The Wetsuit Shopping Guide for Surfers

The Rip Curl Flash Bomb wetsuit.
The Rip Curl Flash Bomb wetsuit.

Surfing is a mercifully simple sport when it comes to gear. Grab your board and wetsuit, then head to the beach. And unless you live in the tropics, a good wetsuit is an essential ingredient for a fun session. Thankfully, stiff rubber suits are a relic of the past, replaced by high-tech neoprene that keeps you warm while still giving you the same freedom of movement as surfing in trunks. Whether you're looking to replace an old, worn-out wetsuit or extend your surfing addiction into the colder seasons, here's what you need to know to buy the perfect new wetsuit.

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Find the Experts
Though you may be able to find a good deal at a big box store, a local surf shop will offer valuable guidance about which to choose. "You're going to get advice from people who actually surf," says Pete Mussio, surfboard manager at the Beach House, a 53-year-old shop in Santa Barbara, California. The same goes for choosing a wetsuit brand. At surf brands like Rip Curl, O'Neill, Hurley, and Volcom, the product designers are typically avid surfers. "You're going to get a suit that really works for surfing," Mussio says.

Feel Out the Fit
When you try it on, your new wetsuit should fit tightly. "It's going to be like your second skin," Mussio says. Over time, the material will stretch, so you want to start out with a close fit. Volcom pro Mitch Coleborn agrees: "There's nothing worse than getting all rashed up from a baggy suit." To avoid that, a new suit should be challenging to wrestle into position. "The wetsuit is like a rubber band," Mussio says. "You don't want to just pull on it. You want to get it over your legs, then ease it up." You also don't want any water to sneak through the openings at the wrists, ankles, and neck, so make sure those areas fit snugly.

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Invest in Your Comfort
Which suit you eventually buy will depend on your budget, but if you're going to surf often in cold temperatures, consider splurging on a higher-end option with liquid tape seams, which offers the warmest construction, according to Mussio. More expensive wetsuits, such as the O'Neill Psycho 3 (starts at $425) or the Rip Curl Flash Bomb ($360), are made from more flexible materials than the cheaper models. The neoprene will also weigh less — making it easier to paddle — while still offering the same level of warmth. Unlike old-school rubber wetsuits, the high-end materials feel soft on the skin.

Pick a Thickness
Wetsuits are sold based on the width of the neoprene. A 3/2 wetsuit, for example, will combine 3mm and 2mm neoprene, typically with the thicker materials around your body's core. "It's totally a personal thing," Mussio says. He tends to reach for a 4/3mm suit when surfing his home breaks around Santa Barbara. Coleborn, on the other hand, prefers a thinner suit. "I hate being really hot in the water," he says. "I very rarely bust out a 4/3. I think 2mm full-suits are the best." 

Your shop should recommend an appropriate weight for the local waters, but here are a few good rules to follow: Above 70 degrees F, you can surf comfortably in just your shorts and a lightweight neoprene top — we like the Volcom Lefty Neo Jacket ($90). A 3/2 suit will keep you warm into the low 60s, and a 4/3 can take you into the 50s.

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Ride Out the Winter
For winter conditions, add booties, gloves, and a hood to your setup. Mussio says he pulls out the booties when the water temperatures drop to 52 degrees F. "Booties are epic for saving your toes from going numb when the water is freezing, especially for those cold offshore mornings," Coleborn says. Like your wetsuit, booties should fit tightly. There's nothing worse than tripping over them when you're trying to surf. If you surf rock-bottom reefs or cobbled point breaks, booties also help protect your feet from cuts and scrapes. A hood is especially helpful in windy conditions, and many wetsuits come with them built-in.

Make It Last 
Once you've found the perfect suit, you'll want to make sure to take care of it. Coleburn says regular cleaning will extend its life. Wash your suit out in fresh water and find a shady spot to hang it up to dry. Sun exposure breaks down the materials and will make your suit wear out more quickly. 

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