The Ultimate Wetsuits Guide for Surfers in 2021

by Surf Atlas

This wetsuits guide has everything you need to know about them, from in-depth tech to the top buying guides.

A wetsuits guide introduction…

The wetty has been a key piece of kit ever since Hugh Bradner invented neoprene back in the 1950s. Some say it was surf’s very own Jack O’Neill who thought of the whizz-kid idea. The truth is that our favourite flexy material came from a lab somewhere in UCL before it came from a surf shop in Santa Cruz. No matter. It’s now here to stay and boy has it changed surfing forever!

Wetsuits have helped to open up wave destinations that wouldn’t have even been considered possible by the bath-warm surfers of Hawaii back in the day. From France to the UK, New Zealand to Canada, they’ve gifted cooler parts of the globe entire new surf communities and followings. And that’s not even mentioning how the wetsuit has pushed the frontiers of the wetsuit world beyond the Arctic Circle, to Greenland, Iceland, Norway. Brrr!

Seriously, it’s pretty hard to overstate the importance of wetsuits in the context of modern surfing. It’s now considered one of the most essential parts of the surf experience, and a good wetty can make the difference between awesome sessions and drab, cold winter mornings (we know because we’ve been there). This guide offers insights to everything there is to know about wetsuits. It’s got gear guides, wetsuit history, rundowns of wetsuit tech – everything you need…

We might use affiliate links in this post. Basically, you click em’ and we get a little something from your booking or purchase. They help us keep offering more and more in-depth surf guides to awesome places all around the globe. So, thanks for that!

What you’ll find in this ultimate wetsuits guide

wetsuits guide

Wetsuits: The essential info

Wetsuits were invented to do one job and one job only: Keep surfers warm.

Before them, there are tales of people wearing thick woolly jumpers doused in oil to repel water – imagine paddling out to Maverick’s in one of them?

Wetsuits are typically made from neoprene. It’s a clever material that we’ll talk more about later. Suffice to say here that it’s great at keeping the body temperature up when the water outside is cold.

There’s been all sorts of advancements in wetsuit tech over the years, but the central idea is the same in 2021 as it was in 1952. It’s all about preserving your core warmth so you can surf for longer, surf harder, and surf in more places. Neat, huh?

The history of wetsuits

No wetsuits guide would be complete without a touch on the history of this key piece of surf gear…

The birth of the wetsuit has become something of a contentious subject. Lots of individual names are mentioned. What’s certain is that wetties came out of California in the early 1950s, probably as a result of developments that were originally intended for US Navy divers.

Where the began and how they grew is a story to be told in three chapters, focusing on three different points in the West Coast map from 1952 to the 1960s…

Hugh Bradner (1952)

We think the most compelling case is for Cali’s own Hugh Bradner as the inventor. There are reports that show he was the first guy to have the bright idea that isolating a thin layer of water between the skin and an insulator would keep folk warm at sea.

But his aim wasn’t to help surfers. Nope. He was a Navy Frogman trying to figure out a way for military personnel to stay underwater for longer. His efforts were bolstered by the prestigious Berkeley Radiation Lab an the Scripps Institution of Oceanography down in San Diego, who were the guys that came up with this strange thing called neoprene.

Sadly, that’s right about when Hugh Bradner’s efforts to get a wetsuit prototype come to an end. The US Navy never got round to testing his design. Hugh himself didn’t seem interested in profiting from the idea. So that was that, right? Not quite…

Bev Morgan, Bob Meistrell & Bill Meistrell (1953)

Identical twins Bob Meistrell and Bill Meistrell were lifeguards in LA county in the early 1950s. Keen surfers, they were also thinking about ways to keep toasty out in the water – wouldn’t you be?

It just so happened that they were hanging around Redondo Beach about the same time as a certain Bev Morgan. He was the enigmatic owner of Dive N’ Surf.

The brothers ended up investing in the shop and finally got wind of the prototypes for wetsuits that had been formulated by Hugh Bradner and the cripps Institute one year earlier.

Bev, Bob and Bill (has a certain ring to it, yea?) began stocking their own version of the early wetsuit. Initially it was a total flop, but locals soon realized the potential and the neo started flying off the shelves.

Later, the venture down in Redondo, CA, was to become known as the birthplace of Body Glove, one of the formative wetsuit brands and one that’s still in action today!

Jack O’Neill (1952-53)

No wetsuits guide could possibly be complete without a nod to Jack O’Neill. For many, this is the guy who brought neoprene in the mainstream. He’s certainly worthy of toast next time you drive down for a dawnie on a cold December morning.

