Modern wetsuits come in all shapes, sizes and forms, unlike 20 years ago when buying a wetsuit involved buying a black neoprene jumpsuit. Different wetsuits are used for different activities, and therefore different specifications are more important to consider when buying one: windsurfers and surfers tend to need more flexibility, whereas divers and snorkellers need tough warm wetsuits. Below are the main features of wetsuits, and what each means.
Thickness of the suit
The thickness of the wetsuit is probably the most important issue: depending on the temperature of the water and the activity being undertaken, different degrees of thickness are required. Divers, bodyboarders, and other in-water activities will need a much thicker wetsuit than someone who is above water like a wakeboarder or windsurfer. This is because the wetsuit works by slowing down body heat loss - if the speed of body heat loss is faster than its production then the wearer will get cold, and as water is the conductor of body heat, a thicker wetsuit reduces the flow of water to and from the body, slowing heat loss more. With an out of water activity, it is air circulation that matters, not that of water, therefore a thinner wetsuit is required.
Wetsuit thickness is measured in millimetres. Often they will not be just one thickness all over, but a combination, such as '4/4/2', which then refers to first the thickness of the torso (4mm), then the arms (also 4mm), and then the leg thickness (2mm). How thick a wetsuit each person requires naturally depends personal choice, but as a general guide, water above 30 degrees C (85F) would require a 2mm wetsuit for divers and spongers, and no wetsuit or a rash vest for above water activities. 20-30C (70-80F) would require a 3mm wetsuit, and 12-20C (55-70F) a 6mm. At cold temperatures, a wetsuit hood can be useful for stopping body heat loss through the head, although it does make you look like a twat- hence the nickname 'twatcap'. Consider also gloves and wetsuit boots, or neoprene socks for bodyboarders or divers who wear fins or flippers.
Fit is also important in a wetsuit, as a bad fit can leave too much space between body and neoprene, allowing too much cold water to circulate. A bad fit can also be spectacularly uncomfortable, and make the activity unpleasant. Armpits, crotch, neck, wrists and ankles should fit snugly, if not tightly. If the neck rubs but the next size up it too large, it is common practice to coat the neck skin in vaseline, or wear a high necked rash vest.
Usually there is a gap at the small of the back due to the way most peoples' spines curve. 'Spine pads' are available to fill this gap if it is excessively large. If the wetsuit is a back-zipper, this zip should be fairly easy to do up, but if it zips right away then the wetsuit is too large. If assisstance is required to zip the suit, it is too small. A wetsuit that is too small can be dangerous for two reasons, firstly that it can restrict breathing, which is clearly not a good thing during a sporting activity; secondly it can restrict mobility (particularly with thick wesuits), which can be problematic if the wearer gets into trouble.
The 'style' of a wetsuit refers less to the colour and patterns, but to its construction. The main styles are
- Shorty or Springsuit has short arms and legs, is suitable for warmer water. It has the advantage of being cheaper, and will be less buoyant than other styles.
- Long-john has no arms and long legs (to the ankle). Generally warmer than a shorty, with increased mobility for arms. A popular choice of windsurfers.
- Three quarter has long legs and short (elbow length) arms. Quite a warm suit.
- Full suit or Steamer is a necessity in cooler waters in winter, but can get too hot in summer. Warmer steamers are those with back zippers, as they tend to have higher collars.
- Farmer John is a two piece wetsuit. Used mostly by divers for extra warmth, as an additional zip up jacket can be worn over the top. These can also be useful if the wearer has particularly short legs or torso, as can be tailored to fit better.
Wetsuits are made of neoprene. Most have insides that are coated with nylon to toughen it and make it easier to put on an and take off. Nylon can also be made into pretty colours, as can its pricey but more flexible counterpart lycra. This is often used on the outside of the neoprene to increase the durability of the suit. Neoprene that is not coated with nylon or lycra on the outside is referred to as smoothskin or 'smoothie' neoprene. As it is smoother, it reduces windchill and lets water run off more easily, however it is less durable.
'Titanium' wetsuits have become incredibly popular in the last few years. They have either titanium thread woven into the neoprene, or are coated with this on the inside. The idea is that this will reflect more body heat back to the body. These suits are WARM! Also depressingly expensive...
Wetsuits with no coatings of any kind are referred to as 'skins' due to the closeness of their fit. These are quite delicate, therefore difficult to take off and put on, but certainly comfortable. Quite often a skin will have a silicon coating sprayed onto it to make it that little bit more durable.
Neoprene can be gas or chemical blown. These terms are to do with the process by which the wetsuit is made. A gas blown wetsuit will last longer, however doesn't feel as nice as a chemical blown wetsuit, which tend to be softer. A gas blown wetsuit is more expensive.
Wetsuits are put together from many panels to ensure a close fit. The areas where these are stitched together are prime spots for water leakage, therefore the type of seal and stitching used can have a great effect on the warmth of the suit. Most common types of stitching are:
- Glue and tape means the seams are glued then taped together, and welded under a hot heat. This means the suit is comfy and well sealed, but doesn't last an awfully long time.
- Zigzag is a crisscross stitch that is usually used in areas where there is not much push and pull on the seam, as it is not overly strong. Usually the seams are glued underneath the stitch.
- Mauser is a wide stitch that is not glued, so it holds the fabric together well, although has quite a lot of leakage. A big problem with mauser stitch is that if it comes undone, there is nothing to hold the pieces together.
- Blind is a stitch done over a glued seam, in which the stitch goes only halfway through the neoprene. The seam is stitched in this way on both sides, so the two sets of stitches interlink. This is very strong, and also flexible. As a down side, blind stich can stick out quite a bit, so can be uncomfortable.
Back zipping wetsuits are most common, and there is a reason for this! These suits are most comfortable, and easy to get in and out of. Other types on zip include front, diagonal back and shoulder, which a few people prefer for reasons unknown to the rest of us. Good zips on wetsuits have nice big teeth, and a 'zip flap', which is a neoprene flap between the zip and the wearer's back, which prevents the zip from rubbing, and excess water leakage. Zips have a long thread attatched to the zipper for ease of doing it up.
Some wetsuits also have ankle and wrist zippers to make them easier to get on and off, although these have a disadvantage in that they let more water in, and are more bits to break!
Key pockets are extremely useful for those who do not have obliging family members sitting on the beach caring for their possesions. The key pocket is on the inside of the suit, and is best when secured with velcro or a zip. It is useful, for storing car or house keys in.
Knife pockets are on the outside of the suit, usually only on farmer johns. These are useful for divers who wish to store useful bits and pieces, although I am told they're not always very secure.
Kneepads are rubber covers for the knees of the suit. These are great on children's suits, which tend to wear at the knees a lot from playing on the beach: it is cheaper to replace a rubber kneepad than a whole leg.
Wetsuits vary greatly in price with regards to the style, material, size and so on. Naturally the more expensive suits are the thicker ones with more features, but these will last longer. Sadly, in the UK at least, women's suits are also more expensive, so it is often worth a woman trying on a man's suit in case it fits, although this is rare. A wetsuit made by a famous surf label is also not always the best, and many local producers put far more care and effort into their products, and also will be happier to produce a custom wetsuit.
My own knowledge as a shop slave and surfer
gn0sis msged me saying that the whole titanium wetsuit thingy is bullshit. As a long term slave to the board and seller of wetsuits, I disagree, however it is true that there is debate about its effectiveness. I would always try to sell someone a titanium wetsuit for cold weather, and not just because it's more expensive ;). gn0sis gave me a website with the other point of view http://www.scubadiving.com/gear/wetsuitbs/