Wetsuits are a brilliant invention and essential gear that enables us to surf in more conditions and surf longer. All hail Jack O’Neill, the original wetsuit pioneer, and purveyor of extended surf sessions. The right wetsuit is a surfer’s best friend. They keep us cozy in times of need, they are there with us for the thrashings, and they allow us to surf in freezing cold water that would otherwise be miserable.
To find the right wetsuit for your needs there are quite a few factors and nuances to consider: ocean temperature, climate, your tolerance to cold, and even your ego.
To help you in your wetsuit quest, we’ve created this Wetsuit Buyer’s Guide to cover everything you need to know to buy your next wetsuit. We’ll cover wetsuit basics, how to choose a wetsuit, a wetsuit temperature guide, types of wetsuits, and a selection of the best wetsuits on the market today – from full suits to wetsuit jackets.
- If you’re an experienced wetsuit connoisseur, CLICK HERE to jump down to the wetsuits or use the Table of Contents below to jump to a specific wetsuit section.
- If you’re new to the wonderful world of wetsuits, we’ll take you through the wetsuit-buying process step-by-step and share helpful insights along the way.
Wetsuits for Surfing
Back in the day (specifically, before 1952), you had to be much tougher to be a surfer. Why? Because surfers didn’t have the modern-day luxury of wearing a wetsuit when the water temperatures were cold.
But let’s start from the beginning and talk ocean temperatures. Depending on where you live and surf, the temperature of the ocean can range a lot from tropical warm water temps (countries on the equator), to freezing cold water temps (think Arctic surfer with icicles in his beard).
In countries along the equator, you’ll pretty much be good in board shorts all year long, maybe a rashguard or 2 millimeter top for cooler months or breezy mornings. And in the Arctic you’re going to need a 6/5 millimeter (mm) full wetsuit with 8mm surf booties, a hoodie, and 3mm gloves no matter the month!
Countries along the equator and near the Arctic, are obviously two very major extremes, but my point is that the water temperature in those regions doesn’t really fluctuate much. For many places you might want to surf around the world, the water temperatures can range from cool to warm in the summer or warmer months to brain-freezing-beard-icicle cold in the winter or colder months, so you’ll need to do a little research to find out what the water temperatures are like where you plan to surf so you can plan your rubber (an affectionate word for wetsuits) accordingly.
As a very basic generalization, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, during mid to late summer and early fall the ocean is typically at its warmest. You’ll see plenty of “fair-weather surfers” (a playfully unaffectionate name for people who only surf in the summer) and ocean enthusiasts out there frolicking in the waves in anything from boardshorts to a fullsuits and everything in between.
Surf Wetsuits Basics
Surfers wear wetsuits to keep warm and toasty while surfing in cooler waters. In 1952, Jack O’Neill (founder of the O’Neill surf brand), invented wetsuits for surfers after getting a tip from his body-surfing scientist friend, Harry Hind, about a material known as closed-cell neoprene foam. Neoprene later became the main material used to make wetsuits for decades.
In the past several years, wetsuit materials have since evolved to include more sustainable materials like limestone neoprene and Yulex, a natural rubber derived from Hevea Trees. More on that later.
At its essence, the invention of neoprene wetsuits allowed surfers to go out in colder water temperatures and surf for a longer period of time before getting too cold to surf. In addition to the staying-warmer-longer factor, wetsuits also help prevent sunburn and offer a little extra protection from getting cut when wiping out on sharp rocks or reef.
How Wetsuits Work
Wetsuits work by insulating your skin from direct contact with the cold water and the magic happens when a properly fitted wetsuit traps just a little bit of water between the wetsuit and your body. The warmth of your body temp warms up the trapped water, and you stay nice and cozy in your little self-heated jacuzzi.
And if you’re wondering if surfers pee in their wetsuits — a hypothetical totally made-up study revealed that 98% of surfers pee in their wetsuits. Fake studies aside, yes, we most definitely pee in our wetsuits. And seasoned surfers know to be a strategic pee-er and use it for a burst of warmth when they need it most. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. I digress.
