Wetsuit Guide for Beginner Surfers
Wetsuits form an integral part of surfing. The only exception to this is if you’re lucky enough to surf in the tropics where water temperatures can be as warm as bath water. The temperature of the water you’re surfing in along with a number of other factors will determine which wetsuit you choose to buy. On this page we outline exactly what it is you need to consider before purchasing a surfing wetsuit.
Once you’ve bought your first surfing wetsuit, check out our Accessories page to find out which accessories are required to complete your setup. If you’re going the whole hog then be sure also read our page on Surfboards as well. Also remember to check out our Surf Camp Guide, for a list of the best surf camps around the world.
How does a wetsuit work?
All wetsuits are made from neoprene, which is a permeable rubber compound. Wetsuits trap a thin layer of water between our skin and the neoprene. Because humans are warm blooded our body heat then warms up this trapped layer of water which in turn keeps us warm.
Choosing the right surfing wetsuit
Choosing the right beginner surfing wetsuit can be a complicated process. No first time surfer wants to spend too much money on a wetsuit when they’re not 100% sure if they’ll like surfing. It is nevertheless important to make sure you get the right wetsuit when starting out as it can determine how much fun you have in the water. Being too cold or even too hot in the water can make for an unpleasant first time surf experience.
This may put you off surfing for good. The type of wetsuit that you need will generally encompass two major factors. Neoprene thickness and wetsuit design. These key features will dictate how warm the wetsuit will keep you in fluctuating water temperatures and how flexible the wetsuit will be based on performance levels.
Wetsuit neoprene varies in thickness and depending on water temperature, where there is an inverse correlation between thickness and water temperature. The colder the water the thicker the wetsuit and vice versa. Surfing wetsuits are usually a combination of of 2 or 3 different neoprene thicknesses. For example for example a 5/4/3 refers to a wetsuit with 5mm neoprene in the core body areas, 4mm for the limbs and 3mm in areas that require more flexibility.
Over the last two decades there have been some significant advancements in wetsuit design. This has resulted in lighter, warmer and more flexible surfing wetsuits. The most impactful design features have included zip design (or lack thereof), lighter neoprene, liquid seams and quick-dry linings.
Wetsuit zip systems
There are two main types of zip systems which allow for different entry into a wetsuit. Back zips are the traditional entry method for wetsuits and have been around ever since the first wetsuits were invented. The zip runs down the back of the suit and can be toggled using a cord that is attached to the zip. Chest zips are a more modern invention where you enter through the neck opening and fasten the zip across the front.
Going for a back zip or chest zip is down to personal preference. Some surfers prefer the chest zip as it means that they get better coverage on their shoulders and back, thus keeping them warmer as less water can get into the wetsuit. A chest zip also means there will be less restriction to paddling movement as there is no zip at the back of the wetsuit inhibiting paddling movement. Therefore a chest zip is a good feature to have on a beginner surfing wetsuit.
Others choose the back zip as entry and exit is easier. Many back zips now have a batwing which an extra panel of neoprene that sits behind the zip. This provides more protection against water coming in through the zipper.
Finally, there are now also zipperless surfing wetsuits on the market. Instead of a zip the wetsuit usually utilizes a velcro tape or elastic toggle system. These are in theory the lightest wetsuits available, but due to their negligible weight advantage, they have not become massive sellers.
The main reason for this is that whatever advantage ones gets from shaving a few grams of weight is then offset by the added difficulty of getting in and out of these wetsuits. Most reviews talk about how much of a faff it can be to get out of a zipperless wetsuit. For this reason chest zip surfing wetsuits have proven to be the most popular wetsuits for people looking for lighter more performance oriented wetsuits.
In the last two decades surfing wetsuit neoprene has changed significantly. The warmth to weight ratio has improved immensely and all the major brands have unilaterally invested in improving neoprene technology.
This has resulted in each brand having its own neoprene technology vernacular. O’Neill provide different grades of flexibility in their wetsuits. Billabong wetsuits use Japanese neoprene which leverages an “air light” neoprene construction. Rip Curl have their own version of air light neoprene which they call Elastomax or E3.
Seams are in integral part of any wetsuit. Achieving the right balance of seams is critical when it comes to having a wetsuit which keeps you warm but is also performance driven. The more seams a wetsuit has the more comfortable it will be.
However, a higher number of seams will also make the wetsuit less flexible and thus less conducive to performance. Over the years surf brands have been working tirelessly to make wetsuits with less seams, and also to improve upon the the quality of wetsuit seams. There are currently three major types of wetsuit seems in the market today.
Used for warm water above 17°C (62°F). From the outside this seam looks like railroad tracks. On the inside the seam is flat and comfortable on the body. These seams will allow some water to permeate through.
