Choosing The Right Wetsuit For You
Original article found at ScubaDiveDestinations.com
Whether you’re a diving newbie or a seasoned pro, buying a new wetsuit can be a daunting prospect. For some, it’s the cost that’s nerve-wracking; for others, it’s the thought of jiggling around in front of a mirror struggling for hours to find a suit that fits. For most of us, the scariest thing of all about purchasing a new wetsuit is the number of options available- how are we supposed to navigate the countless variations in style, material and fit to find the suit that best fits our personal needs? If the very thought of wetsuit shopping makes you anxious, don’t panic. This guide is designed to make the selection process a little easier, and to help ensure that you come away not only satisfied, but with a wetsuit that’s just right for you.
The first step to successful wetsuit shopping is to understand why we need wetsuits, and how they work. Because water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air, divers need some kind of exposure protection to prevent them from becoming chilled underwater. Even in tropical climates, a diver can become cold after a prolonged period of time underwater, or on repetitive dives- which is why we typically need some level of exposure protection regardless of where we are. Every person is different, but generally, a wetsuit is an appropriate form of exposure protection in waters ranging between 10-32°C/ 50-90°F; any colder, and a drysuit is usually required. Maintaining body heat whilst diving is crucial not only in terms of comfort, but also in terms of safety- a chilled diver will experience reduced functionality, weakness, and in extreme cases, hypothermia. Hypothermia can be a fatal condition if not recognised and reacted to accordingly; additionally, being cold is thought to exacerbate a person’s susceptibility to decompression sickness. Therefore, choosing the right wetsuit and consequently having adequate exposure protection is a serious decision upon which your wellbeing depends.
Wetsuits keep you warm firstly by trapping a thin layer of water between the neoprene and your skin, which is in turn heated by your body. The tight seals at your wrists, neck and ankles stop the warm water from circulating away from the body, therefore preventing the loss of heat through conduction. The second way in which a wetsuit keeps you warm is through the insulating properties of neoprene, a rubbery material filled with tiny air bubbles. Consequently, the thicker your suit is, and the better it fits, the warmer you will be. You should choose a wetsuit with a thickness appropriate for the climate you will be using it in- general guidelines are as follows:
- A 2mm suit is only appropriate for temperatures above 29°C/ 85°F.
- A 3mm suit is appropriate for temperatures between 21-28 °C/ 70-85°F.
- A 5mm suit is appropriate for temperatures between 16-20°C/ 60-70°F, with the addition of booties, gloves or a hood towards the cooler end of that range.
- A 7mm suit is appropriate for temperatures between 10-20°C/ 50-70°F, with the addition of booties, gloves or a hood if desired. Many people will find additional neoprene on the torso via a chicken vest or wetsuit jacket necessary at the cooler end of that range.
These are basic guidelines- depending on age, sex, weight and general health, some people may get colder more quickly than others even when diving in identical conditions. Don’t forget that the deeper you dive, the more your wetsuit becomes compressed and loses insulation as a result- if you are planning on using your wetsuit predominantly at depth, buy a thicker suit accordingly. Similarly, if you are buying a suit for repetitive use (for example, on a liveaboard with five dives a day), consider buying a thicker suit than you might normally need- a diver becomes more susceptible to cold if they have already dived earlier in the day.
Wetsuit thickness is just one factor that affects a suit’s effectiveness, however. The style of your wetsuit is also important- for example, whether you choose a full length wetsuit, a shorty wetsuit or a two-piece wetsuit. In warmer climates, a shorty wetsuit that offers only partial coverage on the arms and legs may be sufficient; in colder climates, a full length wetsuit is mandatory if body heat is to be maintained. A two piece wetsuit offers some versatility- when worn together, the double coverage of the torso provides additional warmth, whilst in warmer climates, you can wear one half or the other to provide adequate exposure protection. Don’t forget that accessorising with a hood, booties, gloves or a neoprene vest can also make your suit significantly warmer. It is important to remember that scuba wetsuits are designed specifically for the diving- surf suits or other suits made with surface sports in mind do not have the technology to provide warmth at depth or under pressure. Always make sure that your new wetsuit is scuba-specific.
Once you’ve decided on which style of suit and which thickness best suits your needs, you can start to try suits on. This is a vital step of the selection process- the fit of your wetsuit is crucial to its effectiveness in keeping you warm. A wetsuit should fit as snugly as possible without restricting movement or breathing- often, if you think it’s too small, it’s actually just right. A tight fit, especially around the neck, wrists and ankles, is important- a baggy suit will simply allow water to flow freely beneath its seals and will therefore be unable to fulfil its function. You should not have large spaces in your crotch area, at the small of your back, under your armpits or behind your knees, because these will form pockets of water too big for your body to insulate. Female divers should try suits specifically cut for women, with pre-shaped space for the bust and hips- this will allow for a more comfortable, better-fitting suit. Ultimately, if your body shape is taller, shorter, larger or thinner than average and off-the-rack suits simply do not fit, don’t despair- instead, consider having a custom suit made. This option is slightly pricier than purchasing ready-made suits, but the warmth and comfort afforded by a properly fitting suit will be well worth the additional cost.
Cost is often a concern when purchasing a wetsuit, and prices do vary wildly. Normally, however, purchasing a good quality suit at a higher price is a smarter investment in the long run than buying a budget one. A wetsuit’s seams and the quality of the neoprene itself are the two main areas to look at in terms of assessing a suit’s longevity. Overlock stitching, for example, joins the seams together by stitching them on the inside, sometimes forming an uncomfortable ridge and allowing water to seep in. While this is normally sufficient for warm temperatures, blind stitch seams are a better option for cold water. The latter seams are glued together and then stitched in such a way that the neoprene is not punctured by the needle, minimising seeping if not preventing it completely. Different kinds of neoprene react better or worse to compression- over time, extended exposure to pressure compresses the air bubbles in your suit, making it thinner and less warm. Gas blown neoprene resists this damage for longer than chemical blown neoprene, and is by far the most durable.
Only you can decide what you want from your wetsuit, and in which areas you are and aren’t willing to compromise. With these guidelines to help you, however, you should be able to make an informed decision that makes the whole process of buying a new wetsuit more enjoyable, and ultimately, more rewarding.
Article Written by Jessica Vyvyan-Robinson
About the Author
Originally from England, I first learned to dive so that I could go cage diving with great whites off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in 2008. From that first shark encounter onwards, I have been utterly hooked on the underwater world, and particularly on the issue of shark conservation. Whilst studying for my degree in London, I worked at London Aquarium, before going to Mozambique to research whale sharks off Tofo. I completed my PADI Instructor’s course while living in South Africa, and spent nine months teaching and guiding on Aliwal Shoal, where I set up a tiger shark ID project and began writing for the conservation organisation Shark Angels. In September last year, I set off on a thirteen month journey around South East Asia, Fiji and New Zealand, and am currently instructing in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo.