water is warmed by your body, preventing you from losing too much heat.

Water molecules conduct energy (heat) 25-40 times faster than air molecules. So, for example, on a 60-degree day, you will feel comfortable outdoors with jeans and a shirt; nonetheless, you will probably start to shiver within minutes while swimming in the same temperature water.

Wetsuits are not meant to keep you entirely dry. Neoprene consists of tiny closed cells filled with air that provides insulation against cold water by trapping heat in. The thicker the suit's neoprene, the warmer it will be because it has more heat-trapping insulation. Therefore, it is essential to research the water temperature (considering the different seasons and swells) in the region where you will primarily use your wetsuit. If the temperatures are cold enough to make your extremities go numb, think about using boots, gloves, and hoods too.

Wetsuit Thickness

One of the most essential aspects when considering wetsuit warmth is the thickness of the neoprene. It is measured in millimeters, represented with two or three numbers separated by a slash. The first number represents the thickness of the neoprene in the torso area, the second number represents the thickness of the neoprene in the extremities (or just the legs if there is a third number), and the third number (if present) represents the neoprene thickness in the arms. The thicker neoprene (the first number) is used for your torso to maintain your core body heat. Your core heat is vital to prevent hypothermia. The thinner neoprene (the second/third numbers) are used for your extremities. The thicker the neoprene, the more warmth but less flexibility.

How Should A Wetsuit Fit?

A wetsuit should fit like a second skin with no sagging in the back or excessive bunching in the arms or legs. It should fit tight to keep only a thin layer of water between your body and your suit. If your suit is loose, an abundance of water will flush through, making the suit less effective. A wetsuit should also fit snugly around your neck (many people wear a rashguard underneath their wetsuit to prevent a neck rash). Most women wear a swimsuit underneath for extra protection and support.

Fit is a crucial aspect to consider when buying a wetsuit. If your wetsuit does not fit properly, it will not be able to keep you warm or allow you the mobility you need for your sport. Consulting brand-specific size charts for wetsuits are the best way to start finding the correct wetsuit fit.

Wetsuit Fit Checklist:

After you have your wetsuit on, there should be no excess room in the torso, crotch, shoulders, or knees. An adequately fitted wetsuit will be challenging to put on when dry. (Life Hack: Keeping your socks on will allow your feet to slide in much easier!)

Once on, lift your arms over your head and stretch out your shoulders. This move should only be slightly restricting. If you feel a lot of pressure during this movement, the suit is too small. You should be able to squat down and move your arms easily (wetsuits above 5/4mm are inherently restrictive).

Seam Seals

Flatlock Wetsuit Stitching:

  • Recommended for use in water that is above 62°.
  • Lies flat against your body, causing no discomfort.
  • May let in a little water.

Sealed Wetsuit Seams(Glued and Blindstitched):

  • Recommended for use in water that is 55° and higher.
  • These stitch panels are glued and then blind stitched. Blindstitching does not go all the way through the neoprene. Instead, the stitch comes out the same side it went in, making it watertight.
  • This seam style will let in very little water.

Sealed and Taped Wetsuit Seams (Glued, Blindstitched and 100% Taped):

  • Recommended for use in water that is 55° and below.
  • This stitch is glued and then blindstitched but it also contains interior seam taping. The interior taping will add durability, reinforce the seam, and prevent any water from seeping through.

Zippers

Back Zip Wetsuits: This is the classic solution with the zipper going down the length of the spine with a long cord attached, so you can zip yourself in and out. The advantage of a back zip is that it is typically the easiest to enter and exit. This is very important when trying to get into something that is skin tight. The disadvantage is that water can get through the seams on the back zip, becoming a significant deterrent (think ice cubes down your back). Many companies have developed their own flush guard technologies to reduce this. Also, when you are bending forward, the suit will go taut in the back, and the zipper lacks give, which may restrict movement.

Chest Zip Wetsuits: Chest zip wetsuits are entered through a zippered cutout around the neck, and you drop down into the suit through the neckline before pulling the neck cut over your head and zipping closed at the chest. Chest zips are the trickiest to enter and exit. The chest zip is superior at keeping water from penetrating the suit through the seams and the neckline. The chest zip may also be a more comfortable fit once on with a tight neck that is less likely to cause rashes, and the zipperless back yields a greater level of flexibility.

Chest Zip Wetsuits: Found on lighter weight (think 3/2 and thinner) wetsuits and neoprene tops. They prioritize mobility over warmth by eliminating the lack of flex found around zippered areas and stitching. This may be a good solution if you have issues with mobility while paddling or surfing. The entry point for zipperless wetsuits can be found around the chest or neck area and is usually secured by a small zipper, elastic, or velcro.

Lengths

Full Wetsuits: covers your entire body, including arms and legs up to wrists and ankles. It can be found in many different thicknesses made for different water temperatures.

Shorty Wetsuits / Springsuits / Short Johns: all feature thinner material and short legs and arms. These are primarily used in warmer water temperatures.

Long John/Jane Wetsuits: like a full suit but made with thinner neoprene (usually 1.5 to 2mm) and no material at the arms for warmer waters.

Wetsuit Tops: are made of 0.5-2 mm neoprene, paired with boardshorts or a bikini bottom. Primarily used for warmer water sports. However, wetsuit vests can also be layered under a full suit for extra warmth in cold water.

Wetsuit Tops: Neoprene pants, leggings, or shorts primarily used in warmer water temperatures.

Rashguards: A light shirt made out of Lycra or other UV-resistant materials. Used to protect against sun and sand, sometimes worn under a wetsuit to prevent irritation.

FAR Infrared Technology

Some wetsuits use FAR infrared technology to keep you warm. Suits featuring mineral-enriched fibers that capture your body heat and convert it to FAR Infrared rays are the most common. A FAR Infrared Ray is a spectrum of sunlight with a wavelength between 4-1000 microns. NASA discovered that a Far Infrared Ray between 6-14 microns can penetrate the human body, raising body temperature while improving circulation and stimulating cell growth.

Benefits:

  • Heat penetrates deep into your core.
  • Provides warmth.
  • Relieves joint pain and stiffness.
  • Accelerates metabolism.
  • Improves blood circulation.
  • Stimulates cell growth.

This technology allows you to wear a thinner wetsuit in colder water, increasing your flexibility. Being cold drains your energy and cuts time spent in the water. Standard wetsuits can only insulate and reduce heat loss, but these wetsuits can generate heat. This generated heat will keep your core body temperature up, allowing your heart to continue pumping blood to your outer extremities.

Wetsuit Accessories

In water colder than 60°, wetsuit accessories such as gloves, boots and hoods help you stay warm.

Gloves: Neoprene gloves or mittens for cold water activities. Five finger gloves provide the most dexterity, while mittens are best suited to icy water. Three-finger hybrid models also exist (think lobster hands).

Boots: Neoprene and rubber boots for cold water activities. They can have a round toe or split toe. External split-toe designs have a separate big toe for better agility, while internal split-toe models combine the dexterity of split-toe with the warmth of a round-toe design.

Hoods: can be added to hoodless wetsuits for additional warmth in colder waters. Some wetsuits have hoods built-in.

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