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Wetsuit Guide

full winter surfing wetsuit with hood

Myself in a full wetsuit about to brave some chilly New York surf

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What is a wetsuit and why have one?

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 ďare they nuts!?Ē But once you start surfing you may eventually want to join them.)


The wonderful invention called the wetsuit has made it so ďItís always summer on the inside.Ē Pioneered by Jack OíNeill of Santa Cruz, CA, wetsuits have undergone a long evolution. Todayís wetsuits are so warm and flexible itís a wonder that anyone was able to surf without them. Thereís a line in a Beach Boys song about ďwaxing up our surfboards; canít wait for June.Ē They obviously didnít own wetsuits!


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 wouldnít 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 donít wear a springsuit I get cold in about 45 minutes and I have to leave all the wonderful waves early. 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 ďsteamersĒ) are the most common type of suit. These cover the whole body and come in a variety of thicknesses, depending on the temperatures youíre going to brave.

Hoods are essential to keep your noggin warm and protected from the wind. Some suits come with hoods attached. If youíre 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 youíre 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. Itís no fun to be on the sidelines with a pesky cut in your foot.

Surfers who live in areas that get hot in summer and cold in winter often have a quiver of wetsuits to accompany their board quiver. With the quality of wetsuits available today itís possible to go surfing year round, even in blizzards!

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 youíre likely to find. These are great in the early spring and fall and arenít too restrictive. 4/3 suits are a step up from that, offering more warmth. Youíll start to feel the effects of the added neoprene weighing you down. 5/4 and 6/4 suits are the thickest, and once youíre into these youíre probably going to be using a hood and booties.

Rash Guards

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.

Click here to see a selection of rash guards from Becker Surf.

Choosing your suit

When buying a wetsuit, itís important that the suit be snugónot too tight, not too loose. If the suit is too tight, you wonít be able to move (which is an essential part of surfing!). If your arms arenít free to move youíll get tired very quickly when paddling. If itís 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 doesnít have any glaring rough spots that might give you a rash. Youíre going to be doing a lot of repetitive movements when youíre surfing and something that seems like only a minor irritation in the shop can be magnified when youíve been paddling for 3 hours and your skin is raw and cold.


Trying on a wetsuit is an important step in the buying process. Each brand has a slightly different cut that may or may not be good for your body type.


Iím a fan of OíNeill. Their suits are warm and flexible, and I had a springsuit that lasted four years in pristine condition before someone stole it. You can get O'Neill Wetsuits from Beckersurf.com.

Getting your suit on and off

Putting your wetsuit on is a thousand times easier if itís dry and sand-free. If itís damp, be prepared for a bit of a struggle. Someone once suggested that if youíre 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 suitsó-especially the thicker varietiesó-can be a pain. The method thatís easiest on you (and your wetsuit) is to peel it off so that the suit is inside out when itís 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-ódonít 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 doesnít 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. Itís 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 to wrap a towel around your waist (for men) and shimmy out of the suit. Women have it a bit easier in that it's relatively easy to wear a bikini under the suit. Still, no matter male or female, the towel method is the best way to get out of your wet garments and into something dry. 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.


Wetsuit Care

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 youíre done surfing, donít crumple up your wetsuit and leave it in your trunk. The next time you use it youíll 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 youíre done rinsing your suit, hang it on a wide plastic hanger (donít use thin wire hangersóthis 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 Iím going surfing the next day. This way at least the inside is dry when Iím putting on the suit. This makes it much easier to put the suit on, and itís more pleasant on chilly mornings.


Tip: If you have a top loading washing machine at home that has a ďhand washablesĒ setting, you can throw your wetsuit in for the rinse cycle (donít put it in for a whole wash and rinse cycle, and donít put it in on a regular rinse setting). DO NOT USE SOAP! Just make sure your wetsuit doesnít have buckets of sand on it. Iím 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 donít have to be wearing it. I find this to be fairly easy when I donít have a free washing machine available. Just hang the suit up in the shower after youíre 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. When youíre out in amazing waves and the nearest bathroom is far away, sometimes thereís no choice. Even if youíre close to a port-a-john, itís a pain to paddle in, take off your suit, and put it back on. It seems disgusting at first, but urine is sterile. When youíre done, jump off your board and flush out your suit so at least youíre not constantly bathing in your pee. Surfers who surf in the dead of winter love peeing in their wetsuitsóitís a great way to warm up!


If you do decide to pee in your wetsuit, PLEASE rinse your suit well afterward. If you thought unrinsed, damp wetsuits stink, try unrinsed, urine drenched wetsuits. Itís a million times worse.


A word of caution: Rumor has it that urine is a sign of distress among ocean mammals and might attract sharks, but Iím not sure about this. Pee at your own risk.


If your suit gets unbearably smelly and you canít 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.


Storage

If youíre not going to be using your wetsuit for a while, donít fold your suit and leave it in a drawer. This will put creases in it. Take three or four plastic hangers and hang your suit on them. (This distributes the weight of the suit and puts less stress on the neoprene around the shoulders) If hanging it up is not an option, folding your suit isnít the end of the world, but try to do so in a way with the fewest creases. Sometimes the creases become permanent.


If you have any additional tips or suggestions you think should be included in this guide, please feel free to email me by clicking on "contact me" over on the left hand navigation bar. This guide will be updated frequently.

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