How Does A Wetsuit Work?
When looking for the right wetsuit for you, it’s a good idea to have a bit of understanding in how they work. In this blog, we’re going to talk about the ins and outs of wetsuits – what they’re made of, how they work to keep you warm and what to look for in wetsuit design.
Wetsuits are a brilliant piece of kit and vital for anyone taking to the water, whatever the season. Because water conducts energy much faster than air molecules, you feel the cold much faster in the water than you would in the same temperature on land. So even in the warmest UK coastal waters on the hottest day, you’re going to need a second skin to keep your body temperature at a constant level so you can stay in the water for longer.
Technology has really improved over the last few years and wetsuits are no longer the heavy, saggy and inflexible outerwear that they used to be! Instead, most modern wetsuits are made of a material called neoprene. Fabricated from a synthetic rubber, neoprene’s layers house millions of trapped air bubbles providing you with vital insulation against cold water and heat loss. And its construction also means neoprene wetsuits are durable, lightweight and highly flexible.
So, let’s just clear up one thing before we go any further. Wetsuits are exactly as the name suggests – they get wet both inside and out! They work very differently to drysuits (shown below) which are effectively a sealed outer layer that keep everything next to your skin completely dry. Instead, wetsuits work by allowing a thin layer of water to sit between your skin and the suit itself. This water is warmed by your body and acts as an extra layer of insulation to prevent heat loss.
Having a flexible material such as neoprene is key to ensuring the wetsuit works in the way you need it to. You’ll want your wetsuit fit to be tight because once you’ve got that watery layer to body temperature, you’ll want it to stay there. This is key to staying warm and a loose-fitting wetsuit will simply keep letting fresh water in and out of the suit in an action that’s known as cold water flushing.
Pimping up the layers
Having just a neoprene layer may be fine in warm water but when the water temperatures are lower, particularly in UK waters in the colder months, you’ll want to choose a wetsuit that’s designed with additional insulation and features that prevent cold water flushing.
Look for suits that have thermal linings covering the torso and back, in particular. These will increase insulation and reflect heat back into the body. They’ll also help to wick moisture away from your skin.
The seams, wrist and leg cuffs and zips of a wetsuit are all vulnerable areas for water ingress. For cold water surfing, look for seams that use blind stitching or are 3D stitched – this is where the seams are glued together then stitched from the inside but without penetrating the outer layer of the neoprene. Good quality suits will also feature fully taped seams to provide durability in areas that get the most amount of stress and stretch (such as shoulders and inner thighs). Suits designed for the colder months will often have sealed seams both inside and out to make them completely watertight and highly durable. Stretch resistant cuffs are also really invaluable in keeping cold water out and warm water in.
Finally, whilst how you get into your suit is pretty much a personal preference, chest zip or zip free (zipperless) suits can offer greater protection against cold water than the traditional back zip suit. The chest zip and zip free systems also give greater flexibility to allow a bigger range of movement across both the back and shoulders. Back zipped suits have the benefit of being easy to climb into and out of, and if you do opt for this style, look for a suit that has an integrated flap that covers the zip from the inside and keeps the back and kidney area protected from cold water.
Balancing warmth over flexibility
Wetsuits are graded by the thickness of the neoprene and the thicker the wetsuit, the warmer it will be. You’ll find two numbers (sometimes 3) which indicate wetsuit thickness – for example 3/2, 5/4 and so on. These numbers show how thick the neoprene will be on the torso/core (the first number) and the arms and legs (the second number). It’s also an indication of what temperatures the suit is suitable for. In general, lower thicknesses suit summer activities and higher numbers are good for colder waters. However, you will need to think about what sort of activity you need your wetsuit for. If you’re planning to surf, you’ll be in the water much more than if you’re paddleboarding. Your location might also play a role in wetsuit choice – in the UK, water temperatures in the North Sea are generally colder than the South West’s Atlantic Coast.
And there’s also the balance of how flexible you want your wetsuit to be. Thicker suits are designed with fewer seams, and as a result, are more restrictive in both stretch and movement. Luckily, the newer suits on the market, such as the all-new Dakine range, build in neoprene panels with higher flex, design seams that are both robust but allow for stretch and even engineer the suit so that the seams are cut in different places to make paddling less tiring.
Not only are wetsuits designed to keep you warm, but clever functionality can also help you get the most out of your surf. Look for suits that have knee pads for greater board comfort and durability or those with linings on the chest to give you greater grip when surfing.
Finding the right wetsuit for you definitely comes down to the sort of activity you’re planning to do, how much you’re going to be in or out of the water and where and when you’re heading out. Today’s choice of wetsuits is huge, and the technology constantly improves. Here at Boards360, we’d always say choose the highest quality wetsuit you can afford as it should last you for many seasons. But when buying your first wetsuit, the most important factor is choosing one that gives you the best fit so you stay warm out on the water.
We stock a wide range of wetsuits designed for all seasons for men, women and children. To see our full selection, click here.