For a wetsuit to work properly, you need to keep a few things in mind which we’ll cover in detail below. But for now, just know that matching the right wetsuit thickness to water temperature is key. We’ve put together a water temperature and wetsuit thickness guide below to help you get started.
Wetsuit thicknesses are stated in millimeters (mm). Full wetsuits use a thicker material in the torso area to keep your core warmer, and a thinner material in the arms, legs, and shoulders for flexibility. So a 3/2 mm wetsuit, is 3 millimeters in the body, and 2 millimeters in the arms and legs.
Wetsuit thickness ranges from 1mm to 6mm. The most typical thicknesses are 1mm, 2mm, 3/2mm, and 4/3mm. And for the extreme cold, there are 5/4mm, 6/5mm, and extra wetsuit accessories like hoods, gloves, and booties.
The wetsuit trade-off goes like this: A thicker wetsuit gives you more warmth, but less flexibility and maneuverability. A thinner wetsuit will give you more flexibility but less warmth. Generally, many surfers will try to wear the thinnest wetsuit tolerable to maintain the most maneuverability, but again, everyone has a different tolerance for comfort and cold.
Wetsuit fit is super important. If the wetsuit is too tight, it will be uncomfortable and reduce your freedom of movement. And if it’s too loose, water will flush through the suit which will make you colder much faster and it could also rub your skin causing a rash (and uncomfortableness).
You want your wetsuit to feel like another layer of skin over your body, so it should be as fitted and snug as possible without being uncomfortable or restricting your range of motion. A suit that’s baggy in any area is a no-go.
To find the right wetsuit fit, choose the wetsuit brand you’re interested in and compare your height, weight, and chest and waist measurements to the brand’s wetsuit sizing chart. Like clothing brands, sizing can vary from brand to brand, so a size that is ideal for you in one brand might not work for you in another brand.
Neoprene will stretch when wet, so if a dry suit feels a bit tight when you try it on, the wetsuit could actually be the right fit. Try a paddling motion and raise your arms above your head – if those motions are difficult in any way then the suit is probably too small.
Move around in the wetsuit to see how it feels and if the suit is hitting you wrong anywhere. Remember that you want the suit to fit snug, but without hindering maneuverability or compromising comfort.
Wetsuit Temperature Guide
One man’s winter water temperatures can be another man’s summer temperatures. Two of the biggest factors in getting the right wetsuit is your personal preference for warmth and tolerance to the cold. The ideal equipment for your friend might not necessarily be the ideal equipment for you.
The best wetsuit is the one that gives you the most flexibility while keeping you at a comfortable temperature so you can stay in the water and shred longer.
We’ve created a basic temperature and wetsuit thickness guide below that you can use as a starting point and I’ll also share what my personal year-round wetsuit selection looks like living in Southern California.
The more you surf, the more you’ll get to know your personal wetsuit preferences better and you can switch it up based on what’s most comfortable for you.
Wetsuit Thickness & Temperature Guide
|WATER TEMPERATURE||WETSUIT THICKNESS||WETSUIT TYPE||COMMENTS|
|>72 °F||None – 2 mm||Nothing, Rashguard, Wetsuit Top||Even in warm water I almost always wear a rash guard to prevent armpit and the dreaded nipple rash.|
|66°- 72°||1 mm – 2/1 mm||Rashguard, Wetsuit Top, Spring Suit||I typically use a wetsuit top or 3/2 spring suit depending on the temp in this range|
|64°- 68°||2 mm – 3/2 mm||Wetsuit Top, Various Spring Suits||I often repurpose my old 3/2’s by cutting off the arms and/or the legs to make a spring suit.|
|58°- 63°||3/2 mm – 4/3 mm||Full Suit + Booties (if under 60)||Most 3/2 mm full suits work for this range. A taped and sealed suit is a nice option.|
|50°- 58°||4/3 mm||Full Suit + Booties (hood optional)||A top of the line 3/2 mm can work. A hood would be nice on the lower end of the spectrum.|
|42°- 50°||5/4 mm||Full Suit + Boots + Gloves + Hood||I commend you and your commitment.|
In addition to water temperature, be sure to take into consideration the following elements when planning for the right wetsuit:
- Your tolerance for cold
- Air temperature
- Wind speed
- Sunshine or overcast sky
- Level of activity
- How long you want to surf
The same water temperature can call for different wetsuit thicknesses depending on additional climate factors. If you’re going surfing on a windy day with colder air temperatures and overcast skies, that’s going to drop your body temperature much more than surfing in the same water temperature with a warmer air temperature on a sunny day without any wind.
