Wetsuit zips have changed since they were first put into wetsuits in the 1950s. Zips used in wetsuits come in 3 main options. Firstly, traditional back zips for easy entry and exit of your wetsuit. Secondly, chest zips. They have gained the majority of the market share in recent years. They are commonly used in more flexible high-end suits. Lastly, the zip free or zipless wetsuits. They eliminate the stiff zip from the wetsuit to allow for more flex but has its own set of disadvantages.
Back zip wetsuits are becoming less common these days. The back zip makes it easy to take your wetsuit on and off. However, they score lower on insulation and fit. The collar construction is different from a chest zip. Velcro closure in the neck, together with a flap behind the zip to prevent water from flushing in. This waterblock needs to be pulled over your head. This can cause some trouble getting on your suit by yourself. A zip in the back is usually longer than a zip in the front, this makes back zips less flexible due to the long stiff zip. A shorter zip means more flex but makes the suit harder to get into. So if you struggle to get into a wetsuit, a back-zip suit might be suitable for you. If you are more athletically built however, a chest zip is the way to go.
Chest zip wetsuits, also known as front zip wetsuits, have slowly become the new standard in wetsuit design. A chest zip allows for a better fit and better insulation. With today’s flexible neoprene it has also become easier to take your chest zip wetsuit on and off. A zip on the front of your wetsuit is shorter than a zip on the back. A zip is the only part of the wetsuit that isn’t flexible, so the shorter the zip, the more flexible the wetsuit. Shorter zips might, unfortunately, make it harder to get in and out of your wetsuit.
Zipless, a zip free wetsuit
Zipless wetsuits or zip free wetsuits have removed the traditional chest zip and have replaced it by a slightly bigger shoulder opening. They are harder to get in and out of, so be prepared for a bit of a wrestle with your suit before your surf. The bigger shoulder opening can allow water to enter easier than a wetsuit with a chest zip. But therefore zip free wetsuits gain some extra flexibility. There are also other zip free wetsuit constructions out there, but they are not very common and have their own advantages and disadvantages.
YKK zips are the standard in zip technology. This market leader in zip manufacturing makes high quality zips used for wetsuit design and doesn’t get corroded by seawater. They make 100% waterproof zips used in drysuits, coated semi-dry zips and zips that let some water through who are mainly used in summer suits. Some other zip manufacturers used for wetsuit zips are PK zips, Sami zips and so on.
Wetsuit zip specifications
There are lots of different zip manufacturers, zip specifications and zip sizes available suitable for use in wetsuits. First of all, a wetsuit zip should be built to withstand the forces put into a zip while surfing, but especially when putting the suit on and off. Because of this, the best zip-type is a coated metal slider or runner combined with plastic teeth. To make sure the zip can handle saltwater for a long time without corroding, the slider needs to be stainless steel or coated with a tough coating that doesn’t wear off. A plastic slider can be used as well but has an increased chance of breaking when the zip is opened up too far while taking off your wetsuit. Nylon coil zippers are not suitable to use in wetsuits, they let too much water through.
There are different grades of waterproof zips. A standard zip has plastic teeth close together with a slight overlap to block water. Some water droplets might seep through but are blocked by a layer of neoprene behind the zip. Coated zip taping is a step up. Taping is the webbing strip that allows the zip teeth to be stitched to wetsuit body. Waterproof zips often have zip teeth that overlap each other. The teeth create an interlocking pattern that blocks water. These zips are still not 100% waterproof. Also remember, water can go around the zip on a wetsuit and flush in through the shoulder opening. So spending money on a 100% waterproof zip is not always worth it.
Only zips used in drysuits are 100% waterproof and airtight. These zips are closed-end zips, as opposed to the normal open end wetsuit zips. This means that both ends of the zips are stitched into the wetsuit. These dry zippers are fully water- and airtight to avoid any leaks to make it into a drysuit. These suits are baggy and made out of nylon or polyester waterproof fabric, not neoprene. Drysuits are rarely used for surfing but can be used for sailing, diving, kiteboarding etc.
Zippers come in various sizes and lengths. The smallest suitable zip size is size 5, this is the width of the zip. More common size used is size 8 and in some cases size 10. The bigger the zip size the bulkier the zip, but also the stronger the sip is. Zip lengths vary from about 20cm on the smallest chest zip size wetsuits to about 60cm on the longest back zip wetsuit sizes.
The most common size on a chest zip suit is between 26 and 30cm in length.