Why Do Surfers Wear Wetsuits?

why do surfers wear wetsuits

Wetsuits are a crucial piece of gear for any water sport, and surfing is no exception. Every day, surfers don their wetsuits so that they can brave the ocean currents. You might think this is strange, considering a wetsuit would restrict your movement. Plus, it kind of makes you look like a seal. What’s so good about wearing a wetsuit?

There are many reasons to wear a wetsuit, however the two most important ones are: protection and warmth. Wetsuits are made of neoprene, which is a durable, water-resistant insulant. It can help you retain your body temperature so that you don’t get hypothermia, or at least you won’t leave the water shivering. It can also provide some superficial protection from the sun’s UV rays and sharp corals or rocks.

These benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. We haven’t even begun to talk about how it can provide extra grip on the surfboard, reduce rashes from the surfboard, or allow you to surf for much longer. We talk about all of these benefits and more in greater detail below, so be sure to read on.

Wetsuit benefits for surfers

Warmth

stay cool surfing

Water is extremely good at cooling our bodies – about 25x more effective than air, in fact. That means that any water temperature that is lower than our core body temperature of 36.5–37 °C (97.7–98.6 °F) is actually causing us to be colder very quickly.

Without a wetsuit, you probably couldn’t stay in the water for more than an hour before you start shivering. Even 30°C (86°F) tropical waters can cause you to eventually be cold – if not from the water temperature, then from the wind chill you’ll be exposed to. Any colder and you risk hypothermia without a wetsuit.

Wearing a wetsuit can help you retain a higher core temperature. To briefly summarize how wetsuits work, they trap a thin film of water inside, and that water is warmed up by your core temperature. It’s thanks to the insulating properties from the neoprene material of the wetsuit that the heat doesn’t escape from the wetsuit so that you can enjoy this warm layer of water.

As we just explained, even when surfing in warm water, it’s not a bad idea to wear a wetsuit. Wearing a wetsuit allows you to surf for longer because you won’t get cold as quickly, if at all.

Furthermore, wearing a wetsuit also allows you to surf in colder waters than you normally could, which means you can surf at different locations at different times of the year. You might have to wear a thicker wetsuit (5mm+) depending on how cold the water is, however.

Lastly, a wetsuit is only effective if it fits you tight. Otherwise, cold water will continuously enter and flush out the layer of warm water, making it impossible for you to retain heat.

Superficial protection

Perhaps it’s too much of a stretch to claim that the wetsuit is like body armor, however it can certainly act like a second layer of much thicker skin. Though its primary function is to keep you warm, it can provide some level of superficial protection to surfers.

For instance, if you are surfing over a rocky bottom or coral reef, a wetsuit might be able to save you from a nasty cut. The ocean floor is like a cheese grater, so you had best layer up if you want to prevent getting sliced up.

Wetsuits can also protect you from some aggressive sea life. If you encounter smaller creatures like jellyfish, sea lice, or bluebottles, the neoprene can protect you from their nasty stings or bites. That said, your hands, feet, and head are still exposed, so don’t go wading through jellyfish infested waters. Oh, and neoprene won’t save you from a shark attack either, so be wary of sharks in the area.

Lastly, one last bit of protection you need is from the big yellow guy up in the sky. The sun’s UV rays can actually be reflected from the surface of the water which amplifies the amount that hits your skin. Thankfully, wetsuits are designed to absorb most of these UV rays so that they never reach your skin. That said, again, wetsuits don’t cover every square inch of your body, so you need to apply surf zinc to areas of skin that are still exposed.

Decrease the chances of a surf rash

If you’ve ever tried surfing shirtless, then you know how easy and painful it is to get a surf rash. In fact, it’s more likely that you will get injured from your surfboard rather than from the ocean itself.

Now, you don’t necessarily need a wetsuit to provide protection against board rashes; that’s what rash vests are for. If the weather permits, you might want to only wear a rashie instead.

Even though a wetsuit can prevent you from getting a board rash, ironically, a wetsuit can give you a wetsuit rash. You can fix this in a couple of ways. First, you can wear your rashie underneath the wetsuit. Second, you can rub petroleum jelly (i.e. Vaseline) to the sensitive parts of your skin where rashes are flaring up. We highly recommend you read our articles on wetsuit rash and surf rash to learn more.

Helps you stay afloat

The reason why wetsuits are such good insulators is also why wetsuits can help you stay afloat. Inside the neoprene, air bubbles are trapped which insulates heat and also makes the wetsuit buoyant. Combined with the fact that you are surfing in salt water which is more buoyant than fresh water, then you can basically stay afloat with almost no effort when wearing a wetsuit.

This is especially useful when you’ve wiped out or are taking a hard beating because you can conserve energy and stay safe. Naturally, the thicker your wetsuit, the more buoyant it is because there will be even more air bubbles trapped in a thicker piece of neoprene. With that said, even a 3/2 wetsuit will make you extremely buoyant, so you do not need a thicker one just to help you stay afloat.

