There are few certainties in life; death, taxes, and the fact that winter wetsuits are an essential piece of hardware for many surfers.
Although the encroaching northern hemisphere winter feels a touch delayed, surfers are approaching a familiar inevitability. While our Southern Hemisphere surf brothers and sisters enjoy the shedding of wetsuit garments, those north of the equator face a crossroads.
Do we pack away the surf gear until Spring? Or do we seek out cutting-edge equipment to protect us from the winter elements?
For passionate surfers, it’s a no-brainer. Having suffered through extended summer flat spells, the prospect of consistent and powerful cold-water waves have us frothing.
However, a single lousy winter wetsuit experience can turn a dedicated surfer into a fair-weather warrior overnight.
There are generally two distinct complaints that we hear from those surfing in a winter wetsuit.
I was absolutely freezing; this wetsuit offered no protection at all!
I was plenty warm enough, but I could hardly move; this wetsuit is so stiff!
Both scenarios are no fun at all and can instantly ruin a session.
Winter Wetsuits Back in the Day
A couple of decades ago, surfers accepted that performance levels were compromised, even negated during the winter. The transition from the free-flowing movements of boardshorts and spring-suits to complete rubberised encapsulation meant that even taking off and bottom turning became a hardship. Performance surfboards would be shelved, with more voluminous boards accommodating the extra 8-10 kilos of neoprene.
Modern Winter Wetsuits
Coldwater surfing has become a genuine pursuit. Some of the best waves in the world are in areas that suffer the coldest conditions, only coming to life following the same winter storms that create freezing weather conditions.
Fortunately, there is an abundance of wetsuit manufacturers producing specialist equipment geared towards not only surviving icy cold ocean conditions but performing to levels we previously thought impossible.
What to Look For in a Winter Wetsuit.
Okay, this might sound a bit obvious but hear me out. The wetsuit itself doesn’t create warmth, it insulates. Your body is the heat source. The job of the wetsuit is to trap that body heat. A thin layer of water between your skin and the wetsuit material is then warmed to a comfortable temperature. Nowadays, manufacturers tend to rate their wetsuits according to water temperature. You must align the rating of your suit with the winter water temperatures you plan to surf.
This is important for two reasons. Firstly, there is no point in wearing a wetsuit rated for 53°F water if you are surfing 46°F water. Your session will be short and uncomfortable.
Equally, there is little benefit to wearing a wetsuit designed for icy 42°F conditions if your local break doesn’t drop below 53°F. You will find the extra thickness unnecessarily cumbersome. Trust me when I say that sweating in your winter suit is not a pleasant situation and may cause lethargy and dehydration.
Always look for optimum levels of warmth.
Gone are the days when increased warmth resulted in decreased comfort. Modern winter wetsuits are incredibly comfortable. Surfers often report that a brand-new winter wetsuit is even more comfortable than a summer suit from a couple of years ago. That’s how quickly wetsuit technology develops.
Comfort is undoubtedly affected by the cut of the wetsuit and panel positioning. However, all the brands featured in this article have put years of research and development into designing their wetsuits. I would say that the most crucial factor in comfort for modern winter wetsuits is sizing.
Every manufacturer now has sizing charts. Please take the time to align your height, weight, chest, and waist size with the optimum size. Trying a wetsuit on is still the best way to ensure a comfortable fit. Manufacturers’ sizing can vary. Sometimes you must accept that you are an XL in one wetsuit and an LT in another.
This has been the buzzword for many years. Flexibility equals freedom of movement. Although the days of feeling like you are surfing in a suit of armour have gone, wetsuit flexibility still varies from brand to brand and across the various price points.
Usually, the top-end, premium suits will have superior flex properties than the budget models.
However, most surfers (those with no concern for high-velocity air 360s and such) can find a mid-level winter wetsuit that performs perfectly well.
In the early 2000’s it seemed that every wetsuit manufacturer was part of a race to release the latest materials and technology. This sometimes meant that wetsuits entered the market with little durability testing. These suits would often fall apart within a single season.
Nowadays, the testing processes are far more rigid. Most brands have a dedicated core of cold-water surfers performing rigorous testing for performance and durability.
The old standards still apply. Always rinse your winter wetsuit in clean cold water following each surf, hang from the waist out of direct sunlight and avoid sharp edges at all costs. Look for a wetsuit with a comprehensive warranty, and definitely take the time to read up on other surfer’s experiences with the product.
