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, and how do wetsuits work? (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.
This article is for general wetsuit knowledge – when you’re ready to buy a wetsuit, check out our guide to the best wetsuits for surfing.
Wetsuit Types and Wetsuit Accessories
Wetsuits come in a variety of different cuts, thicknesses, and colors for men and women. 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.
How does wetsuit thickness work?
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 wetsuit
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.
Check out our guide for the best wetsuit brands here.
Getting your wetsuit 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. Make sure you check out our guide on wetsuit care for after session cleaning and maintenance.
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.
Hi Beth, I’ve never been to New England but might be able to help. There are internet sites that list surf spots in Maine and New England (wannasurf.com among others). I think there are waves to be found up there, but you might have to go off the beaten path to find them. And you might have to be patient, waiting for the right combination of waves, wind and weather for good surfing. That often means checking the ocean every day and being prepared to surf if it’s good or instead go work out, do chores etc if it’s bad. From what I know about the east coast, the waves may be small to flat for long periods of time in the spring and summer. Fall hurricane season can bring great waves with warm weather. Winter storms can bring big powerful waves, but if conditions are too choppy and messed up, it might be rough going.
I believe the water temps vary greatly in your area depending on the season. You’ll definitely need maximum wetsuit protection if you want to surf in the winter but the water is probably much warmer in late summer/early fall.
I am so interested in surfing; it’s always been a dream of mine! But I live in the New England area and I don’t believe there’s any surfing along the coast here, is there? I heard a rumor of surfing in Main but I didn’t think the waves were good/big enough there. Any comments or suggestions? Also, would the wetsuits keep me warm enough if I ever did attempt surfing here? Thanks!
I’ve surfed in Maine and with a 5/4 wetsuit you’ll be warm enough (make sure you have a hood). Some days the waves a quite big but for a beginner the waves are almost always big enough. It all also depends on your board, if you are starting out with a big foam board you can ride smaller New England waves as well!
Great guide, i didn’t know there was so much to worry about with a wetsuit.
I’m moving to Ocean City,NJ this winter. Decided I should take up surfing since I will be living right on the beach. Thanks for the tips. Cant wait to bring all my skateboarding skills to the ocean learn.
Thanks, most informative article about wetties i have read on the net.
Going to be surfing in the UK come Winter break, probably going to have to invest in a 5/4/3 plus all the extras…
Keep up the quality writing, it doesn’t go unnoticed 😉
i live in virginia beach! sorry your wetsuit was stolen here
Good info, very informative, I am just about to learn. I have everything I need, I just need to get in the water, but I’m just not sure what the perfect water temperature is for your first time. Any Ideas?
P.s: I’m on the eastern coast of Australia if that helps. 🙂
I just bought a new shortie. I live in san diego and i’m not sure if is hould get a 4/5 or a 3/4 for the winter. My parents never surfed and they know nothing about this.
Thanks so much! Lived in San diego all my life never surfed. I was given a new board so I tried it, loved it, but of course, I was cold with no wetsuit. Thanks for the info!
Thanks for the great article! I’m looking forward to buying a new 5/4/3 suit tomorrow.
Don’t pee in your suit unless you like to marinate yourself in urine. Wetsuit design has come along way so you’re likely to steep in that pee for the rest of your session. Then you’re the guy (or girl, but I have a feeling this topic isn’t directed at you) in the car that smells like pee on the way home; don’t be that guy. Not to mention it won’t take long for your suit to develop a permanent funk. Urine is only sterile until it enters the urethra and it contains compounds that can irritate the skin, in case you still aren’t convinced. That said, there will come a day when it will be necessary, and at least then you can say “it was so good I pissed my suit” and it will actually mean something.
Thanks! Really helpful.
Awesome write-up. I’m new to San Diego and will be buying a used board and wetsuit next month so this stuff really helps to read. Thanks!
why do it?
it feels better to put a dry suit on, but remember it only lasts for a couple of minutes… then it’s wet again.
So my advice is to hang it away from the sun, and if it’s still wet when you need it again, you can use plastic bags to put it on easily 🙂
they are expensive little babies and it pays to take good care of them.
