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What are the Different Kinds of Wetsuits?

Equipment that can aid in navigation, such as prismatic compasses, can be worn over wetsuits.
A surfer wearing a full body wetsuit.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2014
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A wetsuit is a protective garment meant to prevent heat loss while participating in water sports. Wetsuits come in a variety of basic designs and thicknesses designed for different circumstances, and many aquatic enthusiasts have several different types of wetsuits so that they have the right suit for the occasion. Unlike a drysuit, a wetsuit does not keep water out, but actually traps a small amount of water inside the suit, conserving body heat. For this reason, fit is crucial with wetsuits; a wetsuit which is too tight will be uncomfortable and restrict freedom of movement, while a loose wetsuit will collect water and drag you down.

Wetsuits are broken up into several body types. A full body wetsuit protects the arms, legs, and torso, and sometimes has a hood attachment for the head. These wetsuits are ideal for cold water. For warmer waters, a spring suit with ¾ sleeves and legs can be used, and for even warmer weather, many manufacturers make shorties, which have very short arms and legs with full torso protection. In most cases, these suits can be found in one piece or two piece varieties; one piece wetsuits are harder to put on, but provide more protection than two piece wetsuits, and are a better choice for diving and surfing in cold waters.

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Different types of wetsuit also have different thicknesses, measured in millimeters. Thicker wetsuits provide more protection from cold, but also restrict range of movement. Thinner wetsuits are a good choice for warmer water, insulating and protecting the body while allowing a full range of motion, which can be very useful for surfers, who need to be able to move rapidly in the water. Wetsuits can be found in a uniform thickness or with a torso which is slightly thicker than the extremities: a 5/3 wetsuit for cold water, for example, has a 1/5 inch (five millimeter) torso and 1/10 inch (three millimeters) arms and legs.

When selecting a wetsuit, make sure that you get the right wetsuit for your needs, and plan on purchasing a high quality wetsuit from a well-known manufacturer like Bodyglove, O'Neill, or Rip Curl. Find out what the average temperature is in the waters that you will be playing in, and get a wetsuit that provides adequate protection. If you are going to be in the water for extended periods of time, consider getting a rash guard for your torso, to prevent irritation from the neoprene and nylon used in the wetsuit, and try to get a wetsuit which is lined, because you will feel better after spending the day in it. Get staff in a shop to help you select and put on a wetsuit, and be aware that most zippers run up the back, meaning that you need an assistant to put on a wetsuit properly. Unless you are replacing an existing suit which you know fits you, always try on a wetsuit before buying it, because fit is crucial.

Aim for a snug, but not tight, fit. If the wetsuit is too tight, it will restrict your ability to move and may cause breathing problems, and you will damage the wetsuit by stretching the neoprene. A loose wetsuit will not protect you. Also check on the seams; ideally, a wetsuit should have blindstitching, meaning that the stitches holding it together do not penetrate the neoprene all the way, creating thousands of small holes for water to leak through. The seams should also be treated with glue, and should not be raised or bumpy, because they will irritate you. Cheap wetsuits are sewn with overlock stitching, which hurts your skin and lets the water in; spend more and get a good wetsuit.

After every use, rinse your wetsuit out thoroughly and hang it to dry out of the sun and heat. High temperatures will ultimately damage the neoprene, and will cause your wetsuit to fail. If your wetsuit begins to smell bad, wash it by hand with mild detergent or an enzymatic cleaner, available at most dive shops. Follow manufacturer's directions for care, as many wetsuits come with a warranty.

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