Proper fit is the most important factor in buying a wetsuit. Wetsuits need to be sufficiently snug to reduce water seepage. While there should not be large pockets of air, the suit should not squeeze the extremities and affect blood flow. It should also be flexible enough to allow easy movement.
Fit. That’s the issue. A wetsuit has to fit properly in order to keep you warm. Price, delivery time, options, accessories, colors and guarantees all take second place.
There is no single style or brand of wetsuit that is the best. There are lots of well-made stock and custom suits available. It can be tough finding a stock suit, sometimes called a box suit, that fits perfectly. However, if your body matches the sizing specifications of a stock suit, it is the most economical choice. Stock suits vary in cut and sizing, so if one brand doesn’t fit perfectly, try another.
What is a good fit? A wetsuit needs to be comfortably snug to minimize the amount of water flowing through it. Wetsuits keep you warmer if they only let a thin film of water seep in. This water is warmed by body heat and semi-trapped in place. If water is constantly flowing through the suit, your body needs to continuously heat the new water. You expend less energy and feel warmer if the water in your suit stays a nearly constant temperature.
There should not be big pockets of air anywhere. At the same time, the suit should not choke you or squeeze your arms or legs, reducing blood flow to the extremities. If your hands go numb or turn blue, the suit is too tight! If you have trouble inhaling a full breath of air, the chest may be too tight. Too big is as bad as too small. A tough area to fit is the shoulder/armpit. A too big/poorly fitting suit will have an air pocket under the arm or folds in the fabric just in front or behind the arm. Manufacturers solve this problem by using a variety of sleeve designs, including raglan-style, or putting a diamond shaped gusset in the armpit. Fabric is more flexible when cut on the bias, or diagonal, than cut straight. Manufacturers like to use bias cut seams where the suit needs to stretch to fit your curves better.
Good fit usually means good flexibility. If your arms seem to spring outward and it is hard to keep your hands in front of your chest, the suit is too narrow across the back, too tight in the arm holes or lacks flexibility. This may be the quality of the brand of rubber used or could be related to the size or cut of the suit. It takes energy to fight a suit that constricts movement. Flexibility means your elbows and knees bend easily and the suit moves with you, rather than restraining you.
There are approximately eight manufacturers of wetsuit neoprene. Some have plants in the United States. Most companies make various thickness as well as grades of material. The stiffness and stretch of each manufacturer’s neoprene varies. Some companies make the new titanium material. This is neoprene with titanium woven into the nylon plush inner layer. It is reported to be warmer than the same thickness of nontitanium neoprene.
Grab a handful of neoprene and make a fist. How easily does it crunch? Does it spring back? Does the material feel soft or cardboard-like? Pull the fabric sideways and cross grain. How much does it stretch? Your personal preferences will lead you to a material that has the feel and properties you like.
If a wetsuit fits properly, it is relatively easy to put on and take off. If you can “pinch an inch” of rubber, the suit is too big. If you feel like a sausage in a tube, the suit is too tight. However, unless you have worn tights, a wetsuit is going to seem too snug the first time you put it on, even if it really isn’t. There’s a certain feel to wiggling into leotards or panty hose – they seem tight in the donning process – then feel non-binding once on. You should be able to take a full breath and not feel constricted in the chest or neck.
Contouring helps make a suit fit better. Look at the lower leg. Is it a straight tube or is there a bulge for your calf? A calf contour helps a suit slide on easier, seem more flexible and feel less restrictive. Some divers also like the bent-knee style of pants. The theory is that divers are rarely straight-legged, so why not build the suit with the material in a slightly bent knee position, thus reducing the resistance when bending your knee? If you have a small waist relative to your chest and hips, then a properly fitting wetsuit needs to be contoured to match your hourglass shape.
If you have a hard time buying clothes off the rack you are going to have the same experience with a wetsuit. Your measurements probably do not match standard sizing. Custom wetsuits are the answer for these body types.