Sealed (Glued and Blindstitched):
Used for cold water 13°C (55°F) and up. This construction is well suited to cold water because the seams are glued and then stitched. The stitching is similar to flatlock but it’s narrower. Sealed stitching will allow very little water to get through.
Sealed & Taped (Glued, Blindstitched & Taped):
Used for very cold water 13°C (55°F) and below. It’s exactly the same construction as above but it also incorporates interior seam taping. The tape reinforces the seams for added strength and prevents water from getting through.
These seams are the pinnacle in performance. Stitchless seams negate the need for stitching key seam ares. This reduces weight, improves wetsuit stretch, most importantly means that no holes are punched into the neoprene. This fact alone makes stitchless wetsuits very durable and long-lasting.
Quick-dry wetsuit linings
Nobody likes putting on a cold wet wetsuit. Particularly during the winter months. Most of the major surf brands now have their own proprietary of quick-dry linings. In order for a surfing wetsuit lining to dry faster it invariably needs to be thicker to allow for a looser weave and therefore more air to penetrate through. The consequence of this is that quick-drying wetsuits tend to be less flexible and therefore not as performance driven as other suits.
Womens’ Surfing Wetsuits
The key difference between a women’s and a men’s surfing wetsuit is the shape. There are two main differences in the shape are in the hip and shoulder area. Women’s wetsuits are wider in the hip area and narrower in the shoulder area.
Women’s surfing wetsuits will also have a bit more volume in the chest area to allow for larger breasts. There is however no breast sizing in a women’s wetsuit. Back zips tend to be the most popular entry system in women’s wetsuits as well.
Women’s surfing wetsuits of late also happen have much cooler design colorway options than men’s wetsuits. The colors tend to be more eclectic than men’s wetsuits, and the women’s shorty wetsuits are much cooler looking than a men’s shorty.
It is important to note, that depending on their physique, many women still wear mens wetsuits. They key is to assess your body type and then decide on whether you’d be better suited to a men’s or women’s wetsuit
Choosing the right size wetsuit is an integral part buying a surfing wetsuit. Particularly when purchasing a wetsuit online. It’s important to note that there is no universal size system when it comes to surfing wetsuits.
Each wetsuit brand has their own sizing system and respective size charts. To make things easy for you, we have included the size charts for the 8 most prominent wetsuit brands on the market today. You can click on the brand logo’s below to see their size charts.
Wetsuit tops which cover the upper torso. They are made from either 0.5mm or 1mm neoprene. Surfing wetsuit tops are worn in warmer water to mainly provide protection from the sun and wind. They also provide rash protection from the wax of the surfboard rubbing on the chest. 1mm wetsuit tops usually come in three types, a vest, shirt and long sleeve shirt.
Shorties (2mm wetsuits)
Shorties cover the torso (to maintain the core body temperature) as well as the upper legs and arms. They are most commonly used in warmish water from 16°C to 20°C (60°F – 70°F) and often referred to as Spring wetsuits. Because shorties still have have a thin neoprene construction the ease of movement is superior compared to thicker wetsuits.
They also provide protection from the wind and sun. The neck seals and zipper systems tend not be as sophisticated as full length wetsuits, as keeping water out of the suit is not of paramount importance. 2mm wetsuits can also be found in wetsuit top and bottoms.
The O’Neill Reactor is an excellent “shorty” beginner surfing wetsuit. This model by O’Neill is great value for money and still offers many of the features found on the expensive models. The shoulders and sleeves are made from a super stretch neoprene fabric that allows for greater freedom of movement. All Reactor series wetsuits feature what O’Neill has branded ‘FluidFlex’ – A category of high stretch neoprene with an ultra soft feel. Refer to the O’Neill Sizing Chart.
They are designed to be used in water temperatures from the low teens and upward (55°F or more) and are the most popular type of wetsuit globally. 3mm wetsuits are also known as spring suits or 3:2 wetsuits. 3:2 refers to the thickness ratio of the neoprene. The wetsuit is 3mm in the torso area and 2mm think on the arms and legs. Both O’Neill and Rip Curl in recent years have become the combined preeminent force in making high grade surfing wetsuits to suits all ability levels.
Both these brands have have their high-end models, namely the Psycho from O’Neill and the Flashbomb from Ripcurl. These are are what the pro’s wear and they have all the key features of a performance led wetsuit. They also have the price tag to match it 🙂 O’Neill and Ripcurl and also make really good quality entry level surfing wetsuits which still perform their primary task of keeping the surfer warm, and in many cases borrow some of the feature of the higher end wetsuits.