Winter Wetsuit Features
While not every winter wetsuit has a lining, they are a prevalent feature.
Linings come in many forms but are generally a fleece style material situated in the areas of the wetsuit that require the most warmth. Linings are renowned for slightly reducing flexibility, so they are common in chest and back panels rather than arms and legs.
Seams are a critical element of a winter wetsuit. They directly influence warmth, flexibility, and durability.
The minimum standard for a winter wetsuit is glued and blind stitched seams. Firstly, the rubber has been glued together, followed by a stitching process that does not fully penetrate the material. Water cannot pass through this type of seam, increasing the warmth, durability, and comfort.
The seams are often taped inside the wetsuit. Taping further reduces water ingress, enhancing warmth and durability. Premium wetsuits will usually have improved protection via liquid sealed or welded seams.
The classic wetsuit configuration is the vertical back zip. There are now various options available to the discerning surfer in terms of zip position, length and type of water seals. Chest zips and zip free options have become increasingly popular. For me personally the importance is flexibility of the zip area and making sure water ingress is negligible.
If the water temperature demands a winter wetsuit, chances are you also need a hood.
While a hood is a surfing accessory like boots and gloves, modern winter wetsuits often have built-in hoods.
Personally, I am a massive fan of hooded winter wetsuits. I find them comfortable, protective, and I experience less water flushing than external hoods. Hooded suits are really a matter of personal preference.
When our local water temperature dips, the air temperature also drops. A hood is a valuable addition as soon as a winter wetsuit is needed. However, when I visit Cape Town in South Africa, the icy waters are accompanied by hot sunshine. I tend to avoid the hooded suit because my head quickly overheats.
The 10 Best Winter Wetsuits
Patagonia R4 Yulex Front Zip Hooded
Our all-new Yulex™ wetsuits are the only Fair Trade Certified™ suits. Each one has exclusive linings for increased stretch.
During the early 1960s, Yvon Chouinard supported himself selling homemade, recycled climbing gear from the back of his car. A lot has changed over the past six decades. His company, Patagonia, are now setting new standards in the outdoors and water sports industries with their technically advanced and environmentally sustainable products.
The R4 (alongside all Patagonia wetsuits) is made with 85% Yulex Rubber, a natural alternative to traditional neoprene. The company utilises recycled spandex and polyester made from discarded bottles for the wetsuit linings.
This 4mm wetsuit has an easy entry chest zip and the construction ensures fantastic durability.
Quite simply industry leading. Along with Finisterre, Patagonia are setting new standards that other companies will have to catch up to. The R4 is FSC certified by the Rainforest Alliance and is leading the way for sustainable winter wetsuits.
The Drylock X offers water-tight construction with unparalleled warmth.
Xcel wetsuits are renowned for exceptional quality. The company prides itself on unwavering dedication to research, development, and design.
At first glance, it may surprise some that a Hawaiian based company builds some of the best winter wetsuits available. However, Xcel founder Ed D’Ascoli was no stranger to cold water surfing, growing up on the New Jersey Coastline. When he started the company in 1982, Ed had a passion for producing groundbreaking wetsuits.
Xcel holds the prestigious honour winning the SIMA Wetsuit of the Year award four times, most recently in 2020.
Xcel have once again upped their game with the limestone neoprene Drylock X. Features include an improved easy entry system, 100% waterproof zipper with magnetic closure, triple glued and blind stitched seams and Nexskin ankle seals. . The Drylock X provides maximum flexibility and durability, minimum water ingress, and a fit that feels is as close as an off the shelf wetsuit can get to a custom made product.
Xcel have placed a significant focus on sustainability and eco friendly practices. They were one of the first companies to shift over to a water based wetsuit adhesive, eliminating the need for solvent based glues. Recycled products are utilised in polyester linings and the development of Eco Carbon Black from scrapped tyres is an extremely positive step towards reducing the use of petrochemicals during wetsuit production.
Gordan and Rena Merchant founded Billabong in 1973. Billabong became one of the biggest surf brands in the world, its popularity only growing throughout the 80s and 90s. Billabong wetsuits always utilise the most cutting edge materials. The research and development is second to none and other companies are often a year behind Billabong technology.
Billabong have been producing outstanding wetsuits for decades. How many other companies do you know that have a Heritage Collection, revisiting past models with slight modernisation.