Born in Oregon in 1923, O’Neill was a keen bodyboarder on the wild stretch of shoreline called Ocean Beach on the west side of San Francisco. He founded one of the first surf shops in North California in 1952, largely spurred on by his development of the closed-cell neoprene wetsuit.

The O’Neill brand was the first to manufacture wetsuits for the surfing crowd, and they’ve been instrumental in developing wetsuit tech and comfort in the last 50 years. Arguably more so than any other name in the industry.

Wetsuits guide: How do wetsuits actually work?

There’s some pretty clever tech in wetsuits these days. However, the principle that keeps them working is the same today as it was back when Jimmy Boyd was in the charts (that’s 1952 to you young’uns!). It can be broken down into three basic steps:

  1. A thin layer of water enters the wetsuit.
  2. Your body warms that water to body temperature or just below body temperature.
  3. Neoprene in the wetsuit insulates that water layer from the cold water outside.

A common misconception is that it’s the layer of water within the suit that keeps you warm. Nope. In fact, the wetsuit is working real hard to keep that layer of water warm. It’s actually the neoprene that’s doing the insulating. It’s the magic material that’s the engine room of the wetsuit idea.

So, how does neoprene work?

Neoprene

Neoprene is polymerized chloroprene.

In English? We hear ya’…

Basically, neoprene is made from a long string of molecules that are all added together in a lab to give the material a unique set of properties.

One of those properties is the presence of thousands of small nitrogen bubbles. Those are excellent at insulating stuff because they conduct heat about a 10th as well as water does.

That’s a good thing, because it means it’s difficult for all that toasty warmth to get from one side of the fabric to the other.

These days neoprene is often layered and sandwiched with other smark materials to help it insulate even better. There’s also a special focus on keeping the neoprene water resistant, which helps reduce the phenomenon known as flushing

Flushing

We’ve already seen that neoprene works by insulating a single layer of water below the wetsuit that’s already been warmed by your body temp.

For that to happen, you really want to keep that single layer of water for as long as possible. Otherwise you’ll need to use your body head to warm it up again and that takes energy, which makes you cold.

Sadly, you can’t expect that to happen while your poppin gup , duck diving, wiping out (more of the latter for us). There’s always going to be some exchange of water, and there’s also a natural transfer of water through seams, zips and even the neoprene itself. this process is called flushing.

The best wetsuits out there will have tech that significantly reduces flushing. Double-stictched seams, insulated zippers, and multi-layer neoprene are three of the most common ways.

The best way, though? Get a wetsuit that fits!

Where do I need to wear a wetsuit?

Well…there’s no law. You can wear a wetsuit wherever you like. Or not, if you’re feeling brave.

That might not sound too helpful but it’s important to say here that there’s no hard and fast rule. You might be okay with a 2mm in one spot but find your surf pal needs a 3/2. A lot of this is down to personal preference and how you deal with dropping mercury levels in the water.

As a general yardstick, you’ll need a wetsuit in any water that’s cooler than 72 °F (22 °C).

Let’s take a look what that means on this handy wetsuits guide map…

Water temperature map – a wetsuits guide to where you need to wear

Source: Windy.com

This map shows the Sea Surface Temperature (SST) for a day in February. It’s from Windy.com, a great site that lets you check sea temps in real time. The scale ranges from <50 F (the light blue) to 100 F+ (the darkest reds, though there’s none of those on the board).

Notice how the Southern Hemisphere is much warmer. It’s their midsummer. Happy days. You’ll be out in Ubatuba with just a rash vest on. Up north it’s a different story. The UK, the Baltic, the US Eastern Seaboard and the West Coast are all in areas of green. That’s wetsuit territory. Needless to say, anywhere north of that is also wetsuit territory -thicker wetsuit territory!

Going by our general rule of 72 °F being the cut-off point for bare-skin surfing, this all means you’ll have to don the neoprene anywhere that’s orangey-yellowish and darker. Of course, this is a winter map, remember. Things will change considerably in the summer, as the warmer H2O shifts to South America and Africa.

What wetsuit thickness wetsuit do I need?

Wetsuit for warm locations

Thickness is the main variable when you come to buying a wetsuit. The thicker the suit the warmer it will be. But there’s a caveat: The thicker the suit the more the restrictive it will be to your movements.

