HOW TO BUY A WETSUIT
Henry Ford once said about the Model T, "You can get it in any color you want as long as itís black." That thinking applied to wetsuits, as well, for many years. But as we approach a new millennium, if youíre in the market for a new wetsuit, youíve got a lot more things to consider than back in the days of the Model T. And weíre not just talking color because you can find just about every hue in the rainbow. (In fact, one West Coast divemaster we know has a wetsuit thatís a replica of a Star Trek uniform, right down to the communicator on the chest.)
But unless you consistently dive in water thatís 98.6ļ, youíre going to need a wetsuit since the cooler water will absorb heat from your body. So before you head into your local dive shop to swaddle yourself in neoprene, here are some of the things you might want to consider.
THICKNESS - The single most important decision you will make is what thickness you want the suit to be. Mossbacks will refer to suits as 1/4" and 1/8" but in the 90ís weíve gone metric. 3mm is the equivalent of 1/8". 6mm equals 1/4". Youíll also find some suits that are combos, like a "3/2". The first number refers to the thickness in the torso, the second number to the thickness of the extremities. You may also find suits that are 2mm, 4mm, 5mm, and 7mm, or some combination.
And itís important to remember that while we can offer guidelines, thereís no fixed rule of water temperature to wetsuit thickness. Different people get cold at different rates. I did a dive a few years back in October in the Sea of Cortez where the water temperature was 86ļ. I was quite comfortable diving in a 1mm suit. A couple from Germany was quite comfortable diving in their full 6mm suits, complete with farmer john and hood. (When in doubt, err on the side of thicker. You can always unzip and let in some water to cool down, but if your suitís too thin for the water temp, youíll get cold and uncomfortable.)
But, generally, water temps above 85ļ would point towards a 2mm. 70-85ļ would be a 3mm. 55-70ļ will necessitate a 6mm suit. (If youíre diving in water colder than 55ļ youíll want to have a drysuit . . . or a ticket to a warm-water destination.) And donít discount the value of a good hood, even in warm water. Since you lose about 25% of your body heat through your head, adding just a 3mm hood can make a dive that would seem chilly very comfortable.
DESIGN - How you want the suit physically constructed is another important decision. Should it be one piece or two? Hood attached or not? Front zip or back? These decisions will affect your thermal comfort.
For warm-water dives where 3mm or less will do, you might want to give some thought to just a shorty. The advantage is that it will be cheaper as well as less buoyant, but the disadvantage is that, unless you wear a skin underneath, your arms and legs will be exposed.
A full suit offers you the best protection, both thermally and physically. Although you can get 2-piece suits in this thickness, most of them are of the 1-piece variety. So the only decision youíll have to make is whether you want a front zip or a back zip. Thereís no difference in warmth, but suits with a back zipper usually have a higher collar which may provide a little added warmth. However, if you have a sensitive gag reflex, you may find the higher collar too restrictive, and prefer a front zip with a slightly lower cut.
For a 6mm suit, youíll probably want a 2-piece design with a front zip farmer john and a matching jacket. Since youíll probably be diving in water cold enough to require a hood, give some thought to having the hood attached to the farmer john. The advantage is that you wonít get cold water running down your back during the dive. The disadvantage is that thereís no way to remove the hood so your only option is to push it back off your head.
A step-in jacket (which looks like it has little stubby legs) offers the most warmth since the area where the jacket legs are in contact with the farmer john offers less linear area than a traditional beaver-tail jacket, which means you generally get less water running in between the jacket and the farmer john.
FIT - The warmest, best constructed, most expensive materials in the world wonít be of any benefit to you if the suit doesnít fit you correctly. Remember that the snugger the fit, the warmer youíll be. But also bear in mind that as the closer the suit fits the contours of your body, the less mobility youíll have (which also applies as you increase the thickness of the suit). The biggest complaint when people try on wetsuits is, "I canít breathe!!!" Youíll have to decide whatís snug . . . and whatís too snug for your own level of comfort. Just remember that the looser the suit, the more water that will flow in and out. And water flowing through the suit means it will not be as warm, no matter what the thickness. In general:
Armpits - Shouldnít be any major gaps.
Crotch - Should fit snugly without gaps.
Neck - Should be snug but not feel restrictive.
Small of the back - There will be a small gap here because of the curve of the spine. Ask about a spine pad, if oneís not built into the suit.
Wrists and ankles - Should be very snug and smooth. These are major areas for water seepage.
