A Winter Wetsuit
A winter wetsuit is one of your most important winter accessories. It’s the key piece of equipment so you can brave the cold and keep surfing. There’s key criteria your wetsuit must have. What are they? Can you prioritise them? How do you know if you’re getting good value?
Let’s look at the characteristics to help you get into the best winter wetsuit.
Inside and out. Fleecy internals – High tech body-heat reflective panels – Super flex – Wind resistance. A winter wetsuit holds the promise of warmth and great surfing
There’s wetsuits ranging from light vest tops to short-sleeve long-leg steamers. These can be used at other times of the year. Such as early summer mornings or late arvo surfs, blowy windy days, or going into mid-season.
Can you prioritise your wetsuit’s features? What is most important to you where you surf? There’s no doubt you may have different priorities surfing an uncrowded remote locale, above. Compared to city madness where you need to paddle as fast as you can just to get a wave, below
When it’s cold, the air and water temperature dropping, you need a winter steamer. This is a long-arm, long-leg wetsuit. The purpose of a steamer is to get you surfing warmly when it’s cold. If it’s not cold one of the other wetsuit types can suffice. In winter you want to be able to surf when you want, when the waves are good, regardless of how cold conditions may be.
Winter magic. If you’ve got up early to get a session like this you want to surf your best. So what if you have warmth without flexibility? Flexibility without warmth? How well will you surf if either of these are lacking?
There’s key features that make up a wetsuit. It may seem possible to prioritise these.
You could say warmth is most important. However if you’re warm but can’t paddle or get to your feet because your wetsuit is too heavy or stiff, your surfing won’t be much fun. Alternatively if you can paddle fast and are super flexible, but are freezing, your discomfort will ruin your surfing.
So you want a wetsuit that all-round works.
Trade-offs do take place though. When surfing competitively some surfers trade warmth to get flexibility. They may have a lighter or different type suit they use in their competition heat. It’s only minutes they’re spending in the water. In this way they’re trading warmth for flexibility.
Surfing competitively Professionals do trade warmth for flexibility for their heats. On the left here’s Wade Carmichael. Note his C-Skins Short sleeve steamer. His strategy to wear this more flexible suit in the final paid off. 2nd Place at J-Bay, 2018. Below, Wade in his C-Skins full steamer
Getting a balance of features is most important in your winter wetsuit. Once you’ve got the features closely balanced you can make the end decision to prioritise one. For example you may have only limited time in the mornings so only need to stay warm for a short period. If you’re paddling a lot, a flexier less-warm wetsuit may be okay. But, if you know in advance you’re going to be not-warm, perhaps cool, will you even want to get out for that early?
So what are the key features of the best winter wetsuit?
The Big 4
Fit. Warmth. Flexibility. Finish. The four key features that make up your wetsuit. Ideally you want these all at their optimum, all working for you
Fit. Warmth. Flexibility. Finish.
These key features need explanation. It may seem obvious that a thicker wetsuit will give you better insulation, better warmth. However with technology changing rapidly this is not the case. Warm high tech linings can make a thinner suit as warm as a thick one.
It’s also not just the technology. As with all things surfing, you need the right approach.
The size chart on the left gives an indication of the wide range of sizes and mid-sizes available from some brands, in this case C-Skins. However new fitting techniques such as Future Fit used by C-Skins use computer modelling to go beyond basic numbers to closely match your body shape
The first thing to approach is fit. Your suit has to fit you and fit you well. The way a wetsuit works is to allow a thin layer of water, between your body and your suit, to be warmed. With the right fit this warm water will stay with you through paddling out, duck dives and riding waves. This mechanism can keep you warm for the duration of your surf. If water is constantly moving through your suit, due to a loose poor fit, that moving water will take your body heat away.
So when you’re trying your suit on in the shop it should be very snug, tight. Having a little struggle getting it on isn’t bad. If you’re hot in the suit in the shop this is normally a good sign you’ll be warm in the water. Once in cold winter water your body will shrink a little so your suit will loosen up.
If your suit is too big you’ll have water flushing in and out, greatly reducing your warmth if you get warm at all. If it’s loose you’ll also have chaffing and rashing. Alternatively if your suit is too small you won’t be able to get into it. So it’s about getting your fit right, perfect if possible.
