The first piece of gear I recommend buying is a wetsuit.
Boards are pretty easy to rent, but having a nice fitting, clean wetsuit all your own, is must have while you learn.
In warmer waters, a wetsuit might not be necessary. Here in Northern California the water ranges from 50-60 degrees all year round. Wetsuits are standard. Here are the basics to get you started buying your first suit:
What is a wetsuit? Fullsuit? Springsuit? What’s with all the numbers?
A wetsuit is a neoprene body suit designed to keep heat in and a little water out. There are wetsuits designed for scuba diving, wake boarding, kayaking, triathlons, surfing and pretty much any sport where one wants to be warm in cold water. I highly recommend getting a suit designed for surfing. It will be more flexible where you need it and you’ll know you’re getting something made for what you want to use it for. While other suits will work if you happen to find one cheap or nabbed one from a friend, when purchasing a suit, shoot for one made for surfing.
There are a few basic types: the Fullsuit and the Springsuit. A Fullsuit covers the whole body. Arms, legs, torso, some even have hood built in. Springsuits usually have either short sleeves, short legs, or some combination of one or the other (including vest-style with long legs, shorts with long sleeves, even vests with hoods).
Wetsuits a typically described by the thickness they are in millimeters . For example a 4/3 wetsuit (like the kind commonly used in NorCal’s 60-50F waters) describes a suit with 4mm of neoprene in the torso and 3 mm in the arms and legs. Other sizes might be a 3/2 for warmer waters (70-55F), or a 5/4 for colder (55-and below).
Where can I find a wetsuit? Should I buy on online?
Wetsuits are commonly sold in surf shops and occasionally sporting goods stores. Google your nearest one or check out the links I have available to local NorCal surf shops.
I do recommend going online and checking out the features of suits and the product lines available.
Great sites to check out:
I don’t recommend buying online unless you’ve gone to a store and tried on a suit in person. Fit is the most important thing when buying a wetsuit so always try something on before bargain hunting online.
How do I know if a wetsuit fits?
Wetsuit sizing can get a little confusing. For women it ranges 4, 6, 8, 10, etc and 8T, 12T, 8S, with no size matching up with traditional clothing size. For men there’s S, M, L but also S-M, M-L depending on brand. Xcel provides a handy sizing chart that should help you figure out what general area to look at. Again, it’s very important to try the suit on.
A wetsuit should fit snugly, but not inhibit movement or breathing. Find a suit that is form fitting, doesn’t bunch up in the arms/legs and then move around. Can you rotate your arms freely like you’re paddling? Can you pop up smoothly? Would you be able to pick up your keys if you dropped them? If it feels a little snugger than you’d like, go up a size and see how that feels.
Wetsuits will stretch in the water so almost perfect might become perfect in the water. However a wetsuit that restricts your movement won’t get any more comfortable. A baggy wetsuit will let in water and bunch in weird (possible uncomfortable) places.
What else should I consider when buying a wetsuit?
The goal of a wetsuit is to keep water out and heat in as you paddle like crazy. Very basic suits will have average flexibility, stitched seams and that’s about it. Within a product line, as price goes up, the suit usually has more flexibility and heat saving features. One great feature to look for is glued seams. Glued seams keep out more water than your basic stitch.
Another feature to look for is a thermal lining. Different brands call this by different names. With Xcel it’s Thermospan. Billabong I think is ThermalFlex. Rip Curl used Fireskin. The lining is a fuzzy type material that makes the suit feel warmer by wicking water away from your skin and keeping in a little more heat.
The way a suit closes also effects it’s warming ability. A Basic zip up neck can sometimes pull as you wipe out or paddle sending cold cold water down your chest or back. Bat wing and enclosures that velcro out to the side, or chest zip enclosures help cut this down. Some people have trouble getting in and out of chest-zip wetsuits, so this is more personal preference than anything.
Some suits have crazy features. Rip Curl makes the H-Bomb series which actually has a heating system built in. Rip Curl is also using this E3 neoprene that’s supposed to be so flexible you can stretch it twice it’s size and it will go back into it’s original shape.
On a personal preference note, check out the stash pocket. Some have it along the zipper next to your spine, some have it in the knee area. Think about where you want your keys poking you on a wipe out or how accessible you want them to be when walking up to your car.
What else should I get?
BOOTIES. I love my surf boots. I recommend them to anyone surfing in cold water, on rocky beaches, or anyone who shares my uncanny ability to attract broken glass while walking along the beach. A good set of boots will keep your feet warm, safe, and give you added traction while on your board. (Quick note, Not everyone enjoys the traction. In fact, you may have to adjust your wax if both the boots and the wax together leaves you with so much friction that you accidentally kick your board away while popping up).
Booties are typically round toe or split toe. Split toe gives you more control on the board without sacrificing much warmth. Look for ones that have a little bit of bottom grip material to keep your leash from getting caught in the split.
Gloves. I have a pair of gloves. They are warm, but they are heavy too. I will definitely take them out on any day the water is below 53 and the air is below 55, but I’m not 100% sold on gloves yet. When buying gloves, try to get small ones that won’t allow water in and weigh them down. I recommend 5 finger gloves over the 3 finger alien style or the mits, however this is personal preference. The other styles are supposed to be warmer, but I like using all my fingers to mess with my leash or open my water bottle on the beach.
Hoodies. I also have a hood. I haven’t actually worn it in the water yet, but every time I’m out there I think “CRAP why didn’t I bring my hood”. Hoods can either be built in to your suit, or detachable. Mine has an adjustable strap at the chin and a little bill to keep water out of my eyes. Added bonus of hoods: they help avoid that “snowball in the ear” effect of getting ice cold water right in the ears. This hurts and can, over time, lead to a condition called surfer’s ear where your body actually tries to protect the eardrum by growing extra skin a bone in the ear canal. Hoods may look silly, but the benefits are clear.
What wetsuit did you buy and why?
I wound up getting an Xcel Superlite 4/3mm Fullsuit. It’s a pretty solid basic suit. Sure, not many fancy features but it fit well and it was in my budget. I’ve been very happy with it. After 6 months of surfing it’s in great shape and keeps me warm enough. The price made it easy to commit to and the quality is good for the price.
What wetsuit would you buy if money was no object?
I’ll admit, happy was I am with my current wetsuit I keep checking out the Rip Curl G-Bomb. It’s got some nice heat saving features and, I dig the red. Of course, I’ve never tried it on so I can’t tell how it feels or how it performs. The Rip Curl store in Santa Cruz offers rentals, so I might try it out.
Next up on my buying guide: Surfboards. Look for this one come Jan/Feb.