Unfortunately, not all locations have the weather of Hawaii. People surf all year even in the coldest parts of the winter. Some surfers even surf in snowstorms alongside floating pieces of ice. How is this possible? (Maybe the more relevant questions is “are they nuts!?” But once you start surfing you may eventually want to join them.)
The wonderful invention called the wetsuit has made it so “It’s always summer on the inside.” Pioneered by Jack O’Neill of Santa Cruz, CA, wetsuits have undergone a long evolution. Today’s wetsuits are so warm and flexible that cold water and weather is no longer an excuse to not surf.
Wetsuits are made of a flexible material called neoprene, which is a synthetic rubber that contains thousands of tiny air pockets. Surfing wetsuits are different than the drysuits that divers sometimes wear. Wetsuits keep you warm by trapping a layer of water between the neoprene and your skin, which your body then heats up. Occasionally this water flushes out and is replaced by a new layer of water which your body must re-heat. This sometimes happens when you duckdive under a wave or wipe out.
The bottom line is that wetsuits allow you to stay in the water much, much longer than you would be able to without one. In extreme cold you wouldn’t be able to enter the water at all without one.
Wetsuit Types and Accessories
Wetsuits come in a variety of different cuts, thicknesses, and colors. But before you decide to get that fancy neon yellow and orange deisgn remember that black wetsuits absorb the sunlight, thereby offering additional warmth (and protection from icy stares).
Springsuits (sometimes called shorties) are great when the water or air is just a little too cool to be comfortable in just swim trunks or a bikini. Personally, I wear a springsuit all summer (I live in the northeast) since my body gets cold quickly. When I don’t wear a springsuit I get cold in about 45 minutes. Some spring suits have long sleeves. This offers an added bit of warmth, especially in the spring or fall when the air is cooler.
Farmer Johns (sometimes called long johns) are suits that have long legs and no sleeves. You might want one of these if the water is cool and the air is hot.
Full Suits (sometimes called “steamers”) are the most common type of suit. These cover the whole body and come in a variety of thicknesses, depending on the temperatures you’re going to brave.
Hoods are essential to keep your noggin warm and protected from the wind. Some suits come with hoods attached. If you’re going to be in cold water a lot, this is the way to go. A suit with a built-in hood allows less water to seep in through the neck. You can also buy a detachable hood , or a vest/hood combo that can be worn under the suit adding a bit more warmth. For example, I have a 4/3 suit that can instantly be turned into a pseudo 6/3 hooded suit when I wear my hooded vest.
Gloves come in all different types. There are mitten type gloves, three finger, and five finger varieties. They also come in all different thicknesses depending on the temperature you’re going to be braving. The fingerless gloves offer more warmth because the fingers are all together, improving heat retention, but sacrifice the ability to use your fingers and grab things.
Boots (or Booties) come in round toe and split toe varieties. The two toe variety has a compartment for your big toe, and the rest of your toes are in the second compartment. This adds a bit more stability and your foot is less likely to slide within the booty. Again, booties come in different thicknesses.
Socks are like low top sneakers made for warm water that offer foot protection in conditions with sharp reef or rock bottoms. It’s no fun to be on the sidelines with a pesky cut in your foot.
What the heck do those numbers mean?
The suit thickness is usually designated by two numbers which represent the neoprene thickness in millimeters. The first number is the thickest neoprene that is used around your torso and upper legs. The second is a thinner grade neoprene that is used around the arms and lower legs that allows you a bit more flexibility in paddling and riding.
2/1 and 1mm springsuits and neoprene shirts are very thin, offering mild protection from the wind and chilly water. 3/2 full suits are the thinnest you’re likely to find. These are great in the early spring and fall and aren’t too restrictive. 4/3 suits are a step up from that, offering more warmth. You’ll start to feel the effects of the added neoprene weighing you down. 5/4 and 6/4 suits are the thickest, and once you’re into these you’re probably going to be using a hood and booties.
Rash guards are stretchy lycra shirts that have multiple uses, making them very handy in the surf world. As their name suggests, rash guards prevent…rashes! Surf wax can be very irritating to your skin. Add some stray sand and you have something like sandpaper rubbing against your chest and nipples. Raw nipples are very painful (for girls and guys!), so avoid this situation if possible.
Rash guards also offer outstanding sun protection without the mess and slippery-ness of sunscreen. They come in short sleeve or long sleeve varieties, and the more expensive brands like O’Neill and Quiksilver/Roxy offer a U.V. protection index. O’Neill even came out with a hooded rash guard, however this seems a little extreme. (Surfing on Mars, anyone?) If you’re very sensitive to the sun–or just extra cautious–this might be something to check out.
Rash guards can be worn under wetsuits offering slightly more warmth, as well as protection from irritating wetsuit seams. See the category below for more on wetsuit irritation.
Rash guards seem to be falling out of fashion lately, and I see them used less and less in favor of wetsuit tops and vests, plain t-shirts, and even button up shirts for the super hipster.
Choosing your suit
When buying a wetsuit, it’s important that the suit be snug—not too tight, not too loose. If the suit is too tight, you won’t be able to move (which is an essential part of surfing!). If your arms aren’t free to move you’ll get tired very quickly when paddling. If it’s too loose, there will be a ton of water moving around in your suit and your body will have a tough time warming up all that water and the insulating effect would be lost.
Make sure that the suit doesn’t have any glaring rough spots that might give you a rash. You’re going to be doing a lot of repetitive movements when you’re surfing and something that seems like only a minor irritation in the shop can be magnified when you’ve been paddling for 3 hours and your skin is raw and cold.