Wetsuits come in incremental sizes. So some brands will have a size Medium, then a Medium Small and a Medium Tall. They often have this for all the main sizes from Small to Large. There’s a size for stocky, thick in the middle, and tall skinny body shapes. So there’s no reason to not get your size and fit right. If it’s not in the shop it can be ordered in for you.
Try It On
It’s important to try your suit on to determine best fit. Why? There’s important measurements that reflect the cut of your suit that aren’t covered in size charts. Measurements like crotch-to-neck make a big difference to the warmth of vital areas like your lower back. You can only find this fit by trying the suit on
It’s important to try the suit on as different brands also have different cuts with fit implications. For example C-Skins and Quiksilver are longer in the body than say Rip Curl and ION. What this means is while the C-Skins will fit snug into your lower back, a Rip Curl might stretch across it. This may not sound like a big issue but this gap created at your lower back will quickly chill.
With the fit around your neck, most suits have a super flexi panel so they’ll all fit fine. Some suits have a smooth glide skin making your neck even more comfortable. With your arm and leg fit it’s in fact better if your suit is a little long as at your wrists you can really feel the cold. If your suit fits your body great but is long in the arms or legs you can always fold the extra length under. Or try a mid size like a MS or LS, Medium Short or Large Short.
If you’re wanting the best winter wetsuit getting fit right is the first place to start.
Warmth & Flex
Latest tech, with body heat panels, gives you warmth normally associated with thicker neoprene in a thinner performance oriented suit
It used to be said that a thicker wetsuit would be warmer. This is still true in the same model, so a 4-3mm thick Hot_Wired will be warmer than a 3-2mm Hot_Wired. Comparing across suit brands though is not so straight forward.
There are different quality and technology neoprene and linings used. So you can’t just rely on the numbers like 3-2mm, 4-3mm. Let’s look at the neoprene.
An air infusion gives insulation and makes your suit thicker. In addition C-Skins go a big step beyond incorporating special linings in their suits to reflect the cold out and the warmth in
Neoprene, referred to sometimes as ‘rubber’ is a type of foam infused with air bubbles. It’s waterproof and provides insulation. This makes up the material of your suit. High quality neoprene gives a number of benefits including warmth, flexibility, durability and low weight. The quality of the neoprene is what often determines the cost of your suit.
Air bubbles can increase the insulation and thickness of your suit without increasing weight. So you can have a thicker suit that is warmer, without extra weight. C-Skins point out that they measure their neoprene thickness to not include the lining of their suits. So in appearance the C-Skins 2-2mm looks like a 3-2mm of another brand though it’s lighter and flexier while giving great warmth.
The quality of the neoprene is important too. If high quality it will be supple and sculpt to your body aiding your fit adding to your warmth.
You can normally feel the quality of neoprene for yourself. It will be spongie, when you squeeze it between your fingers. It will stretch and be resilient. For example it should stretch to at least double length, then recoil, instantly. If you’ve got different brands side by side you can normally easily discern difference in the quality of the neoprene.
With a brand name suit one thing you should be getting is quality neoprene.
Various types of plush linings are designed to capture body heat
Many wetsuits today talk about their linings. There’s a lot of hype and imagery around quick dry and body-heat panels. The internal panels often using colours to convey heat and warmth. These new tech lining can be fleeced or fine ridged panels. They’re plush and they do add to the warmth and comfort of your suit. They add warmth as they provide an area where the trapped water can rapidly be heated by your body heat.
The bushiness or fleeciness of the lining does not necessarily equate to extra warmth. In fact a low pile like a corduroy has proven to work great while some thicker linings aren’t as effective as no lining. Quick dry linings may not equate to warmth. You need water in your suit to warm. If it quick dries while you’re surfing you’re left with just the external cold water pressing against your neoprene against your skin. This becomes uncomfortable quickly.
Reputable brands tend to have linings that work. But even so be aware of the ‘latest thing’. Having no lining, just the neoprene without any fleece as on a value suit, can still work great. Tried and proven technologies tend to give the best result.