The more nonstandard your body, the more likely it is you need a carefully measured custom suit. Most manufacturers will make custom suits from measurements taken by a dive store employee. The measurement sheet is mailed to the factory and, in two to four weeks, the suit can be picked up at the dive retailer. You choose the color, accessories and basic style from a standard list of options. Custom suits are usually more expensive than box suits.
Only you can evaluate how far off the fit is and then decide if a custom or accessorized suit is warranted. The extra cost per dive is very small if you calculate the expense of renting versus owning or a stock suit versus a custom suit. If your suit fits like a glove, it will likely be more comfortable than a rental suit and you may go diving more often. The more you use the suit, the less of an issue the extra cost for the customization becomes. If your body and a stock suit were not made for each other, then the cost of a custom suit is the price you pay to dive. When you compare a loaded box suit to a custom suit with the same features, you may be surprised at the small additional cost.
Another option is to use a manufacturer that limits its business to custom suits. These are smaller companies that offer more individualized service. Every suit they make is a custom order and typical turn-around time is two weeks or less. Ed Rodgers of Aqua-flite Wet Suits in Pasadena, California, even offers the ultimate service of coming to your home or office for the measurement session.
Each manufacturer has a niche in which it prefers to do business. The key to buying the best wetsuit for your needs is to find a manufacturer that regularly provides the products and services you want. Do not expect a mass manufacturer of box suits to change its entire production process to accommodate you. Do not expect a custom suit to cost the same as a mass produced box suit. There is a price-service-feature trade-off.
After sale service policies may help you select a wetsuit manufacturer. Will the company make minor tear repairs? Will it replace a zipper? Will it take in a suit if you lose weight? Will it add material if your girth increases? Will it replace kneepads? Will it replace only the farmer john pants if the jacket is still in good shape? Will it re-sew seams? And, will it do these small jobs at a reasonable cost and with a short turn-around? Who measures you and what happens if the suit doesn’t fit when it arrives? Is the suit shipped direct to your home?
Custom suits give you the opportunity to make a fashion statement through the use of color and design. If you want a red, silver and blue suit or a purple and electric yellow combination, custom suit makers are happy to oblige. Small custom shops are willing to re-make patterns and fill nonstandard requests – for a price.
Accessories are all the extras that can be added to a basic suit. Stock suits often come with limited accessories and on a custom suit the list is as long as your pocket book is deep. Here are some accessories you may want to consider:
- Arm or leg zippers
- Convenience zipper
- Knee or elbow pads
- Zipper pull loop
- Thigh pockets
- Knife holder
- Small interior jacket pocket (key pocket)
- Your initials
- Wrist or leg seals
- Custom boots and hood
- Hood with thin rubber face seal
Wetsuit pieces can be like wardrobe building blocks. Rather than buying three separate suits for warm, cool and colder waters, take a mix and match approach. By combining a couple of tops and bottoms, you can end up with several combinations that adjust for warmer or colder water. For example, a 7mm farmer john bottom could be topped with a short legged, long sleeved jacket for maximum torso warmth. Or, a one piece long legged, long sleeved medium weight suit can be warmed up with a step-in, short legged, sleeveless jacket. The short legged, sleeveless top could double as a tropical suit.
It all boils down to fit. A suit needs to be comfortable and warm. If it is too tight, too loose, rides up under your chin, restricts movement, binds in the crotch or rubs anywhere, diving is not much fun. Depending upon your shape, you may find a plain stock suit that fits beautifully and is very economical. A stock suit will get more expensive with added accessories.
Many women find that a wetsuit with diagonal zippers, a V-cut and seamed jacket front slides on easier and fits better. Women like zipper pull loops that prevent broken nails. Some women like an extra hip zipper on their farmer jane pants. If these or other features are not available on the typically limited selection of women’s suits at a dive store, then a custom suit is the way to go.
No matter what the color, style, brand or level of accessories, it always comes back to fit!