O’Neill has the Reactor. The seams are taped with flatlock stitching and the wetsuit comes with a back zip for easy entry and exit. This wetsuit has Krypto knee pads which are ergonomically shaped with high stretch and protection against abrasion. Theres is a single, superseal neck which is designed to avoid bulk and create a chafe free finish all the way around the inside of the neck and edge. There is also a handy key pocket inside the garment. Refer to the O’Neill Sizing Chart.
Rip Curl have the Dawn Patrol. It’s very similar to the Reactor in its spec. It utilizes premium E5 neoprene in the arms and thermoflex neoprene in the body. The seams are glued and blind-stitched. It also comes with an internal key pocket. The plethora of high quality features at a really affordable price, combined with the warmth and durability of the suit make the Dawnpatrol a great purchase for the beginner surfer. This surfing wetsuit comes in both the back zip and chest zip versions. Refer to the Rip Curl Sizing Chart.
4mm surfing wetsuits are most commonly used in water temperatures between 10°C and 14°C (50°F – 57°F). The most popular 4mm wetsuits are either chest zip or zipperless because of the added warmth. They are ideal for the fall months and early spring when a surfer would be coming out of their thicker 5mm or 6mm winter wetsuits. 4mm wetsuits are also known as 4:3’s, where the torso neoprene is 4mm thick to ensure the core is kept warm, and the legs and arms are 3mm thick to allow for greater manoeuvrability.
Our best pick 4/3 back zip is the O’Neill Epic. The Epic is a pretty sweet beginner surfing wetsuit with a lot of the features of a high end O’Neill wetsuit including 100% Ultraflex neoprene, LSD (lumbar seamless design), double seal neck closure and re-engineered covert black out zip. The design of the suit makes it look legit for an entry level suit. Refer to the O’Neill Sizing Chart.
Our best pick 4/3 chest zip wetsuit is the Rip Curl E Bomb based on its superior quality and value for money. The E Bomb has a lot of the same elements as the Dawn Patrol plus it features a watertight, slimline bead of Aquaban + seam seal on the lower three quarters of the suit which make is durable and very warm. Refer to the Rip Curl Sizing Chart.
If you are looking to a 4/3 zip free wetsuit for that added warmth, then we recommend getting the O’Neill Hyperfreak Zipperless wetsuit. This surfing wetsuit has been lauded for it’s flexibility. It’s zipperless entry system has lightweight closure area over a 360 degree Barrier with drain holes and a Cinch chord. It features the Techno Butter 3 exterior jersey for maximum stretch and warmth. Techno Butter has won any awards for its superior quality and performance and features in all of O’Neills high end wetsuits. Refer to the O’Neill Sizing Chart.
Our top pick for a women’s 4/3 wetsuit is the Rip Curl Dawn Patrol which features a back zip. It is simply a thicker version of the 3/2 Dawn Patrol wetsuit listed above. There are 3 different colorway options available in this wetsuit. Refer to the Rip Curl Sizing Chart.
The quantum advances in neoprene technology have resulted in 5mm wetsuits fostering year round surfing in places around the globe which previously were only conducive to summer, fall and spring surfing. 5mm wetsuits are suitable for low water temperatures of 8°C – 10°C (46°F – 50°F) and are mandatory kit for winter and the cooler autumn months. The standard thickness combination is usually 5mm in the core/upper torso to retain body heat and 4mm or 3mm in the limbs for greater movement to paddle and pop up. 5mm wetsuits feature advanced seam sealing technology to prevent water entry and thicker neoprene for higher levels of insulation. Many 5mm surfing wetsuits now come with a hood.
The best value for money 5/4 back zip wetsuit is most certainly the O’Neill Epic. This wetsuit is simply a thicker version of the Epic 3/2. Refer to the O’Neill Sizing Chart.
The women’s 5/4 back zip Epic is available below. Refer to the O’Neill Sizing Chart.
If you’re looking for a fully integrated 5/4 chest zip wetsuit that includes a hood then we recommend the Xcel Infinity TDC X2. It’s made with 5mm UltraStretch Neoprene used at the core and 4mm neoprene in the arms and legs. This wetsuit has been designed to withstand the coldest of water temperatures.
It features a full Thermo Dry Celliant (TDC) chest and back panel lining which provides exceptional insulation and an ultra fast dry time. It also has an easily adjustable hood lining. The Quick Dry interior lining and hood lining accelerates dry time for enhanced warmth and weight reduction. Refer to Xcel sizing chart.
The women’s Xcel Infinity 5/4 is also our recommendation for a fully integrated 5/4 wetsuit with a hood. It is a replica of the men’s suit. Check Amazon for price as it is constantly changing. Refer to Xcel sizing chart.
