Surfing School - Equipment - Wetsuits
Wetsuits aren't as complicated and high-tech as the wetsuit manufacturing companies would like us to believe. They are essentially just rubber panels that have been sewn together to form a garment designed to trap a layer of water against the skin to insulate the wearer from the cold. Simple, right?
So what's with all the high-tech mumbo-jumbo that you see in the glossy pamphlets and magazine ads? Features. Wetsuit companies are competing hard for your dollar, and even the most simple features have names that sound like something from the Space Shuttle or a stealth bomber.
Generally speaking, with wetsuits, the more you pay, the more features you get, the thicker the suit, and the 'better' the suit is able to insulate. Whether or not a given feature is worth the price increase is totally subjective. Prices for wetsuits vary widely, from as little as $100 to close to $400 (in American dollars in San Diego).
All that aside, the single most important feature is how the suit fits. If the suit is too tight, you won't be able to paddle or move or breathe. It will only get worse as the suit ages and shrinks and stiffens, and the additional stress on the suit will wear out the seams. If the suit is too loose, you'll be carrying 50 gallons of water around with you and getting pinched by all the folds of rubber (Yes, this bugs after a while).
What to Look For
Things you should look for when shopping for a new suit. Let us know if we miss anything important:
- Fit. Try on different sizes, different suits (companies have several different types of suits with different names), and different wetsuit manufacturers.
- Neoprene type. 'Smoothie' neoprene tends to stretch better, look better, and is warmer esp. in windy conditions. It is also a little more susceptible to damage than the neoprene with fabric on the outside. Some suits now use a polypropylene lining on the inside which helps to repel the water and keep you a little warmer.
- Seams. These connect the panels of neoprene. Generally speaking, more panels in a suit design means better flexibility. It also means more places for water to get in. There are a few types of seams used:
- Overlock. This is found on the least expensive suits. This type of stitch lasts forever, is not watertight, and can cause skin irritation or rash as it protrudes a lot.
- Flatlock. A flat stitch that doesn't push into your skin like the overlock stitching. It is not as durable as the overlock stitch, but does not cause as much rash problems. This is also not a watertight stitch.
- Blindstitch. Blindstitching is flat and does not penetrate through to the other side of the neoprene, so there are no stitch holes for cold water to follow. Double-blindstitched suits have stitching on both sides, neither of which break through to give water a path to follow.
Blindstitching (or double-blindstitching) is nearly always combined with a gluing-together of the seams beforehand, and protective tape for additional seal and comfort on the inside seams.
This type of seam is less durable than either overlock or flatlock. It is watertight, which makes a tremendous difference. Suits with this type of seam can have more panelling, meaning more flexibility, without causing more water inflow through the seams. The warm layer of insulating water near the skin stays there, instead of circulating with the cold ocean. Naturally, this type of seam is found on only the most expensive wetsuits.
- Arm/Leg/Neck Seals. This tends to fall under the 'fit' category. Most suits now have a wide, smooth seal at the neck. Make certain there's lots of velcro to keep the neck closed.
- Back-zip suits. The most common type, and for a long time the only type. Check these suits for a sturdy metal zipper rather than cheap plastic, and for good, thick flaps behind the zipper to prevent cold water flushes. "Zip cups" are often added in the better suits to the bottom portion of the zipper, providing extra protection against cold water intrusion.
- Shoulder-zip suits. The major drawback of back-zip suits is the stiffness of the zipper, reducing paddling and surfing flexibility. Shoulder zippers eliminate this problem to some extent, creating new inflexibility in the upper chest region.
- Zipper-free suits. These suits use new neoprene with more flexible nylon liners and various kinds of velcro closures to create a suit that eliminates potential for cold water flushing into the zipper as well as flexibility problems.
These suits can be hard to get into or out of, are very expensive, and may have wear-and-tear problems. So far, few people have had these for more than a few years (as of early 1996).
- Thickness. Obviously, the thicker the suit, the colder the water you will be able to brave. Thick suits also result in more weight and less flexibility, as well as higher prices. Finding quality in the other categories can allow you to reduce the thickness for a given water temperature.
- Other Bells and Whistles
- Titanium. A coating of titanium oxide is applied to the wetsuit rubber on the inner side of the suit before the nylon and neoprene are bonded. The titanium is supposed to reflect heat that is radiated out from the body. Does it work? In theory, yes, but it is unknown how important it is.
- Polypropylene. Used as an inner lining for the newest wetsuits. This material is hydrophobic (repels water) and is supposed to help keep you drier. It is marketed both as used in the wetsuit itself and as a separate liner (like a rash guard). This stuff works best when just used totally by itself to protect from wind while surfing in warm water.
- Fit. This one is important. So much so, in fact, that many surfers are opting to pay $600+ for a custom-made wetsuit.
Prices tend to be essentially the same from one surf shop to another. Dive shops and sporting goods stores do frequently advertise cheap wetsuits, but these suits are typically fashioned with overlock stitching, minimal panelling, and are usually poor suits to wear when surfing.
You can usually get a good deal on a winter wetsuit towards the end of the summer. At around that time the 'new year' of wetsuits typically starts to arrive, and shops are eager to push 'last years' models out the door. Unlike the automobile industry, there is often little difference between the two 'model years'.
Used wetsuits can also be a good buy. Be sure to check for cracks and tears. Feel the neoprene to make sure it hasn't degraded when looking at a double-lined suit.
Wetsuit Care and Maintenance
Neoprene will naturally stiffen and even shrink as it gets older. The best thing to do for your wetsuit is to try to ensure that this process happens as slowly as possible and to mitigate the aging of your suit so that it will last as long as possible while still functioning. Here are a few tips to that end:
- Keep the suit out of direct sunlight (except when being worn, of course), as the heat and UV rays will cause cracking and stiffening.
- Never put a wetsuit in a dryer, and avoid exposing it to excessive heat, i.e. from a room heater or from draping it over a radiator.
- Rinse your suit out well after each use. Dissolved minerals in the seawater accelerate the degradation of neoprene.
- Keep your suit clean. If dirt or salt (see above) gets into the inner lining of the suit, it can interfere with the suits ability to trap an insulating layer of water near your skin. Some surfers use shampoo, Armor-All, or even purple bubble bath to clean their suits.
- Avoid purchasing a suit that is too small. Neoprene will stiffen as it is stretched repeatedly over extended periods of time.
- Get some neoprene glue and take some time to fix up leaks and holes before they become too large to repair.