This years buzz words are: weight, flexibility, fast drying and heat reflective. Companies are also looking at and solving the zipperless concept lead by the success of Rip Curl’s E-Bomb. This year’s suits are amazing. From top end cutting edge, through to the price point suits and down to the lower end there are some amazing uses of tech. Here’s a run down of what is going on and how to cut through the marketing to find a suit you will love.
There are various ways companies are reducing weight. One is by cutting down the water absorption of the lining materials. On the outer skin this can also reduce windchill by reducing the amount of water evaporating, while on the inside the linings can dry faster and keep your warmer. While the additional weight of water held in outer skin of a wetsuit is probably negligible, there is no doubt that the reduction in windchill definitely is a good thing.
Another is by producing ever lighter neoprene. The use of lighter and more flexible neoprene is very desirable but also has the downside of sometimes producing less durable suits in the short term than neoprenes that are tested on the market.
The fast drying linings are a godsend. Most suits will use some sort of firewall or polypropylene lining which will reflect heat and reduce the water held by your skin. These have reached impressive stages of effectiveness now. Having tested polypro during the winter I can say they definitely do work, and the fast dry linings actually are dry to touch in minutes.
Zipperless suits are a new challenge to wetsuit companies. They tested a few in the past but couldn’t quite get over the flush and fit issues. These days with newer, more flexible neoprene on the market they really do work and you will notice a difference. Having said that, they aren’t for everyone as some are difficult to get in and out of and it is down to personal preference as to whether the flex is worth the hassle of entry and exit. Groms, wide shouldered males and older surfers may still prefer zips but it’s all down to how you feel and the cut of the suit versus your body shape. Just adds to the point we always push: you must try suits on before purchase. Even if they are stretchy, they all have different cuts; body, neck, entry systems and you need to compare.
The heat reflective linings are getting even more tech, with all sort of materials used. Some hold more air, some reflect heat, some claim to produce heat. In this aspect the effectiveness is often down to the combination of the material used, neoprene thickness, lining thickness and, importantly, the percentage of lining used. To check this you have to pick up the suit and turn them inside out. Don’t be sucked in by price tags as some suits pitched at lower price points I have picked up are almost 90 percent lined and really well built, some top end … er, not.
Remember any suit will feel warm and stretchy on its first few surfs. Materials and linings even dry quicker and hold less water when materials are new. To truly test a wetty you have to wear it for six weeks then assess it for durability, and effectiveness.
We are all different (shape and temperature tolerance), suits have different cuts, variations of neoprene thicknesses and distribution thereof. Not all wetsuits suit all people. You need to try them on for yourselves.
The standard labelling of 4/3 or 3/2 serves as a rough guide to neoprene thickness in millimetres but is pretty much a redundant term when it comes to the nitty gritty of actually choosing a wetsuit. What some companies call a 3/2 may have a completely different neoprene thicknesses and coverage than another companies 3/2. The numeric value could refer to the thickness of the the neoprene or the value of the neoprene and lining combined. Hence one persons 3mm can vary up to 1mm from another.
Heat-retaining, water-repelling linings are the bomb. However neoprene thickness and coverage is still the number one factor in a wetsuits insulating value. You also need to check the internal thermal lining area (Is it just a chest patch or everything from the neck down?) Turn them inside out to
Fit is everything. An improper fit may increase flushing or excessively stretch neoprene thus lowering the thickness and thermic insulation value. On the contrary a baggy fit will reduce thermal retention. Always, always always try suits on.
There is usually a trade off between flexibility and weight of neoprene and durability. In general you get what you pay for, and there will be a trade off for top end features and neoprene against price. But there are some amazing suits out there that are not in the high end of the price bracket. They may use last years neoprene or stitching/seam technology, but sometimes this is better proven, harder wearing and amazing value.
Pick a suit that will keep you warm on the coldest days of summer in your area. Check your local water temperatures, or those in the area you will use the suit most. If in doubt go thicker. You can easily cool down, but waiting to warm up will kill your day and lead to less surfing time.
Do all your research before you go in the shop. Check this guide, ask your friends what they think of suits, listen to other surfers experiences of brands and models. Ask which shops are best for customer service, and be prepared to accept advice of a knowledgable assistant. If in doubt ask. Good sales guys know their stuff, they want your return custom so they will offer good advice.
Do you want a front zip, zipless or back zip entry? Entry systems can make a suit feel really stretchy combined with lightweight neoprene, but they can also be a pain in the arse to get in and out of.
The key area for stretch is the arms/lats/shoulders area for paddling etc. Then behind the knees and the ‘vertical stretch” i.e. in the back when you bend over/crouch. You can feel this when you put the suit on and replicate surfing manoeuvres. Make sure necks, wrists and ankles all fit correctly.