Learning how to choose a wetsuit will help you stay warmer, more comfortable allowing you to have more fun on the water.
A good wetsuit can extend your paddling time from one season to all year. Choosing which to purchase can be confusing and for some may lead to buying the wrong suit and having to return it.
Below, I’ve provided a few tools to research options about how to choose a wetsuit.

Wetsuit Myths:

Many think wetsuits are ‘wet’. And it makes sense as that’s in the name!  But the modern full surfing wetsuit by a leading brand over $200 are actually dry!  Time to change the name!  Good full surfing wetsuits are seam sealed and thus are as dry as a dry suit.

Over time of heavy use your seams will break up and you’ll begin to get a leak or two then you have the regular wetsuit where your body heat warms up a thin layer of water inside. But it’s still fully functional. It usually takes me 1.5 to 2 years to get leaks in my suits. And I paddle a SUP and surf ski weekly all year in saltwater.

And neoprene by nature is wind proof.  Many dry suit fans argue that wetsuits don’t do well in wind but in truth they cut the wind well.

Kayak stores often say they sell wetsuits but usually are referring to armless Farmer John wetsuits.  These require wearing a fleece shirt under and a waterproof top over. That’s fine for light use or if you have a bombproof roll, but for the rest of us, I prefer a full seam sealed suit to keep as dry and warm as possible.

Start With..

What type of paddling or surfing will you be doing?  This helps with how much flexibility and coverage you need.
– What type of water temperature or seasonal range of temps you’ll be in?  This will help in choosing a thickness.
Budget?  Suits range from $150 – $600.

Wetsuit Thickness Explained

Cold water upper 50’s F and below you may consider a full surfing wetsuit (with arms).  Some suits have water temp ratings. Full suits come in varying thicknesses:
4/3mm = 4mm in chest and legs and 3mm in arms.
5/4/3mm = 5mm in chest; 4mm in legs; 3mm in arms.
5/4mm = 5mm chest and 4mm arms and legs. These are often too stiff in the shoulders for paddling.
5/3mm = 5mm in chest and legs, 3mm in arms.
6/5mm = For frigid temps.  Some of these have internal battery powered heaters.
Tip for Paddlers: No more than 4mm in arms for shoulder flexibility.

Wetsuits for Different Conditions and Temps

Neoprene Top and Bottom (2 pc) –  Ideal for flat water paddling, minimal waves and wind, temps above 50F. Recommended brands, NRS and Vaikobi.

Farmer John/Jane Armless Wetsuit – By itself or with an added neoprene jacket or nylon splash top and insulation, use for above conditions or slightly colder if you run warm. Popular with kayakers, schools/rentals.

Shorty Wetsuit – Armless and legless wetsuit. For slightly chilly temps.

Spring Suit – Usually a 3/2mm or similar thinner suit for slightly chilled temps. Some have no sleeves.

Full Wetsuit – Usually 4/3mm – 6mm fully enclosed suit with or without a hood. For 60F water and less. $150 – $600.  Many good wetsuits are actually dry and seam sealed and now not wet at all.

Dry Suit – Non-neoprene, usually nylon or GoreTex full suit that goes over chosen interior insulation. Water kept out of neck, wrists and some feet with latex or neoprene gaskets. Popular with kayakers and has a pee zip.  Costs $400-$1,600. Brands: Koktatat, NRS, Stohlquist, SUP Skin and Ocean Rodeo.

 

Dry suit vs Wetsuit?

Dry suits only keep you warm from the insulation you add underneath and being dry.  But it’s not 100% dry as sweating can be a factor. Many

look and feel baggy, though the Ocean Rodeo Soul is the first cool looking dry suit that has a rain shell / jacket looking top.

I switched from dry suits to full surfing wetsuits a decade ago as with SUP and being on a surf ski I swim and/or are more exposed to water more than I did with kayaking.  I found wetsuits are better for swimming. But it’s a personal choice of what works for you.

Also a friend once said ‘once you get a hole in a dry suit, you have a bad wetsuit.’  Wetsuits only leak in the immediate area where the hole is.

Dry suits do have maintenance to keep latex gaskets in shape or if they tear on a trip which can be difficult to fix.

Dry suits range from $400-$1,200 and wetsuits range from $125-$650.

But if you’re looking into a good dry suit check out the NRS Crux Dry Suit, the above mentioned Ocean Rodeo Soul and suits by Mustang Survival such as the Hudson CCS dry suit.

Cons of a full wetsuit?  No pee zipper.  But I rarely have to pee in my suit.  On hot flat SUP days full suits aren’t very comfortable to paddle in even if pulled down to your waist. In super cold wind chill (10F-20F) wind chill can get through the neoprene.

Full Suit Zipper vs Top Entry?