The key is to find the right level of warmth to match your water temperature. There’s no point getting the fattest wetsuit for somewhere like South California. It will hinder your paddle power and leave you sweating buckets under the La Jolla cliffs. Similarly, you’d have to be a brave, brave person to dip into the Arctic Ocean in a 2mm shorty. Frostbite, ahoy!

Wetsuit thicknesses are typically written as a series of two or three numbers (eg. 4/3 or 5/4/3). The first number is the thickness of the neoprene on the main panels – the chest and the back. The second number is the thickness of the neoprene on the limbs and arms. Listings with three numbers indicate that there are some intermediate panels which have a slightly thinner neoprene in between, which can help in colder waters.  

The very thickest winter suits for surfer tend to have an upper thickness number of 6mm. The thinnest summer suits or shorty suits for warm-water surfing can get down to just 1mm or even 0.5mm.

Wetsuit thickness chart

Here’s a guide to matching your thickness to your water temperature…

Water temp °F (°C)Wetsuit thicknessNormal nameExample destination+season
>72° (>22)NadaRash vestSri Lanka in dry season
65°- 75° (18-25)0.5mm-2mmShortyMexico in the winter
62°- 68° (16-20)2mm-3/2 mmSpringsuit/summer steamerCornwall in the summer
58°- 63° (14-17))4/3mmFullsuit/autumn steamerPortugal from fall to spring
43°- 58° (6-14)5/4mm or 5/4/3mmWinter suitCanada in the winter
<42° (<5)6/5mmArctic winter suitNorway in the winter
A wetsuits guide to what thickness you’ll need

You’ll notice there’s some considerable overlap in the temperature ranges above. There are a number of reasons for that.

We’ve already mentioned that some surfers just don’t feel the cold. It’s pretty crazy, but we’ve been packing ourselves into a 5/4 midwinter while a mate rocks up and does just fine in a 3/2.

You also have to factor in wind. That can have a huge effect on the real-feel temperature. Remember, good surfers actually spend A LOT of time out of the water. There are some places, like the Canary Islands, for example, where wind will be one of the main things you want to insulate against. You can crank up the thickness in places like that, and also look to get neoprene coverage in key areas that aren’t continuously submerged – mainly the arms.  

Wetsuits guide – what different types can I buy?

Different types of wetsuits

These days you can get all shapes and sizes of wetsuits. From full-body winter suits with a hood attached to simple long johns that cover the legs and nada else, this wetsuits guide will run through the various options there are to pick from.

But first…we’ll deal with the most common way to categorize wetsuits: Summer & winter (with some spring and autumn too). This is the way most surfers talk about wetsuits. In fact, most surfers have two suits. One for winter and one for summer. In colder destinations you might see folks with an extra one for the coldest of the months (we often drop to a 5/3 for December, Jan and Feb in Wales). In hotter places, you could see people add in a shorty for the hottest part of the year.

Winter wetsuits

A winter wetsuit is usually anything that’s 4/3 and thicker. The name can be a bit of a misnomer, because a lot of surfers (and this is true from California to Portugal) will look to their trusty 4/3 to take them through fall, midwinter and the spring. Basically, they’re the more versatile option in your gear stack. The thinking is that it’s better to be a little toasty in the sun in spring than it is to be freezing your a$$ off in December. That’s why we say to starter surfers that a 4/3 winter suit should be the first thin they buy.

Winter suits can also be thicker, going up to 5/3 or 5/4/3 or even more, but those are mainly for surfers in really extreme environments, like Alaska or Scandinavia.

Summer wetsuits

Summer wetsuits are the suits you’ll use for the warmer part of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, we usually crack ours out sometime between May and June, but it all depends on how the water temp is looking then. These are usually 3/2 or 2mm in thickness, but 3/2 is the go-to for destinations from France to Portugal to the UK. 2mm suits are typically reserved for those places that need neoprene but still stay hot – Canaries, for example.

The drop in thickness means that summer suits are often a whole load more comfy and flexible. They often last us into the late autumn.

We’ve got a complete guide to the top summer wetsuits for 2021 – read it right now!

Long Johns/leggins

Long Johns and leggings are made from wetsuit material but only cover the legs. They’re used in destinations with cold water but warm air – France in the summer comes to mind. They can also be great for longer sessions to reduce rubbing on the lower body.

Wetsuit top/jacket

A wetsuit top covers the upper body in neoprene. These tend to be thin (1-2.5mm) and used in warm water destinations that have some wind. They can be used in conjunction with wetsuit leggings to give fuller coverage. Sometimes a top will have a central zip, making it a wetsuit jacket.

