How To Buy a Wetsuit

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.