For extreme water temperatures – plain and simple. These surfing wetsuits are designed for temperatures below 10°C (50°F) the the ocean feels like and ice bath. Think Patagonia, Iceland or Norway. They are constructed using 6mm of neoprene in the core body area to ensure all the vital organs are kept warm in what can often be close to zero water temperatures! The arms and legs are usually 5mm or 4mm to enable you to paddle and move whilst remaining warm.
O’Neill have one of the best super cold water wetsuits on the market today. It called the O’Neill Heat 654 and consists of all the key cold water wetsuit features. A Equipped with 100% Stretch Neoprene, Chest Zip, Interior Fluid Seam Weld, Single Super Seal Neck, and Krypto Knee Padz. The O’Neill Heat goes unchallenged in the 6mm wetsuit category. Refer to the O’Neill Sizing Chart.
In temperatures reaching below 14°C (57°F), many surfers choose to wear wetsuit boots or booties to keep their feet warm. However, surfers will also wear booties in tropical waters to prevent their feet from getting cut up by sharp rocks or coral, and sometimes even to mitigate the risk of being pierced by the barb of a Sting Ray. Like wetsuits, booties come in the full range of different neoprene thicknesses. Some wetsuit booties will feature rubber bottoms for durability and grip and velcro straps to keep the booties in place and keep water out.
These features are more common on thicker neoprene booties. Surfing wetsuit booties can also have a round or split toe. The split toe configuration means that there is a rubber slit between the big toe and the other toes to prevent the neoprene slipping around on the foot. Round toe booties keep the toes together to promote more warmth. Reef booties will have tough, robust rubber soles to ensure that things like coral, rocks and urchins to not penetrate the surfers feet.
Tropical water booties
O’Neill make a really good 2mm tropical water boot with both a split and round toe. It has a robust rubber outsole which will protect your feet feet from sharp coral and rocks. It has also a velcro strap and elastic drawstring which helps keep the boot from moving around when you’re standing on the surfboard.
Cold water booties
Both O’Neill and Rip curl make good quality 3mm booties both with split toes. Both these booties keep your feet warm in cold winter waters whilst offering the maximum level of feel.
If you are looking for ultra and robust booties then the O’Neill 5mm Heat Round Toe boot is the answer. It will keep your feet extra toasty with a liner that reflects heat back into your feet. This boot also offers fully taped seams with chafe-free internal seam construction.
Having warm hands is a vital part of surfing. If your hands get too cold you won’t be able to paddle and grip your board properly. Both O’Neill and Rip Curl make a robust and warm 3mm wetsuit glove.
These cover the head and neck area and tuck into the wetsuit. Some surfing wetsuit hoods only cover the head and ears. They are often attached to the main wetsuit, but are also sold individually. A large percentage of ones body temperature can be lost through the head and neck. Having a wetsuit hood can come in very handy in colder waters. Those waters where every time you duck dive you get an ice-cream headache 🙂 Some wetsuit hoods also have peaks on them to help protect your face from direct sunburn.
If you are looking for a wetsuit hood which is suitable for moderately cold waters then we recommend the Dawn Patrol hood by Rip Curl which is 2mm think and only covers the head and ears. This is a great hood to wear in cold waters during the summer, spring and fall months to prevent those ice-cream headaches.
If you are looking for a complete cold water wetsuit hood, then we recommend the O’Neill Hyperfreak 3mm hood. This hood covers the whole neck and will tuck into any wetsuit. It has a drawstring around the face to minimise water entry.
Getting in and out of a wetsuit
Always take care when getting in and out of a wetsuit. They can tear if you pull on the seams too hard. Also be sure to remove any sharp jewellery or watches to prevent rips. The best way to get into a surfing wetsuit is to roll the body of the suit down inside out so that you can easily put your legs into the suit.
Thereafter you can begin to pull the wetsuit up over your torso. After that, put your arms through the arm slots and fully adjust everything for a comfortable fit before pulling up the zip. When taking off the wetsuit, and take care not to overstretch it.
How to clean a wetsuit
After every surf session you should be washing your wetsuit in cold water. Hot water can break down the seams and can affect neoprene integrity, so rather avoid using hot water. Luke warm water is okay though. After a while surfing wetsuits can start to smell and so there are special wetsuit shampoos you can use to clean your wetsuit.
We recommend using the Sink the Stink Wetsuit Cleaner. Surf wax is difficult to remove and can damage the wetsuit neoprene, so is best left where it is. Never put your wetsuit in a washing machine, try to iron it or treat it with any strong chemicals.
How to store a wetsuit
Store your surfing wetsuit in a cool and dry place away from heat and direct sunlight. This is because UV rays can damage and discolor the neoprene over time. Always hang your wetsuit inside out to dry it out. Once it’s dry, remove it from the hanger and lay it flat. Leaving it on the hanger can cause it to permanently crease.