Wetsuits are made of neoprene, a stretchy rubber compound that acts as insulation and helps you float. The thicker the neoprene, the more insulating your wetsuit will be and so the warmer you will be in the water.
Typically there will be 2 or 3 different combinations of neoprene in a wetsuit. The thickest will be around the core to keep your vital organs warmest, whilst your limbs and other areas that require more flexibility such as underarms will be thinner. For example, a 4/3 would refer to 4mm neoprene in the core and 3mm in the limbs.
Neoprene technology is constantly advancing to retain greater heat and provide greater range of movement, including the way the suit is seamed. Seams can be stitched, glued, taped or even sealed by liquid rubber depending on how well insulated it needs to be, so look out for individual brands features.
The traditional wetsuit entry is through a back zip, with a long cord to open and close. A lot of people choose this option for ease of entry. However, chest zip systems are also really popular.
A chest zip system allows you to enter through the neck area and fasten the suit with a zip across the chest. It is argued that chest entry gives more movability because of its single neoprene chest panel. This not only gives less restriction for paddling but also keeps you warmer as you get less leakage than a back zip.
The newest systems out there are zipless wetsuits. These are made from super stretchy neoprene around the neck to allow entry without a zip. Zipless suits provide even more flex in the chest panel, and no zipper means no zip leaks!
Full Suit vs. Shorty
A full suit will cover the whole body except head, hands and feet, and so is used in winter and cold summer swells.
A shorty on the other hand, has cut off arms and legs to give greater comfort in warmer waters. Good for 18 – 21ºC waters, shortys cover the torso to keep the vital organs warm, whilst arms and legs are bare to keep cool and help regulate temperature. Shortys are especially good for paddling as they offer less restricted movement than thicker full suits.
Thickness vs. Temperature
The cut and thickness of your suit should be determined by the average water temperature you’ll be surfing in. Get to know your local break, or the places that you’ll likely be surfing most and check the average water temperatures to see how they fluctuate through the seasons. This is a great starting point for buying a new wetsuit.
The chart below gives you a rough idea of the wetsuit thickness you’ll need for different water temperatures.
WATER TEMP (ºCELCIUS)
|23º and above||Boardshorts, Bikinis, Swimsuits, Wetsuit Top, Rash Vest|
|21 – 23º||1mm Wetsuit top, Boardshorts, Bikinis, Swimsuits|
|18 – 21º||2mm Shorty or Short Sleeve Full Suit|
|17 – 18º||2mm Short or Long Sleeve Full suit|
|14 – 17º||3/2mm Full Suit|
|12 – 14º||3/2mm or 4/3mm Full Suit with 2mm or 3mm Boots|
|9 – 12º||4/3mm Full Suit, 3mm Boots and Gloves, 2mm Hood|
|8 – 9º||5/4/3mm Full Suit with Hood, 5mm Boots and Gloves|
|8º and below||6/5/4mm Full Suit with Hood, 6mm Boots and Gloves|
Made from a thin layer of neoprene, these suits are used for warm waters around 21 – 23ºC. Most likely an upper torso Rash Vest or Long-sleeved Swimsuit, these garments are mostly used to protect against sun and wind rather than cold. Wearing a 1mm will also protect you against your skin rubbing on the board and creating a rash. 1mm are popular as they offer less constriction for paddling.
2mm wetsuits usually come in the form of shortys as they are best suited for warm or mild waters. Great for warm conditions, a 2mm suit is recommended for waters around 18 – 21ºC.
Similarly to a 1mm, a 2mm will protect you from the sun and wind, as well as preventing board rash on your skin. Unlike thicker suits, 2mm wetsuits have a lower level of seam sealing to allow more water to wash through the suit to regulate your temperature.
Often referred to as a spring suit, 3mm wetsuits are ideal for spring and summer conditions in the UK. Great for waters around 12 – 17ºC depending on how much you feel the cold, these suits are great for keeping you warm and protected from the wind and cooler water temperatures.
3mm also come in Long Jons and Short Jons; a suit without arms to aid paddling efficiency and either long or short legs. These are especially useful for paddle boarding when you need the extra movability. As well as epic style points for cruisey longboarders.
Ready for when you ditch your winter suit or the conditions turn a little chillier at the end of summer, a 4mm wetsuit is perfect for early spring and late summer surfing in the UK.
Ideal for water temperatures around 10 – 14ºC, these suits are usually full length and mostly made in a 4/3mm combination. 4mm neoprene runs across the torso to keep vitals insulated, whilst stretchier 3mm neoprene is used on limbs and areas where more flexibility is needed for paddling.
4mm wetsuits will mostly have taped seams to prevent as much water seeping into the suit as possible. This protects you from fresh cold water entering the suit and disrupting the insulating effect of the neoprene. Always check individual wetsuits to find out the level of seam sealing.
Advances in neoprene technology has undoubtably changed surfing in the last decade, with cold water swells more accessible than ever before. A 5mm or above winter wetsuit allows you to get in the water all year round. And has unsurprisingly become a non-negotiable piece of kit for chasing cold swells and arctic breaks.
As well as being able to push the boundaries of what’s possible in cold water surfing, these suits are the friend to many a UK surfer. Great for waters around 9ºC and below, 5mm or 6mm wetsuits are essential for both winter and cooler transition months in the UK.
Progressive seam sealing (mostly using liquid rubber) and thick neoprene constructions enhance insulation and minimise water entry, keeping you in the water for longer. Whilst these suits are a little more restrictive than thinner neoprene, the insulation offered by them is vital for cold water surfing. They are definitely a game changer!
6mm wetsuits are there for when it’s truely baltic out there. These also have advanced seam and zip lock technology to really keep those icy waters at bay. Often you’ll find 6mm wetsuits in a 6/5/4mm combination to give greater degree of flexibility and movement in the places you need it, whilst retaining heat in the core and torso.
When water temperatures dip below 14ºC, a lot of surfers will start to wear wetsuit boots (often known as booties) to keep their feet warm. These come in a variety of thicknesses and like your suit, the thicker the neoprene, the warmer your feet will be.
Wetsuit boots also feature rubber soles for grip and durability. You will find options in full boots to keep the toes together for warmth or with an extra piece of neoprene between the big toe and others to stop slopping around in your boots when they’re wet.
If you get cold fingers in the water, get some wetsuit gloves. Their insulation will help with paddling and gripping the board in cold conditions, making for a better time in the surf.
If you’re braving icy conditions, it doesn’t mean you have to accept inevitable brain freeze. Wetsuit Hoods are designed to insulate the place where you loose a large amount of body heat, your head and neck.
When you’re buying a wetsuit, a close and comfortable fit is paramount. You want your suit to be tight fitting so that water can’t flush down the legs, arms or neck. This would result in loosing heat by flushing in fresh cold water. Wetsuits should act as a second skin.
Wetsuits are measured in body width and length, and each brand will have slightly different measurements for a S, M, L, so it’s worth checking before you buy.
Height and chest size are the best indicators of what size suit to buy. However, there are also more specific sizing options out there such as Medium Tall and Large Short, so keep an eye out for this when purchasing your suit.
Women can also base their wetsuit on dress size, although again these may vary brand to brand.
If you’re not sure, do it the old fashioned way and get a tape measure out for precise measurements. It’s better to be safe than sorry with a baggy suit that doesn’t work!
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