Buying your first wetsuit is a very exciting prospect. You’re getting something that will enable you to stay out on the water for much longer without getting cold.
Now, the process itself is quite painful and you’ll probably have to try 3 or 4 wetsuits on first to find the right one.
So, what should you look for when buying a wetsuit? The 3 most important are wetsuit type, thickness and fit. After you get those 3 right then you can decide how much you want to spend, which opens up features like construction, quality and stitching.
I hope this article will help you make the right decision, but please go to your local watersports/surf shop and try on wetsuits before you buy your first one. If you don’t, I can almost guarantee you won’t buy the right size, style, or thickness.
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What to look for when buying a wetsuit in the UK
The first question you should ask yourself is what are you using the wetsuit for. Although all wetsuits will be made of similar materials, there are subtle variations that will suit different sports. So the first thing to narrow down when buying a wetsuit is what sport are you going to be doing.
Surfing, windsurfing, paddleboard surfing, wakeboarding….
A ‘normal’ wetsuit you find in most watersports shops will be a surfing wetsuit. These wetsuits are warm, flexible and relativity durable. It’s an all-rounder that will also be good for kitesurfing, wakeboarding, windsurfing, kayaking and most other sports where you’re likely to be in and out of the water.
The normal construction for this type of wetsuit is something called double lined.
Swimming or triathlon
A competitive swimmer or free diver would want a single-lined, smoothskin wetsuit as an alternative. These wetsuits mainly protect against windchill, and they don’t have the same durability as double-lined wetsuits, but they are streamlined and slip through the water.
Sailing or paddleboarding
A sailor, paddleboarder, or any sportsperson who is almost always above the water may opt for a long John, rash vest, or half layer to provide cover from splashes rather than protection from total underwater submersion.
Generally speaking, the thickness of a wetsuit determines how warm it’ll keep you.
Wetsuit thickness is measured in millimetres with most being between 2-5 mm. If you want a wetsuit to keep the chill off in the summer, you can select a shorter length or a thinner 1-2 mm neoprene layer. For cold water surfing, a full-length 5 mm wetsuit with added accessories will be needed to keep you warm.
Your first thought might be ‘well I may as well get the thickest wetsuit possible’.
Unfortunately, a thick wetsuit comes with a big drawback as it reduces manoeuvrability and you can quite easily overheat. If you are doing a mobile activity such as surfing, this could prevent you from moving fluidly and it will reduce your flexibility. Purchase a wetsuit that will keep you as warm as you can tolerate without it reducing your movement too much.
Here is the thickness of wetsuit I wear when surfing, windsurfing and paddleboarding here in the UK.
Spring – Air warming but sea still cold
5mm full-length winter at the start of spring
3mm full-length spring suit by May
Summer – Warm air and warm sea
2mm short legs spring suit
Boardshorts on very warm days
Autumn – Cold air but warm sea
3mm full-length spring suit
Winter – Everything is cold!
5mm full-length winter
5mm full-length winter + boots + gloves + hood for January and February
For full winter watersports, read what I wear under my wetsuit >
On a wetsuit you’ll normally see 2 numbers, something that might look like 3:2mm. This is saying the suit has 2 thicknesses of neoprene, the 3mm neoprene will be the torso and 2mm will likely be the arms and legs.
It’s hard to tell how well a wetsuit fits just by looking at it. Much like any other suit, you need to try it on to see how it fits your body. You may find it uncomfortable wearing it dry but pay attention to a few key areas. Is it a tight fit? Does it pinch? How is your range of motion? Go through a checklist to ensure the wetsuit is a good size for you.
It’s such a pain trying to fit your first wetsuit. You have to go through a routine of trying one that is too big and one that is too small to hopefully find the right size. And just because you fit one brand of wetsuit does not mean you will be the same size in another brand.
There might be some brands of wetsuits that don’t fit you at all, for no real reason.
My main piece of advice when trying on your first wetsuit is if it’s quite hard to get in and feels ‘tight’ when in the changing room, it’s probably a good fit. You have you get comfortable with the feeling of the neoprene tight to your skin.
Of course, there is a limit to how tight the wetsuit should fit. If you take over 10 minutes to get it on and the neoprene has a shine (this happens when it’s overstretched), chances are the wetsuit is too small.
I’ve always struggled unless the brand has a medium tall, which I know from experience fits me really well, especially ONeill or C-Skins.