I know that’s a lot to take in, but basic bottom line: there are many elements besides water temperature that factor into the equation.
If you get cold easily, err on the side of wearing a thicker wetsuit to start. Then you can experiment as you gain more wetsuit experience and learn what works best for your personal preferences.
Wetsuits Through the Seasons
For those of us living and surfing in Southern California or similar seasonal climates, we tend to experience temps from about the low 50s in the coldest of winter months, to the low 70s in the warmest of summer months.
To give you an example of how surfers will use different wetsuits throughout the year, here’s a breakdown of what wetsuits I wear based on Southern California seasons and water temps:
Spring (March, April, May):
- Water temperature range: 58°- 68°F
- Warmer range: 3/2 mm full suit or 3/2 mm spring suit
- Colder range: 4/3 mm fullsuit + 3mm surf booties
Summer (June, July, August):
- Water temperature range: 62°- 74°F
- Warmer range: 2mm wetsuit top (occasionally board shorts only)
- Colder range: 3/2 mm full suit
Fall (September, October, November):
- Water temperature range: 55°- 70°F
- Warmer range: 3/2 mm spring suit
- Colder range: 4/3mm fullsuit + 3mm surf booties
Winter (December, January, February):
- Water temperature range: 52°- 60°F
- Warmer range: 3/2mm fullsuit + 3mm surf booties
- Colder range: 4/3mm fullsuit + 3mm surf booties
On a Surf Trip to a Tropical Destination:
- Water temperature range: 75°- 82°F
- Warmer range: Short or Long sleeve rashguard or board shorts only
- Colder range or breezy mornings: 2mm wetsuit top
I personally like to err on the side of being too warm so I tend to use wetsuits more than people who are more tolerant of the cold. Also, keep in mind that a quality 3/2 mm wetsuit can be warmer than a budget 4/3 mm wetsuit.
With the above ranges and seasons in mind, if you live in an area with variable water temperatures and want to surf all year long, you’ll want to have a variety of wetsuits on hand. A 4/3 mm full suit, a 3/2 mm full suit, surf booties, and a wetsuit top.
Do you need to get them all? No. If you don’t plan to surf regularly, or just in the summer, spring, and fall, a quality 3/2 mm fullsuit will cover the widest range of water temps so maybe that’s all you need for mild climates. Or if you’re going to be surfing the Central Coast of California on up (or similar climates) where the water is a bit colder on average and really cold in the winter, then a 4/3 mm and surf booties would probably be ideal to cover most days.
Best Men’s Wetsuits
Wetsuit Tops & Wetsuit Jackets
Like rashguards, wetsuit tops and jackets come in both long and short sleeves, and you can also find wetsuit vest cuts too, which are sleeveless. While wetsuit tops and wetsuit jackets are often used interchangeably, I tend to think of wetsuit jackets as having full-length front-zip zippers and wetsuit tops being pullovers without a zipper or might have a short zipper on the low back.
Wetsuit tops and jackets are great for warmer water temps (66°- 74°) when you need that little extra body warmth to extend your session, or for windy, cooler morning, or evening sessions in tropical water. They usually come in 1mm, 1.5mm, or 2/1mm thickness.
The term spring suit is really a category of wetsuits tailored for cool to warm waters that includes a variety of styles like shorties, short johns, and long johns. Let’s break this down for you. A Shorty wetsuit is used to describe a spring suit with both short legs and short sleeves.