I know a couple of guys that have been scubadiving for many years, and they always rinse their wetsuits with soapy water (if i remember correctly they use dishwashing liquid???). So I’m guessing it’s ok to use soap+water to rinse your wettie if you reckon it stinks too much (be aware of other chemicals though).
It seems like a pain to take good care of your wettie and rinse it everytime (reminder, in COLD water), but once you get used to it, it’s all good.
I like to have a plastic box in my car, after the surf I stand in it to change. When I get home it’s then easy to fill it with water and rinse all my stuff. Also easy to hang the wettie over the box to recover the drips if you need to 🙂
also remember that usually the most expensive wetsuits are made of highly stretchable neoprene and are therefore more easily damaged. For anything 3/2 and less, I tend to think that it makes sense to buy a midrange wettie (of a good brand), because they are usually still really light and stretchablem cost less and last longer. However when you get to 4/3 and over, every little bit of flexibility counts, so if you can, get a good one 🙂
Really useful, thanks loads (but what about not hanging in direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time?)
It’s not very good for the neoprene material to hang it to dry in the sunlight. When I’m on surf trips and doing second sessions all the time I do it, but I try not to make it a habit
Great Guide! I will pass along to our readers.
Is your wetsuit supposed to be a little loose around the thighs? I just bought a shorty. It is sealed tight around my arms and it feels tight everywhere except around my thighs. Will the water get in through my thighs?
I wear a 4/3 suit in SC… totally keeps me comfy! I am a tropical girl and hate being cold, too. Booties will be a good idea as well. Unless you don’t mind numb toes:-) Hope you have a good time while here in Cali.
I’m going to be spending September – March in Santa Cruz. I’m from Syd, Aus so only have a 3:2, what thickness will I need for SC?? I am a mad pussy when it comes to getting cold so be conservative.
I´ve read some papers that say pee may attract sharks because their inquisitive nature. Sharks are attracted to anything unsual in water specially if it´s warm.
Don´t forget they´re eternal hunters, always hungry and ready to eat whatever is in their way.
I think the best way still is peeing near the white water and after it opening the wrist and ankles parts so the water can fluid faster.
If you wanna get warm in winter, get a thicker wetsuit, or buy a neopren jacket, or some surf boots or gloves.
Anyway, this article is really helpful.
Greetings from Chile
I am ready to buy my first wetsuit (60 years old) and this info is great.
I am searching for reviews that rate one brand vs. another. I don’t want cheap stuff.
Brad’s rash sounds like ‘hot tub folliculitis’ (follicles are where you get acne, too). Usually caused by pseudomonas bacteria, which like it warm, wet, and gooey- sounds like the inside of a wet suit to me, especially if you didn’t clean it up well after using, and fed the pseudomonas a nice electrolyte nutrient solution! If the rash hasn’t gone away yet, his doc can probably help with treatment for the pseudomonas.
Thanks for the info.
Since you brought it up, does anyone ever get a rash from peeing in their wetsuit? Or maybe bacteria in the water. After surfing Thursday (Pacifica, CA), and peeing in my suit, I have a weird rash. Doesn’t seem like it’s from rubbing, but something irritated my skin. Looks like scattered zits around my lower stomach, groin area, and butt. Sick I know. Anyone have a similar experience?
Hey Harry…keep your 4/3 for San Diego, ditch the 5/4 and 6/4
Yes…never leave your wetsuit in plain sight. Bad idea…mine was stolen that way.
Dude, I’d never hang my wetsuit to dry outside anyplace where it can be seen. There are a ton of broke surfers out there who’d love to get their hands on your brand new Psycho II.
I am about to move to San Diego from the east coast and I am used to haveing a whole wetsuit quiver, one or two different thicknesses for each season ranging from 2mm to 6/4mm. Well I was wondering what MM suits will I need for San Diego? I was thinking of selling my 4/3, 5/4 and 6/4mm wetsuits. What do you think? Thanks!
Great guide! btw.. Inside my suit it says: “do not hang in direct sunlight”. I guess the suit shouldn’t be in the sun when it’s dry or something… i also hang my suit by the zipper to releave stress from the shoulder parts of the suit.
Thanks! This was helpful
This wetsuit guide gives substantial and insightful tips. Definitely surf-smart!