A wetsuit is a garment that provides thermal insulation, buoyancy, and abrasion resistance to swimmers, divers, surfers, and people participating in paddle sports and triathlons. Although a popular belief is that a wetsuit retains heat by warming a thin layer of water between the suit and your skin, the insulation actually comes from gas bubbles enclosed within the material.
A proper size, fit and style will ensure the suit is perfect for your sport. It’s also important to consider what temperature water you’ll be in since that will determine the warmth and durability of your wetsuit. This guide will help you learn how to choose the best wetsuit for your needs.
Styles: Different styles of wetsuits offer a range of coverage from sleeveless to full-body to women-specific styles. When choosing a suit, consider not only the degree of warmth, but the range of motion your sport demands. Wetsuits don’t cover the hands and feet— that’s what booties and gloves are for.
Sleeveless Vests: Vest wetsuits cover your torso and sometimes include an attached hood. This style provides minimal protection and is intended to be worn as an extra layer in addition to a longer wetsuit.
Shorties or Spring Suits: Shorties or Spring wetsuits cover your torso and have short sleeves and legs.
Farmer John/Jane: Farmer John/Jane wetsuits cover your torso and legs and leave the arms free, much like a bib overall. You’ll find this sleeveless style allows for maximum range of motion in the arms, and you can always add more layers to increase warmth when needed.
Full Suit: Full wetsuits cover your entire torso, as well as your arms and legs up to the wrists and ankles.
Women’s‑specific: Women’s-specific wetsuits are tailored to include a roomier bust, tapered legs and a reduced shoulder span. Pay attention to additional women’s‑specific features such as a built-in, mesh-lined bra, and a relief zipper that allows you to answer nature’s call without the burden of pulling your suit on and off.
Neoprene Thickness: Wetsuits are made from foamed neoprene. Although you may find some variation within the specific type of neoprene, your main concern should be the thickness of the material, which is measured in millimeters. Thicker neoprene offers more insulation and is better suited for frigid waters, however is also more motion-restricting then thinner, stretchier neoprene. Many wetsuits contain a variety of fabric thicknesses: a warmer layer for the torso and a thinner, more pliable layer for extremities. For example, a 3/2 wetsuit is made from 3mm neoprene along the core, and 2mm neoprene on the arms and legs.
- 1mm – 2mm is adequate for water 70–85 degrees.
- 3mm is adequate for water 65–75 degrees.
- 4mm is adequate for water 60–70 degrees.
- 5mm is adequate for water 50–60 degrees (great for the Pacific Northwest)
- 6mm and thicker is adequate for arctic-type conditions. (It’s unlikely you’d use one of these in the lower 48.)
Fit: You’ll want your suit to fit like a second skin. If your suit is too loose at the cuffs, sleeves and collar, water will flush in and out, taking your body heat with it. Wearing booties, gloves, and a hood can reinforce these entryways and help prevent water from seeping in and out.
The collar should fit snugly, without restricting your breathing. You may want to wear a rash guard (a lightweight Lycra shirt) beneath your wetsuit to prevent a neck rash. The tight fit can make it difficult to get in and out of your suit, particularly when dry, so look for helpful features such as ankle zips and adjustable collars.
The warmth and protection you’ll receive from your wetsuit should not come at the expense of movement. Make sure you can squat, move your arms freely, hold your arms over your head, and stretch out your shoulders with only a slight sensation of restriction.
Seam Seals: When choosing your wetsuit, you will be faced with a number of options for seam stitching and sealant. Although this may seem like a technical detail, sealing stitches are an important aspect to consider, as they afford varying degrees of warmth, comfort and water-tightness.
Flatlock stitching: This stitching will lie flat against your body and cause minimal discomfort. It is intended for water above 62 degrees, and may allow for a bit of seepage.
Sealed seams (glued and blind stitched): This stitching is almost completely watertight. Glued and blind stitched seams are recommended for water that is 55 degrees and warmer.
Sealed and taped seams (glued, blindstitched, and 100% taped): This is your most durable and reinforced option. Interior taping will prevent any water from seeping through. This bombproof stitch is recommended for water temperatures colder than 55 degrees.
Wetsuits for Triathletes: If you’re participating in a Triathlon, a wetsuit can increase your speed, buoyancy and confidence, and help you conserve energy. Triathlon-specific suits are available with low-profile pockets for food, internal and external key pockets, UPF sun protection, and targeted muscle support to increase endurance.
Wetsuit Accessories: The addition of gloves, boots, and a hood will go a long way in helping you maintain warmth. They are highly recommended in water colder than 60 degrees.
Hand protection: For hand protection, five-finger gloves provide the most dexterity, but mittens will keep you the warmest in very cold water. A three-finger hybrid is a cross between a glove and a mitten.
Booties: Basic neoprene booties are soft and pliable, with a classic round toe design. A bootie with an external or internal split toe will increase your foot dexterity. If you are going to be walking or portaging, booties reinforced with traction at the heel and toe will provide extra protection from sharp rocks and coral.
Caps/Hoods: Caps and hoods are available in simple neoprene or with a comfortable and moisture-wicking fleece lining. These can be worn alone, or layered under a hooded wetsuit. Be aware that some people experience a degree of claustrophobia when wearing head protection, particularly because they cover your ears or a portion of your face.