Here in the NW, if you want to go surfing, you’re going to be wearing a wetsuit. Even in summer, our water is cold enough that without the right gear, you’ll freeze. Although, on rare summer days it’s possible to trunk it!
Everyone runs differently in whether they get cold easily, as I do, or run warm. I recommend renting gear first if you’re unsure of which wetsuit thickness to purchase.
If you kayak surf, you may prefer a dry suit since your lower body may be secured and warm and mostly dry inside your cockpit.
Use this surfing wetsuit guide to learn which option is best for you.
Wet Suit Thickness Explained
5/4mm means 5mm in the chest and legs and 4mm in the arms. 4/3mm means, 4mm in the chest and 3mm in the arms. 5/4/3mm is 5mm in the body, 4mm in the legs and 3mm in the arms.
It’s a good idea to think about arm flexibility especially if you’re paddling a SUP or kayak. So 3 or 4mm in the arms may be the way to go.
Avoid 6mm diving suits as you’ll loose a lot of flexibility.
Layering Under a Wetsuit
Suits these days are very flexible, warm and comfy. That said, you can add a poly-pro or other thin insulating layer under your wetsuit on colder days to boost up the warmth.
Layering Over a Wetsuit
Add a neoprene jacket, vest or hooded vest over your wetsuit to boost the heat rating. Some hooded vests have fleeced lined hoods. If you add a jacket, make sure it’s loose enough to go over your suit.
Farmer Johns / Jane Armless Wetsuits
Armless Farmer Johns are great for kayakers and paddle boarders who tend to run warm. Wear a fleece or neoprene top under, then add a neoprene paddling jacket or dry top over to keep the water out.
These are also great summer options for touring and light surfing.
Back Zip or Top Entry Wetsuits?
I prefer a back zip hoodless suit in summer as I can take some water leaking in but will stay warm and mostly dry. Back zips are also easier to get in and out of if you have shoulder issues.
If you get a ‘dam’ which is a neoprene layer behind the zipper, this will mean less leaking from the zipper.
Top loading suits do leak less providing you’re not getting flushed from the top. Most of these suits have hoods or have a flap that goes over your head and zips onto the main suit helping keep water out. You can wear it unzipped on warmer days.
Top loading suit are difficult to get in and out of, so avoid if you have shoulder issues. Wearing a rash guard under the suit will make it easier to slip it off.
Wetsuit vs Dry suit?
It’s a personal choice but for me wetsuits are easier to swim in, are cheaper, just as warm and less maintenance.
Dry suits require taking care of latex gaskets, the zipper and fabric. If you get a hole in a dry suit, you have a very wet wetsuit.
Many wetsuits above the $200 level are actually dry with waterproof taped or liquid filled seams. Wetsuits range from $150 to the $650 merino wool lined Patagonia or higher end RipCurl Flashbomb suits.
Dry suits start at $600 and go up to $1,500+ and don’t include insulation. You add insulation by wearing fleece or similar clothing under. Dry suits will cut out super cold wind chill. Whereas, on my wetsuit, I’ll add a nylon on GoreTex paddling jacket over on below freezing days.
Dry suits do have pee zippers which many prefer. Women tend to get men’s suits then use a (FUD) female urinary device (funnel) to pee into.
There are some innovative dry suit designs. Ocean Rodeo has a good dry suit that looks like a rain coat and pants. Recently, Kokatat created a dry suit with zippered-together top and bottom halves.
For dry suits visit NW Outdoor Center or the Kayak Academy. Reliable brands are Kokatat, Stolquist, NRS and Ocean Rodeo.
Tips for Buying a Wetsuit or Dry Suit
Always try before you buy. In our online culture, so many folks order gear first only to find out the arms are short or the neck is tight.
Neoprene tends to run small. I wear a XL t-shirt but a XXL wetsuit. One year, I found a bootie I liked and had to order a size 14 – I usually wear a size 12 shoe.
Local PNW retailers like Urban Surf and Perfect Wave are ideal for buying wetsuits and getting good service. Or Cleanline in Seaside, Oregon. O’Neill, Xcel, RipCurl, NP, Roxy and Patagonia are trusted brands. There’s a few higher end brands with fancy rubber like Matisse.
Cost vs Quality for Wetsuits
A $125 4/3mm wetsuit will flush and is great for summer paddling but not that warm for winter unless you run hot. Suits $175-275 are warmer and a bit less wet. Suits $350+ will be dry, won’t flush, and are much warmer than the others.
Higher end suits by Mateuse or Patagonia are very dry and warm but run $500 plus.
How Long do Wet Suits Last?
If you’re a regular 3 day a week all year paddler like me, your suit will only stay dry a year, as seams will begin to break down and leak. I then retire those suits for use in summer.
A ‘normal’ paddler who only paddles 1-2 seasons a year can keep their suit in good condition for many years. Keeping your suit clean can also lengthen its duration.
Should I pee in my suit?
Downside to wetsuits is that you don’t get a pee zipper. I only pee in mine if I know I can flush it out asap and that’s very rare. And traveling having that stink in the car on the way home sucks, so I usually avoid it and monitor my hydration intake. Or pee at the beach during a break.
How to Clean Wetsuits
Clean the suit in cold water soaking in Dawn or a similar non-abrasive cleaner. Some like the Gear Aid wetsuit shampoo.
Drip dry inside out, so that you’ll have a dry suit in the morning. When the water collects in the legs and arms, squeeze it out.
Then turn on the heat to finish the job. Some recommend not putting a suit in the sun to dry to protect the neoprene. If you’re camping or not around a heater, the sun is just fine.
Storage of Wetsuits
I store my wetsuits from a hanger in a well ventilated area and keep cedar chips around as an air freshener. Neoprene (rubber) can stink, even if clean.