Wetsuits will stretch out a tiny bit after a few sessions.
Getting your suit on and off
Putting your wetsuit on is a thousand times easier if it’s dry and sand-free. If it’s damp, be prepared for a bit of a struggle. Someone once suggested that if you’re having trouble getting your feet in the suit, put plastic supermarket bags on your feet so they slide in easier.
Taking off a wetsuit can sometimes be quite a project. Springsuits are easy to get off, but full suits—-especially the thicker varieties—-can be a pain. The method that’s easiest on you (and your wetsuit) is to peel it off so that the suit is inside out when it’s off. Getting it off your arms and around your hands can be a hassle, especially if your suit is very snug. Try to progress slowly and deliberately-—don’t unnecessarily yank at your suit as this can damage the neoprene and the rubber seams that hold it together. The neoprene that is used nowadays is incredibly flexible, and someone who doesn’t know their own strength can end up putting their fingers right through it.
It helps to have a plastic bin or bucket in your car or truck to put your dripping wetsuit in after your session. It’s no fun to ruin a nice car with stinky, salty seawater.
Changing in Public
If you’re trying to take a wetsuit off in public, and don’t have a bathroom in which to do so, the commonly accepted method is the towel change. Remove the top half of your wetsuit and peel down to your waist, then wrap a towel around your waist over the suit, and pull the suit off underneath the towel, then put on your pants underneath the towel. It takes a bit of practice, so if you have a car try to stand behind an open door in case of accidental towel droppage.
Some companies have taken initiative and created special changing robes to eliminate the towel-dance.
Irritation and Rashes
Getting rashes from your wetsuit, rash guard, and boardshorts/bikini is a common problem. Surfing involves a lot of repetetive motion that can magnify rough spots in your apparel that you may not have even noticed before.
If your wetsuit is causing problems around your neck and upper body, a rash guard with a turtle-neck like collar can help ease the irritation.
Men having problems with their groin getting irritated from any type of suit can most likely solve their problems by getting some spandex shorts or a speedo-type bottom. This also makes it easier and less risky to change into and out of your wetsuit in public.
Headhunter makes a rash guard gel designed to reduce the effects of irritation from your wetsuit or rash guard.
If you still can’t get rid of the rash, then you might unfortunately have to purchase some new equipment.
Wetsuits are expensive, so it pays to take good care of your suit. It will last much longer, and will take care of you in return!
If you rip your wetsuit, you can use neoprene cement to repair it.
Once you’re done surfing, don’t crumple up your wetsuit and leave it in your trunk. The next time you use it you’ll probably get a peak all to yourself because you stink so bad! Aside from the nasty odor, saltwater actually degrades neoprene over time. If you want your suit to last and not become as stiff as cardboard, give it a thorough rinse in fresh water after your session.
Once you’re done rinsing your suit, hang it on a wide plastic hanger (don’t use thin wire hangers—this can damage the suit) and let it drip dry. You can either hang it up over your tub or shower, or somewhere else with a pan underneath to catch the drips. Hanging it outside is an option as well.
I like to dry my suits inside out if I’m going surfing the next day. This way at least the inside is dry when I’m putting on the suit. This makes it much easier to put the suit on, and it’s more pleasant on chilly mornings.
Tip: If you have a top loading washing machine at home that has a “hand washables” setting, you can throw your wetsuit in for the rinse cycle (don’t put it in for a whole wash and rinse cycle, and don’t put it in on a regular rinse setting). DO NOT USE SOAP! Just make sure your wetsuit doesn’t have buckets of sand on it. I’m not responsible for clogged plumbing!
Tip: If you have a large shower, you can just bring the suit in the shower with you after you surf to rinse it off. No, you don’t have to be wearing it. I find this to be fairly easy when I don’t have a free washing machine available. Just hang the suit up in the shower after you’re done to drip dry. Again, shake the sand off your suit before you do this.
A word of caution: If you live in heavily populated areas or areas with a lot of traffic, DO NOT leave your wetsuit hanging outside unattended in plain view. Even though people pee in their wetsuits, they are popular items to steal. My suit was stolen right off my clothesline when I was staying at a condo in Virginia Beach.
Peeing in your suit
There are mixed opinions about peeing in your wetsuit, however if a surfer tells you they don’t do it they are lying. When you’re out in amazing waves and the nearest bathroom is far away, sometimes there’s no choice. Even if you’re close to a bathroom, it’s a pain to paddle in, take off your suit, and put it back on. It seems gross at first, but urine is sterile. Sometimes a quick flush of water down the neck of your wetsuit is enough to get it out of there during or after a session. Surfers who surf in the dead of winter love peeing in their wetsuits—it’s a great way to warm up!
If you do decide to pee in your wetsuit, rinse your suit well afterward. If you thought unrinsed, damp wetsuits stink, try unrinsed, urine drenched wetsuits. It’s a million times worse.
If your suit gets unbearably smelly and you can’t seem to get rid of the odor, there are several cheap products on the market that clean your wetsuit safely. Using common soaps and detergents is generally not a good idea, and can void your warranty and degrade the neoprene. Bleach is a no-no as well.
If you’re not going to be using your wetsuit for a while, don’t fold your suit and leave it in a drawer. This will put creases in it. The best way to store your suit is to hang it by the waist. Don’t hang it on hangers by the shoulders as this will stretch out the shoulders over time. There are special wetsuit hangers that will improve the life of your wetsuits and reduce creases.