So after you’ve gone through the process of finding a wetsuit brand that fits well, you can go back to that brand every time you want a suit, knowing it’ll likely fit well.
There are probably 8 – 10 or so top-quality brands of wetsuits for sale here in the UK. Try to look out for these brands below, they are by far the most popular and for good reason:
- Orca – For swimming/triathlon
Please avoid buying any wetsuits from Sports Direct or Aldi. They will be very poor quality and probably not the right size.
We’ve recently reviewed the best women’s wetsuits available in the UK, have a read of the article here.
Like everything, the more you spend the higher the chance of getting something of superior quality.
Wetsuits vary greatly in price, with summer suits being as little as £55, whereas winter wetsuits that are far more technical can be anything from £150 – £550.
If you’re looking at buying your first wetsuit, here is what I’d recommend as a decent budget. I don’t think you need the best wetsuit just yet, but you need to spend enough to get a quality suit that you’ll have fun in.
Recommended first-time wetsuit budget:
Winter – £200
Spring – £120
Shorty/Summer – £60
My general rule of thumb is to spend the most you can afford on a winter wetsuit. It’s not worth skimping out on a cheap winter suit, you’ll just get cold too quickly and not enjoy your time in the water.
Most wetsuits have a zipper which opens to allow you to slip inside the material. This is then closed to seal you inside the suit and create the warm water layer. When buying a wetsuit, you may wish to consider which zipper you find preferable as this is a leaking point for water and it can be a cold/uncomfortable spot.
A front zipper is easy to operate but it can be irritating for a surfer who wishes to lie on their board. A cross-shoulder zipper creates a good seal, but it does limit shoulder movement and will disrupt a dive harness. A vertical back zipper is probably the most common style. It ticks multiple boxes for functionality and warmth. However, access can be a challenge and you may need help zipping and unzipping the wetsuit.
The way a suit is stitched will also affect its warmth. You’ll notice more visible stitches on a spring/summer suit. This disrupts the integrity of the suit and is a spot where water leaks in. In warm weather, you won’t mind, but for cold water swimming, you want this sealed tight.
An overlock stitch is standard for cheaper wetsuits. It involves rolling the edges inwards and stitching them together. This can create an uncomfortable lump that hampers flexibility. A flatlock stitch involves layering one piece of wetsuit over the other to stitch them up. It’s flexible and strong, but not particularly watertight.
A blindstitched wetsuit is great for cold water. The layers are glued together and only partially stitched to not penetrate the outer membrane making these wetsuits extra water sealed.
Seams are another important layer of a wetsuit. They are often overlayed on top of the zipper or stitches to act as an extra insulating layer. There will also be a seam around the zip to prevent your skin from pinching in the mechanism.
An additional Velcro strap can create that extra support to stop warm water from leaking through the zipper. It can also help to keep the zip cord in place. Seams may be found on the wrist and ankle to tighten the edge of the wetsuit.
A glued seam creates a strong binding between different wetsuit layers and helps to keep warm water in. Taped seams act to reinforce the gaps between the wetsuit and strengthen the wetsuit overall. Sealed seams are treated with liquid rubber to make the gaps in the wetsuit completely watertight.
Wetsuits are a godsend for water sports lovers. Wetsuits allow you to comfortably stay in the water for long periods of time to embrace the sport that you love. For that reason, it’s worth paying a little extra to get something good.
You can skimp on a wetsuit, but you may find it lacks some of the functionality you’re hoping for. It won’t be as comfortable as a better-quality wetsuit. The fit could be too tight in some places or too loose in others and it may start to lose its insulating properties after only a few seasons. When that happens, you’ll just have to go out and buy a new one, making you wish you’d invested right from the start!
So, when you’re buying a wetsuit, don’t be afraid to opt for a slightly higher price tag that will deliver more quality. Before making your purchase, keep in mind what you want to use the wetsuit for, which seasons you plan to use it in, and any other priorities you might have. Once you’ve got this in your head, you can’t go wrong when buying the perfect wetsuit.
About the author
Watersports Pro is managed by Ollie, who has been in the industry since 2007. A paddleboard and advanced windsurfing instructor, Ollie has travelled the world teaching these sports.
Now based on the South Coast of England, he shares his experience and knowledge on watersportspro.co.uk.