A Short John wetsuit is a vest on top (sleeveless) and shorts on the bottom. A Long John wetsuit has long pants-length legs but a sleeveless vest cut up top. Last but not least for the spring suit category, there are cuts with short legs and long sleeves, referred to as a Long Sleeve Spring Suit. Spring suit thickness is typically 2 mm, but some come in 3/2 mm.
A full wetsuit (AKA fullsuit, steamer) either has both long sleeves and legs, or short sleeves and long legs. Some short-sleeve full wetsuits are made as 2mm wetsuits, so they actually make for good spring suits. But generally speaking, when talking about fullsuits, people are probably referring to full wetsuits with long sleeves and legs.
Common full wetsuit thicknesses are 3/2 mm, 4/3 mm, and 5/4 mm, although some brands make other thickness that don’t fit the mold, like the 2 mm short sleeve mentioned above or a 3 mm full suit.
O’Neill’s Psycho Tech Wetsuit delivers some serious wetsuit technology to give you premium warmth, flexibility, and durability. O’Neill’s Technobutter 3 Neoprene is one of the most advanced super stretch neoprene on the market. The wetsuit uses small gaseous pockets in the Air Firewall to trap and retain heat. The tiny pores encapsulate warm air and keep it close to your body keeping you cozy. This technology is also what makes this suit weigh 20% less than traditional neoprene with 30% less water absorption. Use promo code ‘LUSHPALM’ for 12% off your order.
Rip Curl’s Flashbomb Wetsuit has won praise and awards for years with its maximum warmth, super flexibility/stretch, and fast-drying. Rip Curl claims it’s the “fastest drying wetsuit in the world,” which comes in especially handy if you’re not a fan of climbing into a cold damp wetsuit. This high-performance lightweight suit is one of Ripcurl’s priciest wetsuits, but the quality and durability will make it last for the long term. Available in Chest Zip, Back Zip, and Zip-Free (shown here in Back Zip). Use promo code ‘LUSHPALM’ for 12% off your wetsuit.
$349.95 – $429.95 depending on the zipper setup
Patagonia is at the forefront of sustainable eco-friendly products and manufacturing. Their Yulex® R2 Full Suit is a neoprene-free wetsuit made from natural rubber tapped from Hevea trees. So this wetsuit will not only keep you warm in cold water, but will also warm your heart for causing less harm to our beloved environment. The R2 wetsuit is actually 3.5/3mm, which will give you a little more warmth and comfort on those colder winter mornings. Patagonia suggests this wetsuit for temperatures in the 55 – 60° F (13–16 °C) range.
O’Neill’s Hyperfreak 4/3 Wetsuit is a premium wetsuit that combines lightweight and flexible performance with ultimate insulation. Tested and declared by Stab Mag as “the most stretchy and comfortable suit of 2019,” the Hyperfreak delivers the warmth of a 4/3 with the comfort of a 2-mil. This wetsuit is a must for those who loathe the stiff and thick 4/3s of our dark not-as-techy wetsuit past (so basically everyone). Available in a Comp Zipperless (the stretchiest), Chest Zip, and Hooded Chest Zip. Use promo code ‘LUSHPALM’ for 12% off your wetsuit.
$319.95 – $359.95 depending on the zipper setup
Rip Curl’s Flashbomb 4/3 Wetsuit is a high-performance wetsuit loaded with cold water features to keep you warm when you need it most. The Flashbomb Wetsuit series has won awards for their flexibility, warmth, fast-drying technology, and durability. Award-winning features wrapped up into a super lightweight suit make this 4/3 Flashbomb one of the best 4/3s on the market. Available in Zip Free, Chest Zip, and Back Zip. Use promo code ‘LUSHPALM’ for 12% off your wetsuit.