Superior UV protection

sun harm wetsuits

Are you tired of having to reapply so much surf zinc? Also, if you are surfing shirtless, it would be futile to apply it to the front of your body considering how quickly it would be rubbed off when pressed against the surfboard.

However, when your skin is exposed to hours under the sun, it will take a beating from the harmful UV rays. Even if it’s scorching hot outside and you would rather not layer up, you need to have some kind of sun protection otherwise you will get badly sunburned.

Enter the wetsuit. Wetsuits don’t just keep you warm in the water, but they can also double as a protective layer against superficial injuries and even the sun’s UV rays. The material that wetsuits are made of, neoprene, provide increased UV resistance so that the UV rays cannot penetrate through and reach your skin.

Furthermore, most wetsuits are black. This happens naturally as part of the manufacturing process when carbon black is added to strengthen the neoprene, however the color black also has the benefit of absorbing the most light which means sunlight is unlikely to reach your skin.

Next, wetsuits are available in varying thicknesses, and you can wear a 2mm or even 1 mm wetsuit instead. Wetsuits also come in various styles, and if a full wetsuit is too much, then you can get a short wetsuit instead with short leggings and sleeves. You can even only wear a wetsuit top. There are many ways to wear a wetsuit without overheating.

Boost your mental state

If research in behavioral psychology is to be believed, then wearing a wetsuit and simply looking like a surfer can improve your surfing performance. This might be a hard pill to swallow whether you actually have surfing experience or not, but it tends to be true.

Heck, even shaving most of your body hair so that you feel like you’re gliding the water has been demonstrated to improve performance.

The implications of this goes far beyond surfing. Uniforms and improved performance have a connection, and it’s like the saying goes: “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have”, or more colloquially, “Fake it until you make it.”

Wearing a wetsuit would not only affect how you feel about yourself, but how others perceive you. This, in turn, reinforces a positive mental state – you feel like a pro, others think you look like a pro, therefore you feel like even more of a pro.

Now, obviously, there are limits to how much of a performance boost you can get. For instance, just because you are wearing a white lab coat doesn’t make you gain the knowledge of a scientist. Same with surfers wearing a wetsuit. However, it might give you the confidence to try harder because you feel you are protected by the wetsuit, and you look like you know what you are doing.

When so much of our performance is linked to our mental state, then conversely, not wearing a wetsuit might actually harm you psychologically. If you feel like, without a wetsuit, your body is exposed to all sorts of dangers (it actually is) and that you cannot give it your all lest you suffer an injury, then you will perform worse than someone who believes they are doing better thanks to their wetsuit.

Anyways, you might believe this section is complete nonsense, however wetsuits provide enough benefits based on their own merits that they should practically be a required garment for most surfers. And if they happen to also improve your mental state, then that’s yet another benefit to take advantage of.

When should you wear a wetsuit for surfing?

It’s quite obvious that you should wear a wetsuit if the water is cold, however we also brought up many benefits that a wetsuit can provide even when it’s warmer. Plus, no water what the temperature, a wetsuit will also generally provide protection against rashes, cuts, and UV rays.

If you are not sure if you need a wetsuit or not, it’s better to err on the side of caution and wear one anyways. It’s much better to have a wetsuit but not need it than the other way around. The only major downside of wearing a wetsuit is that you might overheat when you’re out of the water, but as long as you’re in the water, you should be fine.

Let’s go over some examples of when you might want to wear a wetsuit for surfing.

  • When the water temperature is too cold. People are always shocked when, in the middle of summer, they end up shivering after surfing for an hour because the water plus wind chill has caused their core temperature to drop significantly. Surfing should be comfortable and fun, and there shouldn’t be an arbitrary time limit of an hour or less because it’s too cold for you even in tropical waters.
  • When there are sharp rocks or corals. Sometimes you’ll get tossed off your board and you might come into contact with the hard ocean floor. There might also be sharp corals or rocks that could easily tear your skin up. It’s lights out if you hit your head, which is why some surfers wear helmets.
  • When there is dangerous sea life. By dangerous, we mean the smaller creatures that can sting or bite you. Don’t expect to offer any noteworthy protection from sharks, however.
  • When other surfers are wearing a wetsuit. Even if you feel fine without a wetsuit but you happen to notice everyone else wearing a wetsuit, they may know something you don’t. If you’re surfing at a new location, trust the locals’ judgment and wear a wetsuit just in case.
  • When you want to be more buoyant and conserve energy. While a wetsuit is not a personal flotation device, in some ways it provides similar benefits. We do not advocate heading into the water at all if you’re not a strong swimmer, but everyone can benefit from conserving their energy while treading water. Wetsuits will help you stay afloat which is both a safety feature and a huge convenience.

