There are hundreds of different wetsuits to choose from in the marketplace so how do you know which one is right for you? How do you know what colour, thickness, cut, fabric or size to select? And what do price and brands have to do with quality?
What seems like a very complicated decision - what wetsuit to choose? - becomes a bit more understandable when you look at how neoprene fabric is manufactured. Neoprene is made from foaming synthetic rubber with nitrogen gas while it is still in liquid form, before it is set. These trapped bubbles are what helps keep the warmth within the suit. Of course the thicker the suit, the warmer it will be, but also the more buoyant it becomes, as there is more gas trapped in there, so extra weights are needed. For tropical regions you may only want a suit of 1mm to 1.5mm thickness, but divers in the cold southern waters of Australia may require 5 to 7mm suits to keep warm. Everyone else will want something in between, depending on the person, the time of year, exact location, depth and the amount of time spent in the water, etc.
Better quality neoprenes have smaller bubbles of nitrogen and more synthetic rubber material, so generally the heavier a suit feels for its thickness, the better the quality of neoprene. Poorer quality wetsuits have large bubbles in them, so will seem light for their thickness. These large bubbles easily explode when diving, so very quickly these suits compact and lose their thickness and effectiveness as wetsuits. Don't be fooled - it may seem like you are getting a bargain, but a wetsuit made of cheap quality neoprene simply will not last very long. You will save in the long run in not having to replace your wet suit as often, by investing a little bit more into a quality neoprene suit.
Neoprene fabric used in wetsuits can have various finishes:
(1) Smoothskin or closed cell - the skin that sets on the outside of the synthetic foam rubber. This is very smooth and quite soft yet still fairly tough, it will seal pretty well against the skin. It is often used for the inside seals around the wrists, ankles and face as it seals yet will not get damaged too easily. A whole wetsuit, with a complete closed or smooth cell finish on the outside, is great for extra warmth, especially if you want to keep out the wind when travelling between dive sites. Smoothskin also gives smoother, slicker movement through the water. Sometimes the neoprene is painted to add colour or pattern.
(2) Opencell - imagine cutting the skin of the foam rubber to reveal all the bubbly bits. The finish is generally used on the inside of suits, is very soft and flexible and it grips and seals extremely well against the skin. It sticks to the skin, so not allowing any pockets of water to get in or move around and disturb the warmth. Opencell finish makes for an extremely comfortable and warm wetsuit, particularly as the joins are glued so there is no stitching against the skin. This finish is very soft and can be damaged by your nails, so make sure you are careful when putting on and removing your suit and keep toe and fingernails short. You will also need to use lubrication to put on your suit.
(3)Nylon/Lycra/ Fabric - a knitted fabric is glued to the outside of the neoprene. Most commonly this is nylon, sometimes other fabrics are used. Neoprene with coatings of fabric will be very durable, but not as flexible, stretchable or comfortable. The seams will be stitched to protect the edges of the fabric from unravelling. Wetsuits with fabric coating inside won't be as warm as uncoated, as the knitted fabric doesn't stick to the skin as well on the inside so can allow some water to get inside the suit. They are also not windproof, but can take a lot more wear and tear than uncoated neoprene and don't need lubrication. Knitted fabric on the outside of the suit will protect the neoprene and give pattern and colour to the wetsuit.
(4) Slick Coatings - are mostly silver or gold finishes applied to opencell insides of suits. These are a great feature and worth paying extra for. The advantages are you will combine most of the comfort, softness and flexibility of an opencell finish, with gaining the added warmth of closed cell, while achieving a finish that is much tougher and doesn't always require lubrication. They will have glued seams as well for comfort.
Along with quality, thickness and finishes of the neoprene, the style and cut of a wetsuit need to be considered. A one piece suit is simple, quick and easy to put on, usually with a back zipper. But it won't be as warm as a two piece suit.
Look at the features of a suit, not just the fancy patterns or colours. Some of the features and their benefits to look out for in a suit:
- Hood attached jackets with face seals keep the head protected and keeps the whole body warmer by allowing less water inside the suit.
- Beaver tail stops the jacket from riding up and should have good quality closures that will last.
- Shaping through the body means the suit will sit tighter and fit better thus allowing less water inside.
- Wrist and ankle seals keep legs and sleeves in place and help to keep water out of the suit.
- Preformed or shaped elbows and knees provide better fit through the arms and legs so warmer.
- Long john pants give a bit of extra warmth on the chest, high waist pants can be easier to put on and off.
- Abrasive resistant fabrics or coatings on the elbow, arm, knee or leg area will help to prolong the life of your suit.
- Padded, slip and abrasive resistant chest loading pads are a fantastic feature for a spearfishing wetsuit to protect and make loading easier on your chest.