$ 369.95 – $ 449.95 depending on the zipper setup
This buttery Hyperfreak 5/4 Wetsuit is a winner in frigid temperatures. Featuring O’Neill’s Technobutter 3X neoprene, it weighs 20% lighter with 30% less water absorption than any other premium neoprene. Combine that with the built-in hood, F.U.Z.E. Chest Zip that keeps water out, minimal seam design, and quality construction, this suit is built to keep you as comfortable as possible in harsh waters. Use promo code ‘LUSHPALM’ for 12% off your wetsuit.
Billabong’s 5/4 Furnace Chest Zip Wetsuit is their top-shelf coldest-water wetsuit designed to keep you warmer for longer. Made with eco-conscious and recycled materials, the wetsuit combines lightweight, high-stretch fabrics with 100% externally welded seams and a seamless back panel for ultimate performance in super cold temps.
Rashguards (AKA Rashies, surf shirts) are usually less than 1mm thick and mostly serve the purpose of preventing rashes on your stomach, nipples, armpits, and also offer UV protection. Rashguards can either be short or long-sleeved, and some even come with a light hooded hat attached.
Rashguards aren’t really going to help with warmth much unless they are thicker, although they can be helpful as a windbreaker in warmer waters if it’s a breezy morning or evening session. While rashguards have mostly been made to fit relatively snug like a wetsuit, there are now plenty of loose-fitting rash guards out there that fit more like a t-shirt.
Now that we’ve covered the most common wetsuits for surfers along with water temperatures and wetsuit thickness recommendations, there are a few popular wetsuit accessories you might want to consider depending on where you’re surfing and if you get cold easily or not.
Surf booties are a funny topic. In the past, core surfers (or wannabe core surfers) would be quick to heckle other surfers who choose to wear booties when the water temps drop. At least in Southern California. I think some people still hold on to this stigma and think booties are kooky. Personally, I’ve never cared. Except for that one time I was trying to look cool in front of some really cool longboarders.
Some people say they can’t surf in booties because it messes them up. I’ve never had an issue shortboarding, although I can see how it might be an issue if you’re walking all over a longboard. I like my feet to be warm and toasty on the cold days and tend to reach for a pair of 2.5 – 3mm surf booties when the water temp drops below 60°F. And I’ll wear reef booties if I’m likely to be walking across a jagged reef on surf trips to places like Uluwatu in Bali.
Surf booties come in a variety of cuts and thicknesses. From low-ankle mesh reef booties for warmer climates to thick 8 mm high-top winter surf booties for the coldest of temperatures. Most surf booties are available in round toe or split toe (ninja style). I personally think that the split toe design forms to your foot better, so they’re my preference, but that’s your call.
Wetsuit hoods (AKA surf hoods) are becoming more and more popular over the last several years. Many hoods are separate pieces from wetsuits and are tucked into the neck area. But there are also plenty of full suits that have wetsuit hoods attached and stitched on the wetsuit.
Wetsuit hoods can come in handy if you’re surfing in temps colder than around 54°F or especially if there is a wind chill factor. In cold and windy conditions, it’s common for surfers to get what’s known as surfers ear, where the ear canal closes up in response to the cold wind blowing. Wetsuit hoods are known to help prevent surfers ear so can be a good investment if you’re surfing in cold windy conditions.
Surf gloves are another funny topic in the world of surfing. They have a stigma like surf booties – but way worse. Now, when I say there is a stigma around them, it’s not just the act of wearing them. No one is giving anyone crap about wearing booties, hoodies, or gloves if you’re surfing freezing cold water (see Exhibit A above). In fact, freezing-cold-water surfers are commended because it’s rough.
The stigma comes out in places like Southern California where it doesn’t get that cold, even in the winter. Plus, a lot of people have something to prove and egos to preserve in these parts.
Eleven-Time World Surfing Champion Kelly Slater doesn’t have anything to prove… I once saw Kelly Slater surfing at Lowers on a cold-but-by-no-means-freezing April day and he was wearing gloves and booties. I thought, man, Kelly can get away with anything… I bet his hands are really warm.
Have any questions about wetsuits or water temps?
Let us know in the comments below.