The Furnace 4/3 is riddled with modern tech offering the highest possible thermal retention and lightweight stretch. Billabong have followed the philosophy “less seams = more stretch.” Graphene lining increases warmth remarkably, while machine applied superflex tape and 100% welded seams make sure cold water stays outside the wetsuit.
Billabongs is committed to producing wetsuit materials recycled from car tyres and scraps of neoprene. The exterior stretch jersey is also 100% recycled. The Furnace Natural is made using only water-based, non toxic glue and the Graphene lining is infused with recycled fibres.
Made sustainably, the Furnace Natural made with CICLO® fibers reduces plastic microfiber pollution and plastic accumulation in landfills.
In my opinion Billabong are leading the charge in terms of the “big four” most established wetsuit manufacturers (compared to Quiksilver, O’Neill and Rip Curl). Their Furnace Natural is a big step in the same direction as Patagonia and Finisterre in terms of environmental sustainability.
In our eyes this is gear that will be with you the longest; and the longer you have it, the more attached to it you become.
Finisterre was started by founder Tommy Kay in 2003. From humble beginnings the company has gone from strength to strength, never deviating from their “leave no trace” ethos.
Finisterre designs functional and sustainable products for those that share a love of the sea. They undertook a comprehensive testing program when designing their cold water wetsuits, inviting the feedback of all different types of surfers, from pros to beginners. As a result, Finisterre winter wetsuits are visible in many of the coldest lineups on earth.
The Nieuwland 5mm has a plethora of unique features that set it apart from other winter wetsuits. Finisterre have strategically positioned 6mm panels on the chest and in the lumbar region for increased warmth. 80% of this wetsuit has internal pile lining making it one of the warmest on the market.
Finisterre have even developed a proprietary neck entry system, making life much easier when entering and exiting the wetsuit in hostile weather conditions.
Finisterre’s slogan is “Sustainability as standard”. Not only do they utilise as many sustainable materials as possible, they manufacture to exacting standards. The fact that a Finisterre wetsuit will last season upon season is testament to this. Everyone involved with the company are driven by the clear and obvious need for the planet to come before profits and corporate success. Finisterre are focused on Tommy’s vision, staying true to their original design ethos of functionality and sustainability, and remaining committed to product, environment and people.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most successful Formula One Racing teams of all time was founded by a hugely talented and successful driver. Bruce McLaren won multiple Grand Prix races before committing to car design.
Lunasurf, although it doesn’t make million dollar supercars, shares a similarity with the esteemed company. Founder, and professional surfer, Ian Battrick is a true cold water surfing pioneer. Ian was surfing the frigid waters off Northern Europe, Canada and Iceland decades before it became cool (no pun intended).
Battrick has poured his vast and invaluable experience into designing, arguably, the best cold water winter wetsuits on the market.
The Lunasurf 4mm is 100% made from premium Japanese Limestone neoprene. The quick drying lining includes thermal protection on the chest, crotch, and throughout the built in hood. Every seam is glued, blind stitched, and internally sealed with four-way stretch tape. This wetsuit has unique features honed from countless sessions in artic conditions, including a slanted chest zip and built in lip warmer.
Lunasurf have developed a winter wetsuit that defies traditional logic. This 4mm suit is keeping numerous Icelandic and Scottish surfers as warm as toast, throughout their brutal winter seasons.
Lunasurf have taken the positive step of committing to 100% limestone neoprene, a marked improvement from traditional petrochemical based materials. What really impresses me about Lunasurf however, is the “small batch” feel to the manufacture of the wetsuits, and awareness of waste, storage and shipping processes. For one of the smaller companies on our list they have a positive and proactive ethos that the more established brands could learn from.
It’s about not wasting resources on what is not important. The concept is to have less but to have what is well made, what is sourced responsibly, what is long lasting and useful at its core.
needessentials was established in 2013 with a simple ethos; to ethically make the best possible wetsuits and surfing products at the best price. The team are all dedicated surfers who choose to live simple, humble surfing lives and remain connected to nature, travel and community. needessentials are focused on minimising their impact on the environment. The company don’t produce things you don’t need, like advertising materials, packaging and single use plastics.