Shorty

A shorty is a suit with short-style legs. It can either have full sleeves, short sleeves, or vest sleeves. It’s perfect for warm to medium warn destinations where you plan on surfing a lot, mainly because it will help with friction and skin rubbing.

EXAMPLE: This 2mm spring shorty is perfect for France in the summer.

Short-sleeve

The short-sleeve is a normal wetsuit that has cut-off arms. It’s good for warmer destinations that have medium-warm outside temps and a decent option for spring and autumn surfing in places with not much wind.

EXAMPLE: The Comp X in 2mm is great for warmer water destinations into spring and autumn.

Fullsuit

The classic wetsuit shape. The fullsuit has neoprene coverage from the neck to the ankles, across from wrist to wrist. If in doubt about what you need, buy one of these!

EXAMPLE: The Vissla 7 Seas is one of our favourite all-rounders, great for most destinations and seasons in different thicknesses.

Hooded fullsuit

One step up from the fullsuit is a wetsuit with an added hood. You can buy hoods separately, but there are pros with having it attached – not least of all the fact that it’s harder to lose! Hooded wetsuits tend to be the thickest of the lot, mainly 4/3 and 5/4 for cold-water environments.

EXAMPLE: We rate the Xcel Drylock among the best cold-water suits. This option with attached hood will have you covered from Nov-March.

Wetsuit guide: Boots

When the water’s really cold, a wetsuit on its own just won’t cut it. You’re gonna’ need extra protection and the boot is one of the most important things. Anyone who’s ever surfed in anything below 60 F will know that the numbness on the soles and the toes is unbearable at points. Having cold feet when you surf can also throw you off your mojo when you finally pop up.

Wetsuit boots come in all shapes and sizes. They follow a similar thickness range as normal wetsuits, going from 1mm socks to 8mm+ for the ice waters in Norway and Canada. You can also choose between split-toe boots or round-toe boots. The first offer a touch more control and are generally better for intermediates and up. The second are the choice for beginners.

Check out our guide to the best wetsuit boots for 2021 right now

Wetsuit guide: Hoods

Wetsuit hoods are a key piece of neoprene that surfers in cold spots simply HAVE to have. Honestly, the pain that you get from cold water whacking the face on a mi-Jan morning is way, way worse than numb fingers or toes. We’ve had to ditch awesome sessions in the past just because we didn’t have our hood, but managed to grind it out if we forgot the gloves.

Hoods usually don’t need much thickness to them. 2-3mm is usually enough to carry you through the main winter season, and the whole thing can come off by March time in our experience. We’d say prioritize flexibility and choose a model that suits your build – hoods are one of the pieces of wetsuit kit that cause rashes and rubbing the most.

Thankfully, we’ve got a complete guide to choosing the right wetsuit hood!

Wetsuit guide: Gloves

It’s a similar story on the fingers and the hands in the coldest water. We typically surf with gloves from around November to March. It’s the piece of extra kit we hate the most, because it’s hard not to feel gloves make a huge impact on your paddle power and surfing. Still, it beats not being able to feel your extremities, right?

There are two main types of gloves: Fingered and mitten. Mitten gloves have just one slot for all the digits to go into. They’re a little easier to get on and cheaper. We’d recommend going for fingered gloves if you’re anything above beginner level. They have better heat retention and offer more control on the deck of your board.

Wetsuit guide: Eco-friendly wetsuits

We firmly believe that all our surfcraft should put the ocean front and center. That’s why we’ve been looking more and more at eco-friendly in the past few years. We’ve been mega impressed with the way that major global neoprene brands have reacted to the climate crisis and the degradation of ocean habitats. All-new types of smart and carbon-reduced materials are now on the forefront, and there’s ways of producing suits that are much better for the planet. We’re talking things like limestone-based neoprene and natural-rubber suits a la Patagonia.

Looking for an eco-friendly wetsuit? Check our our complete guide to the greenest neoprene options out there today

Wetsuits for children

Kids need neoprene just like the rest of us. Thankfully, companies like Xcel and Vissla and Rip Curl make just as good steamers for younger surfers as they do adults. There’s no compromise on the tech, but there are more ergonomic fits for those looking to get in the water at a more ripe age.

Looking for wetsuits for younger surfers or toddlers? We’ve got you covered with our complete guide to wetsuits for kids.


We might use affiliate links in this post. Basically, you click em’ and we get a little something from your booking or purchase. They help us keep offering more and more in-depth surf guides to awesome places all around the globe. So, thanks for that!