Rob Casey is the owner of SUP school Salmon Bay Paddle in Seattle, co-founder for the PSUPA and is the author of two paddling guides.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

How to Choose a Wetsuit

A good wetsuit can extend your paddling time from one season to all year. Choosing what to purchase can be confusing and for some may lead to buying the wrong suit and having to return it.  Here's a few tips to hopefully make the process easier.

Determine what type of paddling you'll be doing to decide how much coverage you need.
- Flat water paddling in no waves or wind - Farmer John/Jane and/or wetsuit pants and separate top.
- Surfing, downwind or river SUP in water 60F or less - full wetsuit.
- Racing on flat water, slight chop all year. Many get super hot so wear wetsuit pants and/or a top.
- Coastal racing, whitewater or downwind in cold water - full wetsuit.
- Tropical locations of Southern Cali in Spring - 2-3mm suit or wetsuit top only.

Dry suit vs Wetsuit?
Dry suits only keep you warm from the insulation you add underneath, such as a fleece shirt and long john's. They're not always dry and sweating is another factor. Most look and feel baggy though the Ocean Rodeo Soul is the first cool looking dry suit. I switched from dry suits to wetsuits as with SUP I swim more than I did with kayaking and found wetsuits better for this as the dry suit fabric flap in wind/water.  I also don't like maintenance which dry suits require to keep latex gaskets in shape or if they tear on a trip, they're difficult to fix. Dry suits range from $500-$1,200 and wetsuits range from $125-$650.

Cons of a full wetsuit?  No pee zipper.  I rarely have to pee in my suit. If I do I wash it immediately.  Students do occasionally so I separate their suit from the others and give it extra soaking in soap. On hot flat SUP days full suits aren't very comfortable to paddle in when pulled down to your waist.

For slightly cold water or for flat water paddling you could get away with a Farmer John/Jane armless suit. These provide good insulation especially layered under with a fleece and/or neoprene top. Most are 3mm. Brands may include NRS, NPX, O'Neil and Xcel.

Cold water upper 50's and below you may consider a full surfing wetsuit (with arms).  These come in varying thicknesses:
4/3mm = 4mm in chest and legs and 3mm in arms.
5/4/3mm = 5mm in chest; 4mm in legs; 3mm in arms.
5/4mm = 5mm chest and 4mm arms and legs. These are often too stiff in the shoulders for paddling.
5/3mm = 5mm in chest and legs, 3mm in arms.

Zipper vs Top Entry?  
Some say top entry suits are warmer but I disagree. I've never had a leaky or colder back zip suit.

Top Entry: The downside to top entry is that they're hard to get into especially if you have sore, lack of flexibility or injured shoulders. Often top entry suits have too much neoprene in the shoulder area thus making it harder to paddle.

Back Zip: These are easier to try, get into and I've never felt they're colder than top entry. Sometimes getting it fully zipped on your own can be difficult. There are a few techniques to use to make this happen such as securing the pull strap to a door knob and dropping below thus zipping it up.

Hood or Not?
Hoods are great if you know you'll use it a lot.  But if you're not sure how often you'll use it. consider getting a hoodless suit, then add a separate scull cap (hood) or hooded vest when needed. This way you can leave the hood at home in summer then add it when necessary.  

Flushing
Getting flushed with water has pros and cons.  Some suits flush or 'leak' more than others.  This is OK if your body temp can warm the water which acts as an additional layer of warmth.  I've found suits in the $300+ range such as the Xcel DryLocks don't flush at all and their insulation alone is enough to keep me warm in our winter NW conditions.  I'm currently using a ProMotion Storm 5/4/3mm suit which flushes but keeps me plenty warm. Some suits have loose fitting necks, which will flush every time you fall in, sometimes a bit shocking if it's really cold water.  A hooded vest prevents this for me.

High end suits such as Patagonia have a Merino wool layer underneath making them quite warm.  These run from $350ish to $600 ish.  Still cheaper than most dry suits and better bang for your buck.

Cost of full suits vary.  I've found the $125 range 4/3mm suits are better for warmer water or summer use but not as good for water in the 50's or lower.  Whereas a 4/3mm in the $200+ range begins to have more features such as a layer of neoprene behind the zipper, neck enclosure strips, and slightly better neoprene. When you hit the $350+ range suits tend to flush less, last longer and be warmer overall.

Life of a Wetsuit?  I'm not good with taking care of things and I paddle often in saltwater.  So my suits are in their best condition for only a year. Friends who paddle only on weekends and/or only a few times a month or seasonally can have suits last for a few years or longer.  First things to go are the seams.  I also get neoprene tears which create leaks. U can fix your own but I send my rental suits in bunch after my working season to ProMotion Hood River, Oregon. They're cheap, do an amazing job and have very quick turn a round.

Environmental Materials. Brands are saturating the marketplace with terms such as sustainable, green and organic. If you're worried about all this rubber being in the environment, worry no more.  Most brands now boast about limestone or charcoal neoprene and the like.  Patagonia's suits are described as "the post consumer recycled polyester jersey increases durability while minimizing environmental impact.." TreeHugger has a good article on the subject of green wetsuits, Here.

Layering clothing on top of or under your suit works great to add warmth to any suit.  In winter I wear a thin Capeline synthetic top under my 4/3mm or 5/4/3 to increase warmth.  Additionally, I'll add a neoprene hooded vest under the top as well.  This bumps up my chest area to 5mm but keeps my arms free for movement.  The hooded vest hoods provide neck protection as well which also reduces flushing.  Kayaking paddle tops made from Gortex or nylon can also bump up your heat and cut wind exposure. Consider neoprene or SeasonFive shorts under for well in frigid temperatures. SeasonFive also has arm and leg sleeves which area great option for warmth without reducing flexibility in your shoulders or knees.

Rule #1 - Try before you buy.  I just had a student return a suit which didn't fit which he bought online.  Everyone's body is different so what works for one may not fit for another.

#2 - Neoprene tends to be rated bigger than it fits.  I wear a XL shirt but have to wear a XXL suit.  Same goes with booties. A student who normally wears a XXL shirt can't find a suit his size.

#3 - Wash regularly. I wash mine every other use. Soak in very hot or cold water with a non detergent soap or wetsuit soap from McNett.  Rinse and hang dry.  I have a floor heater to bake my basement bathroom.  Dry inside out, then the outside.

What I use:
RipCurl 5/3 Dawn Patrol and their 5.5/4mm Flashbomb for winter.
ProMotion 4/3mm for Summer offshore paddling and/or surf.
NRS Rodeo Pants for summer or mild fall-spring days.
SeasonFive or Reed ChillCheater top for summer.
NRS WetShoes booties, Glacier gloves, ProMotion hooded vest.

Any questions give me a holler: salmonbaypaddle@gmail.com / 206.465.7167
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