Chest zipper - Should be tight but if you have to use two hands to hold the zipper together to get it up, you probably need to go up one size. If it zips too easily, try to the next size down.
Remember that wetsuits, like any apparel, can be altered. You may find that an off-the-rack suit, with a few minor alterations, will fit you better and be less costly than a custom-made one.
STITCHING - How a suit is physically held together will affect itís durability and itís price. generally, there are four kinds of stitches youíll see.
Glued & Taped - Two piece of neoprene are glued on the edges, and then a special glued tape is applied over the seam. When heated, it all bonds together. Very economical and very comfortable is the seam touches bare skin but not especially strong or long-lasting.
Zigzag stitch - Exactly what the name implies. The thread zigs and zags. Generally used in low-stress areas. You might find this stitch used around collars or for color accents. Many hood uses a zigzag on one side, with a glued & taped seam on the inside.
Mauser stitch - A fairly broad (relatively speaking) stitch. The material is not glued at all and the stitch provides 100% of the hold. This is a good stitch as itís somewhat economical but also strong. However, if the stitching should start to come unraveled, thereís no glue to hold the material together as a backup.
Blind stitch - Strongest of them all. The material is first glued together, then stitched along one side. The blind stitch doesnít go all the way through the neoprene, but just penetrates about halfway through, and then loops back up. After one side is stitched, the other side is stitched in the same way. This time, the second blind stitch interlocks with the first stitch on the reverse side, making for a strong yet flexible seam.
TYPE OF NEOPRENE - This choice will affect the cost, look, and durability of the suit.
Gas-blown or chemical-blown - Refers to how the neoprene is made. Gas-blown is stronger and last longer, but is more expensive. Chemical blown is less expensive and has a softer feel to it, but it will compress and wear out more quickly.
Skin - Bare neoprene. Gives you the tightest seal (and remember that tighter is warmer) but is also the most difficult to get on and off. Some of the newer skins have a silicone coating sprayed on them that makes a little easier to slip on and off. A skin seal (or "skin in" as it sometimes referred to since the skin is on the inside) is a good choice for the inside edge of a hood, the armpits of a farmer john, and the wrists of a jacket.
Nylon or Lycra - A fabric over the neoprene that makes it easier to get on and off. Also makes for nice colors. Nylon will be cheaper but lycra is more stretchy and flexible.
Titanium - The juryís still out on this one. It definitely adds to the cost of the suit. Titanium, which will reflect heat, is either woven into the threads or coated on the inside of the wetsuit. The thought is that it does a better job of preventing heat from escaping from your body as some of it is radiated back in. (I personally wear a 6mm titanium suit and will swear itís the warmest suit Iíve ever owned. That could either be from the titanium or from the fact that this suits fits me extremely well.)
LAYERING - Donít overlook the benefits of layering. Adding a 3mm hooded vest to a 3mm 1-piece suit might make it suitable for slightly cooler waters. Or take a 6mm suit to warmer waters, but only wear the farmer john. Be creative and you may be able to extend the temperature range thatís appropriate for your wetsuit.
Kneepads - These are a must. No matter what type of water you dive in, youíll probably be crawling up on a swimstep, or on to a beach, or over rocks. Itís a lot cheaper to wear out a pad of kneepads than it is to have the leg replaced.
Ankle &/or wrist zippers - Some people like them, some people donít. They definitely make the suit easier to get in and get out of. Theyíre also a source of water leakage. However, most zippers have a rubber barrier behind them to minimize the amount of water that gets in.
Key pocket - Should be on the inside, preferably with a zipper or Velcro closure. The first suit I had did not have such a closure and although I thought Iíd secured it pretty well, at the end of the dive my car key was making itís way down my left leg.
Knife/goodie pocket - Usually on the outside of the farmer john with either a Velcro or twist lock to secure it. Can be handy but these can open pretty easily which means you may not end the dive with whatever you put in the pocket. (Special note to lefties: If this is something you have added, you might want to mention to them that it would be easier for you to have it on the left leg, instead of the right.)
CLOSING THOUGHTS - Depending on all the factors above, wetsuits can range from $50 for a 2mm shorty to over $700 for a 6mm titanium with all the bells and whistles. But give some thought to the type of diving you will do, talk to other divers and see what they like and donít like about their suits, weigh the advice of your local dive shop, and make the best decision for you. Because having the right wetsuit for the waters you explore not only is a sound investment, but will enable you to enjoy your diving to the maximum level of comfort possible.