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Buying The Right Wetsuit
Date:10/27/03  By Editorial

Most recreational divers use wetsuits- they provide physical protection and help reduce the risk of hypothermia in most conditions (50-90 deg. F). Yet far too many divers buy wetsuits without considering their choices. Knowing what to look for is really important, because the right wetsuit adds to the diver's comfort more than any other piece of diving gear (see this article). There are hundreds of commercially available suits to choose from. Which is the best? It depends- one must at least consider the three Fs: Fit, Form and Function.

...the right wetsuit adds to the diver's comfort more than any other piece of diving gear

For any wetsuit to work properly, it must fit properly. If a suit is too loose, water will rush through it and chill the diver. If it's too tight, it can be uncomfortable, restrictive or even hazardous. A good fitting wetsuit traps a thin, easy-to-warm layer of water over the diver's body. For this reason, a custom-tailored wetsuit is the ideal choice because it is made to fit. Custom suits are well worth any extra cost, because they are warmer, less restrictive and more comfortable. Consider that a custom 5mm wetsuit will be warmer than a 7mm suit that doesn't fit.

When shopping "off-the-rack", keep in mind that not every suit that's "your size" will fit. People are shaped differently- just look around, it's true. The wise buyer will try on as many suits as possible and use a buddy or a mirror to make sure it fits. The suit should fit comfortably and be snug, but not tight. Avoid bulges, gaps and tight spots that constrict movement or hinder circulation. If the suit fits, wear it.

Wetsuits come in many different forms, varying in material and style. The most common material is closed-cell neoprene- a rubber with air bubbles trapped in the material to provide insulation. The neoprene is usually covered with a cloth fabric to increase durability. The thicker the suit, the more insulation. Mixed thickness suits are also made, where thicker material is worn over the trunk for warmth and thinner material at the joints for flexibility. Alternate materials can be used to suit the diver's needs. "Skin in" neoprene is desirable on the inside of a suit where good seals are important- around the neck, wrists, ankles and the face on a hood. "Stretch" neoprene materials have also been developed to make suits more comfortable and flexible, but they tend to be less durable. Also remember that stretch materials might seem more comfortable, but they still need to fit properly to be warm. Some manufacturers offer suits with titanium thread woven in to the neoprene, claiming that they reflect heat back to the body.

Wetsuits come in many different styles- one piece, two piece, front-zip, back-zip, Farmer John, Farmer Jane...the list goes on.. Different cuts offer different benefits- the tradeoff is usually between comfort (or ease of entry) and warmth. For example, zippers help to get in and out of a suit, but they tend to leak. The key is to buy a suit that's comfortable to get on and off, but be careful to minimize spots where the water will flush through the suit. Zips should have flaps underneath and seals should close well. Consider a design that has a good seal or has overlapping material on the neck, where water tends to come in. Attached hoods and hooded vests work well to keep the cold water out.

The right wetsuit will provide appropriate exposure protection for its intended use. If diving in warmer water, a thin suit, maybe 3mm is generally appropriate- it will give some warmth while offering physical protection from contact. Cold water divers use thicker (5-7mm) suits, often with attached hoods and "skin in" closed cell neoprene on the seals to reduce the risk of hypothermia.

Think about using different suit components for versatility. In San Diego, for example, where the water is many degrees cooler in winter months, divers can use the same suit year-round by adding a hooded vest underneath when the water is colder. Sometimes a surfing suit will double nicely as a diving suit in warmer waters. Likewise, a 7mm suit with an attached hood might get a little toasty when diving in 80+ degree water.

Lastly, the diver might consider optional features for specialized diving activities. Instructors and research divers often use wetsuit pockets to hold slates and accessories. To shore divers, a pocket inside the suit is a swell place to keep car keys. Zippers on the sleeves and legs are an attractive option for repetitive divers, because they make soaked wetsuits much easier to take on and off, plus they minimize wear and tear on the suit. Good knee and elbow pads are desirable for added exposure protection and durability at the joints. Overall, the best suit for the job is one that fits the diver and the job itself.

A good wetsuit becomes a good friend and allows for maximum comfort and enjoyment from every dive...even the cooler water ones. Shop wisely and don't try to save money by getting a less expensive suit that doesn't fit.

Related Pages
What To Own, What To Rent
Scuba Equipment Maintenance
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