Full Wetsuit Designs:

Hooded with chest zip (enter from the top, throw hooded flap over head and secure with chest zip)

Back Zip (no hood) – Get one with a ‘dam’ which prevents from feeling water leaked in from the zipper.

No Back Zip (no hood) – top entry, usually a non hooded flap that goes over head and zips on at chest

Top Entry / No Back Zip:  Top entry suits are drier as they don’t have a leaky back-zip.  Some top entry suits have a zip-off shoulder area and either a zip of or attached hood. Lots of options for top entries.

The downside to top entry is that they can be hard to get into especially if you have sore, lack of flexibility or injured shoulders. Add a rash

guard top underneath to help in slipping on/off the suit.

My Favorites for Fall – Winter Suits:

For several years now I’ve been loving the the top-entry hooded, seam sealed and fleece lined RipCurl FlashBomb 5/4mm.

This year a friend recommended the O’Neill Hyperfreak 5.5/4.5mm suit which has been great even down to 30F days.  The outer is a bit more wind resistant than the RipCurl and the hood fits over my forehead better.  Designed to slide on smoother – it definitely does!

My Favorites for a Summer Suit:

For Summer paddling, I use the hoodless and back zip  RipCurl Dawn Patrol 4/3mm which has the dam and some of the fleecy FlashBomb material in the chest / back areas. It’s been great for SUP and surf skiing. I can add a hooded vest over to bump the heat up if needed.

Attached Hood or Not?

If you paddle or surf in cold water, a hood will keep the water from flushing down your neck, even if pushed off around your neck.  In super cold water you’ll get pretty cold without a hood.

Detachable hood options are good or a separate hood (pictured) if you’re not sure about temps.

If you don’t get an attached hood, look into the NRS Storm Cap which is wind proof and fleece lined. Very toasty!   Or a hooded vest.

Layering Clothing on Under or Over..

Add warmth to your wetsuit especially if you have a 3/2mm or 4/3mm by adding a non-cotton rash guard or similar thermal top (no collar).  Adding a Splash Jacket or hooded vest (photo) over the suit can really help cut wind chill and keep in warmth.

Paddling jackets also help too.  I’ve been using jackets from NRS and Season5.

Neoprene shorts can help boost heat under your suit. And helpful for sit on top kayakers and surf skiers with bucket seats.

Hooded Vests like the Ripcurl Hooded Vest can go over your wetsuit giving you a toasty hood and will keep water out.  Or it can be worn alone in warmer seasons or waters.

More Tips:

Try before you buy.  I just had a student return a suit which didn’t fit which he bought online.  Everyone’s body is different so what works for one may not fit for another.

Neoprene tends to run small.  I wear a XL shirt but have to wear a XXL suit.  Same goes with booties. Check suit reviews if the size chart isn’t clear.

 Wash regularly. I wash mine every other use. Soak in very hot or cold water with a non detergent soap or wetsuit soap from Dawn or GearAid.  Rinse and hang dry.  I have a floor heater to bake my basement bathroom.  Dry inside out, then the outside. See my blog post on cleaning and drying wetsuits.  

Life of a Wetsuit

I’m not good with taking care of things and I paddle often in saltwater.  So my suits are in their best condition for only a year. Friends who paddle only on weekends and/or only a few times a month or seasonally can have suits last for a few years or longer. First things to go are the seams.  I also get neoprene tears which create leaks.

Increase the life of your suit and prevent smelly neoprene with regular cleaning in soap and fresh water which will greatly increase the life of your suit.  See my post on wetsuit cleaning “Stop the Stink.”

You can fix your own with various neoprene glues but I send my rental suits in bunch after my working season to ProMotion Hood River, Oregon. They’re cheap, do an amazing job and have very quick turn a round.

Environmental Materials

Brands are saturating the marketplace with terms such as sustainable, green and organic. If you’re worried about all this rubber

being in the environment, worry no more.  Most brands now boast about limestone or charcoal neoprene and the like.  Patagonia’s suits are described as “the post consumer recycled polyester jersey increases durability while minimizing environmental impact.. TreeHugger has a good article on the subject of green wetsuits, Here.

Popular Wetsuit Brand that I Recommend

Patagonia, O’Neill, Ripcurl, Xcel, O’Neill, NRS among others.

 

Related Posts..

Stop the Stink – Sanitizing your Neoprene

Tips for Changing in Public

Wetsuits vs Drysuits?

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About Rob Casey – Named a pioneer in the SUP industry by Stand Up Journal, Rob is the author of “Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Surf and Rivers” and “Kayaking Puget Sound and the San Juans, 60 Trips.” He is also the founder of the Professional Stand Up Paddle Association.

Rob owns SUP, kayak and surf ski school Salmon Bay Paddle in Seattle. He also runs several paddling races throughout the year. Check out his Online SUP Courses.

 

Salmon Bay Paddle SUP Tips