Throwing big moves. Your wetsuit should be a help, itself being flexible, keeping you warm and flexible, and able to perform
Your movement in the suit is vital. If you are warm but find it exhausting to move your arms and paddle you won’t be able to catch waves. Similarly if you’re feeling so bulky that you can’t get your legs under you or bend your back or knees, you won’t be able to surf.
The flexibility and stretch of your suit directly affects your surfing performance.
The quality of the neoprene plays a big factor. So feel and compare the neoprene between suits. As mentioned above quality neoprene gives more flex. Flex also equates to ease of paddling so directly impacts wave catching. It also gives you freedom of movement so you can do big moves when surfing.
To provide value, lower range suits will give you less flex neoprene in the body of your suit while the underarms or entire arms and shoulders may be super flex. This mix and match works well if you’re on a budget. You get warmth in your main and lower body and performance flex in your arms and upper body.
Zip-status and the stitching and cut of your suit panels are also important to consider.
Zip or No Zip
Back zip, on the left, is the go-to option for surfers who can’t get their shoulders into other suits. The Back Zip also seems to be the catch-all for other fit problems, like being solid in the middle. Next, the Front Zip, if done well gives great flex and ease of entry and exit. Zipless, on the right, is said to be the best of all suits for performance as there’s no zip at all to inhibit paddling or flex for big moves
Wetsuits come in three zip configurations. Back zip, front zip and zipless. Zip status impacts your flexibility, hence performance. In the past zips used to let in water but the latest suits not only have close sealed zipper teeth, they also have barriers behind the zip limiting water entry.
Zipperless suits give great freedom of movement, possibly the best. This is because there’s only neoprene and stitching in your suit. There’s no hard inflexible plastic zip anywhere to impede paddling or surfing moves.
A chest zip can be almost as good depending on the way the zip is implemented. If it’s lean it can be unnoticeable. If it’s bulky or poorly integrated each paddle stroke can feel like you’re pulling against it.
A back zip is considered least performance oriented for your surfing. This is because there’s a long trip of plastic running down your back. When you go into a surfing manvoeuvre where you crouch, bend or extend you can feel the zip limiting that movement. Also with some back zips you can feel constraint in your paddling, the zip limiting the flex and stroke movement between your back shoulders.
Extra Protection – Neck & Chest
A great feature offering extra protection from the cold is the special Iris neck underneath the neck of C-Skins front zip and zipless suits. It provides a great fit for any neck size and creates an area of noticeable additional comfort and warmth
The way the under-zip area is implemented can aid your overall suit performance for front zip and zipless suits. When you’re down on your board paddling your neck and upper chest area is faced with a constant flow of cold water. The second layer closest around your neck, if implemented well, can provide an additional barrier against water entry and can greatly increase your overall comfort and warmth.
This is one of the features to check in store. When the suit is on, without the outer neck flap over your head, does the cut below your neck sit low? If yes this can create problems when paddling out and duck diving.
Extra Protection – Back Zip
A batwing is a feature of back zip suits. It’s a fine 1-2mm panel that stretches behind your zip. In the image on the right it’s the blue panel. It stretches enough so you can step into your suit. Then when zipped, it provides a barrier behind your zip. Water still enters through the zip but it doesn’t get through to your body
Some surfers find the zipperless and chest zip suits difficult to enter and exit. Especially getting the suit up over their shoulders. So traditional back zip suits give a great alternative. The back zip isn’t that flexible as you have plastic running down your back in the place of soft neoprene. The zip can also let in water. Most high end back zip suits include a batwing, a flap that effectively stretches and seals across the zip opening. This does add bulk. However if you can’t get into another style suit a back zip with a batwing is still a worthy option.
This is a view of a suit back showing that the stitching is not horizontal. Note it curves down into the middle back. This curve, ION call a Sweep_Cut, provides additional fit and flex. The curved stitching stretches out with each arm movement aiding paddling
Knee treatments, at both the back and front of the knee are specially designed to aid flexibility
The cut of the panels, directly related to stitching, also plays a part in flexibility. Having less panels, and keeping them long, aids flex and your performance. This is because stitching, that comes from more panel pieces, stretches less than the neoprene. So less panels equals less stitching that equates to more flex and greater performance.
The cut though was originally important, having more panels equated to better fit. So you would have a panel to go into your lower back, one under your arm, another over the top of your shoulder. Now with the latest tech like Future Fit the suit forms to your body. This allows panels and stitching to be reduced.