Rapid dry thermal lining, 360° stretch limestone neoprene and 100% blind stitched, glued and internally taped seams offer warmth, comfort, and durability. The attached hood considerably improves overall heat retention adding to the thermal capabilities of this wetsuit. needessentials design their winter wetsuit features with the rigours of cold water surfing in mind. Improved neck entry and extra durable knee pads are two such features.
needessentials wetsuits are committed to minimising the impact on the environment. All needessentials Thermal wetsuits use more environmentally sound neoprene compared to traditional petroleum-based neoprene. This is combined with Carbon Black rubber derived from recycled car tyres that helps to reduce energy consumption, Co2 emissions and landfill waste. The wetsuit lamination glue is water based and free from harmful chemicals and the whole production process is also overseen by BLUESIGN ensuring the trust and transparency of needessentials wetsuits.
Based on the premise of less is more, we stripped away the irrelevant knick-knacks and designed a winter wetsuit that gives you what you need – warmth in the ocean.
Vissla was founded in 2013 by Paul Naude, the former head of Billabong USA. Vissla’s philosophy is to minimise their environmental impact and protect the oceans, while creating cutting edge performance equipment and apparel.
The 7 seas is made from 100% super stretch Japanese limestone neoprene. The suit is lighter, warmer, softer, stretchier, and easier to put on and take off compared to any of Vissla’s previous models. The full body Fever Fibre lining keeps the body warm while the legs are insulated via the Eco Fibre Stretch lining. The chest zip is designed for ease of access and the triple glued and blind stitched seams ensure strength and durability.
Vissla is renowned as a company with a strong sustainability ethos. They are continually adapt their practices in order to reduce impact. The 7 Seas winter wetsuit is no exception. Limestone Neoprene eliminates the use of petrochemicals. Eco Carbon Black is utilised throughout the manufacturing process and Dope Dyed Yarn reduces water consumption extensively.
Vissla also has a partnership with The Surfrider Foundation.
EDITOR’s CHOICE WETSUIT
VisslaHigh Seas II 5/4mm Full Hooded Chest Zip Wetsuit
The Advantage Max 4/3+ Fullsuit is as sustainable as it is warm. With Ecoflex 2 material and performance patterned seams, it offers maximum mobility in the water.
Hurley was founded in 1999 when Bob Hurley parted ways with Billabong. The company pride themselves on continuous research and development. Hurley wetsuits have disputed the market since their inception due to the impressive performance properties and unwavering quality.
The new Ecoflex 2 material is the most flexible that Hurley have produced to date. The Infrared Interior reflects heat back towards your core. The seams are uniquely positioned to ensure your whole body moves freely throughout your session. Hurley have positioned proprietary smooth silicone skin panels on the chest and back to provide the extra protection afforded by the old school material, with new levels of performance.
Hurley are proud to announce the Advantage Max 4/3+ as sustainable sourced. This model is created using eco friendly processes including carbon black recycled from old tires, dope-dyed yarns, and limestone based neoprene. This is a solid step in the right direction for Hurley.
Flashbomb, the world’s fastest drying, ultimate warmth and comfort wetsuit.
Rip Curl was founded in 1969 in Victoria, Australia, an area renowned for chilly water conditions. They began their production of wetsuits in 1970, transforming pre existing diving technology into wetsuits suitable for surfing.
This model has been around for a decade and continues to feature as a flagship Rip Curl wetsuit.
The Flashbomb is loaded with all the features you want in a high performance wetsuit. Updated to be lightweight with minimal bulk and maximum stretch means ultimate comfort and freedom to spend longer in the line-up. The Flashbomb 4/3 is available in back zip or chest zip configuration.
Rip Curl regularly releases statements regarding their awareness of the impact of wetsuit manufacture. They use mainly limestone neoprene and provide reports pertaining to their supply chain. While this wetsuit is far from the most sustainable on the list, and certainly can not be considered ‘green’, it is positive to see Rip Curl Planet driving new initiatives.
The Hyperfreak 5/4 is One Of The Most Flexible Hooded Wetsuits Ever
O’Neill originates from the cool waters off Northern Californian. The company was founded in 1952 by Jack O’Neill and is heralded with being on of the very first surfing wetsuit companies. The company continues to base itself out of the cold water surf Mecca that is Santa Cruz.
The Hyperfreak 5/4 benefits from upgraded tech throughout. The inclusion of Technobutter and 3X neoprene provide phenomenal warmth and unrivalled flexibility, while fully taped seams ensure durability is not an issue.
While O’Neill’s Ocean Mission presents promising projections for future apparel sustainability, the wetsuits are slightly falling behind from an eco perspective.