When can you surf without a wetsuit?

shirtless surfer behind

It sounds suspiciously like we are always advocating surfers wear a wetsuit. Is that the case? No, certainly not. There are times when you don’t need to wear a wetsuit. However, unless you have some surfing experience, you should be erring on the side of caution.

You can consider forgoing a wetsuit if you know the break you will be surfing really well and can avoid all of its risks.

Also, you can surf without a wetsuit if the conditions are idyllic. That means that the water temperature is warm, the water visibility is high and you can clearly see where there are corals, rocks, or any other dangers, there is no risk of sea life, and the majority of surfers are also not wearing a wetsuit. Sometimes this does happen, and you might decide not to wear a wetsuit on those days.

Depending on how the weather is, wearing a wetsuit might cause you to overheat. Heat stroke is as legitimate a risk as hypothermia is, so you should do everything in your power to avoid that as well. Try not to spend too much time out of the water with your wetsuit on; either be in the water or at least remove the top half of the wetsuit and let your torso breathe when out of the water.

Even if you are not wearing a wetsuit, that does not mean that you should surf shirtless. You should still have a layer of protection in the form of a rash vest which can offer protection against board rash and the sun, as well as limited protection against jellyfish stings.

What are some downsides to wearing a wetsuit for surfing?

It’s quite clear that we are in favor of wearing a wetsuit. However, nothing is perfect, and wetsuits have their fair share of downsides which we will cover in more detail in this section. With that said, we feel the benefits far outweigh the downsides which is we are advocates of always wearing a wetsuit while surfing.

Let’s go over some reasons why somebody might not want to wear a wetsuit:

  • A wetsuit can restrict your movements. Wetsuits, even ones designed for surfing, will restrict your movement. There’s no getting around this at the moment. The material is designed to keep you warm by trapping water inside. Expect your movements to be negatively impacted either by the tightness of the wetsuit or the water inside. With that said, wetsuits should not be so tight as to restrict your breathing or blood flow, so if that’s happening then it might be a case of an ill-fitting wetsuit.
  • It increases the risk of heat stroke. Sometimes wetsuits can be too good at their job, particularly when you’re surfing in a tropical climate. On top of that, surfing is a high-intensity workout that should naturally raise your body temperature. We really cannot say how you will be affected since everybody is different, but if you are afraid of the heat, then wear a rash vest instead.
  • It can be expensive even if you’re renting. Wetsuits, particularly good ones, can be quite expensive. In order to save money, you might decide to rent. However, typically you will need to put down a deposit that can be as high as the price of the wetsuit. If you happen to damage the wetsuit in any way, the rental shop may simply keep the deposit and it will be as if you purchased the wetsuit anyway. If you know you will be surfing a lot, it might be better to save up money to just buy your own wetsuit outright.
  • Possibility of an allergic skin reaction. If you aren’t getting a wetsuit rash due to friction, there is a possibility you are getting one due to an allergic reaction. In that case, you will have to look for a wetsuit made from a different material or you might not be able to wear a wetsuit at all.
  • Maintenance is required. This is not a problem if you’re renting, but if you own your own wetsuit, then you need to take good care of it both in and out of the water. That means to rinse it with freshwater after each use, clean it with a wetsuit cleaner when it starts to get smelly, and hang it up properly using a wetsuit rack in a location away from direct sunlight. If you find any of these steps to be too much of a hassle, then you will soon have a brittle, creased, moldy wetsuit that is unusable.
  • A wetsuit can be hard to don and doff. Wetsuits are designed to be tight, so they can be a chore to put on (ever tried wearing skinny jeans? Putting on a wetsuit can be similar if not a lot worse). It’s especially bad if you don’t know how to keep sand out or if you get water inside the wetsuit, increasing the friction before you put it on. It’s also really bad if you suddenly feel the urge to use the bathroom. There are some tricks you can do such as putting a plastic bag on your hands and feet to help them slip through the arm and leg openings. In general, putting on a wetsuit can be quite an involved process if you don’t yet have a preferred method.

Parting words

If you plan on surfing regularly, then investing in a good wetsuit is crucial. When deciding on a wetsuit, it’s important to consider the water temperature, climate, and possible hazards you might face in the water. Knowing these details will help you decide the style of wetsuit, its thickness, and any other features you might want.

Surfers tend to wear wetsuits because they provide so many advantages. In addition to keeping you warm, it can also protect you from UV rays, prevent surf rash, help you stay afloat, and may even boost your performance by improving your mental state.

With that said, there are some downsides to wetsuits – the cost, maintenance, and the risk of overheating, to name a few. However, many of these risks can be mitigated with some careful planning. Furthermore, the benefits that wetsuits provide outweigh any risks associated.

As long as you find a suit that fits you snug, keeps you warm, and doesn’t give you a wetsuit rash, then it’s probably better for surfers to wear a wetsuit than not.

Last update on 2021-10-30 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API