So in terms of maximising flex a suit that has less stitching and utilises a fit-technology is the best way to go.
Another new feature is sanitizing. This is a treatment that prevents the appearance of unwanted odours
The Seal_Tite finish, here shown around the neck, is also used on internal wrists and ankles, This liquid seam material is added to prevent those areas riding up and inhibits water entry
The smoothie finish over the abdomen and lower chest. C-Skins’ implementation is a fine mesh that protects against wind chill while being durable
There’s two main finishes in wetsuits. One is called smoothie. The other is just normal. A normal suit has the same neoprene finish, a nylon layer, over the exterior of the suit. A smoothie suit has parts of the wetsuit, mainly front and back chest, finished smooth. This smoothie area is meant to reduce the affect of wind and wind chill. Smooth finished it doesn’t take on any water so it doesn’t get water logged. When the wind blows there’s no extra evaporation creating a chill.
Liquid seams provide additional external seam sealing. They do add warmth but also reduce the stretch of the neoprene
Another type of smooth finish is for seams. Rather than use an external tape, similar to that used internally, a liquid seam is used. This further seals GBS seams greatly limiting water entry. A trade off is that the liquid seam does not offer as much flex as neoprene so it does reduce performance. This isn’t noticeable in your lower body where the liquid seam is most used. In the upper body it can limit performance. So liquid seams tend to be used less in the upper body of performance suits.
It All Comes Together
It’s only by trying on a suit, several suits, that you will get an idea of how it all comes together, how you’ll feel on the water before the sunrises
If you try on an ION suit you will feel how supple the neoprene is. It glides on and fits you like a second skin. You get great flexibility, hence performance. As you move your arms you can feel the ION paddling flexibility. Bending down going through the surfing motions there’s no constraint. It’s got a great high tech lining. In the high end suits you get GBS, taping and liquid seams. So water entry is minimal.
With C-Skins the suit is more substantial. It’s like you’ve got protection. When the air is crackling pre-dawn, your body is warm, snug. Once in the water you are even warmer as the trapped water layer heats up. You may feel a little heavier but you can happily wait for waves, wait for the best wave.
For fit, ION has quality form fitting neoprene with a short cut in the body. C-Skins use Bio Fit so give you a great all-round fit.
So if you want to trade for performance, the ION may be your choice giving you easier paddling. If you want to trade for warmth, C-Skins may be your choice. Both suits have great team riders demonstrating every surfing move. So both work great.
Multi Australian Longboard Champion Jason Livingstone, on the left, wears Adrenalin. Highlight colours help identify the super flex neoprene panels. Primarily on the arms, shoulders and side panels. The other panels give less flex and more warmth. Adrenalin suits are great value
Alternatively there’s Adrenalin. Their suits tick all the boxes with features. They are also extremely good value. They use high flex neoprene where it counts on your shoulders and underarms for paddling performance. The body panels use thicker less flexible neoprene. So you get warmth where needed. If you’re on a budget give Adrenalin a good look.
Accessories can give you more protection if needed. The hood is a personal preference. Booties are more popular. Gloves not so much
Depending just how cold it gets where you surf you can look at accessories. Most surfers though find any accessories problematic. For example the hood limits hearing, in fact it can create a noise in your ears. It can also limit vision. Some booties offer only marginal grip and become stiff in the water. You don’t want a slippery boot, nor one rashing your toes. Gloves need to give good grip and fit snug at your wrist under your wetsuit. You don’t want these filling with water as it creates a problem having to empty them.
So don’t just grab and accessory on the way out. Scrutinise them, give them a good check.
A Winter Wetsuit
Fit. Warmth. Flexibility. Finish. Now you now what to look for get out and start trying on a few different suits. Do they all feel the same? Hone in on what you like, what feels good. While you may think getting a suit with all the features will guarantee warmth and good surfing, it won’t. Start with your fit. Once you’ve got your fit right, next look at the other key features. If it’s hard to decide, check how hot you feel when you’re trying the suit on. This is a good indicator that the suit will be warm for you in the surf too. Next crouch down, twist, swing your arms in a paddling motion. The flex you feel will also equate to your performance in the surf.