Why winter wetsuits?
When the temperature drops in autumn, warm winter wetsuits become vital. Surfers have been on a quest for decades to find a way to surf longer without getting cold. It all really took off in the early ’50s when the first neoprene surfing wetsuits were developed in California. Without protection, you physically can’t stay in cold water for long before hyperthermia sets in, with life-threatening consequences. Therefore a good winter wetsuit is a must. Surfing in the middle of winter has become the norm, and taking a winter break has become a thing of the past. A winter wetsuit, or steamer, refers to a full wetsuit with waterproof seams. Winter wetsuit neoprene thicknesses range between 4, 5, 6 and sometimes even 7mm. Make sure to choose the most flexible wetsuit with the best seam construction for your budget. This way you’ll remain mobile and stay comfortable.
Winter wetsuit neoprene thickness
The choice of your wetsuit’s neoprene thickness is an important decision based on the water temperatures you are planning to surf in. This is mostly defined by your location and time of the year you are using the wetsuit.
4/3 mm wetsuit: water temperatures around 12~15°C
Let’s start with the most used wetsuit thickness in the European Atlantic ocean and the North Sea waters. A 4/3 mm wetsuit thickness is ideal for most surfers in western Europe that want to surf from spring all the way to the beginning of winter. A 4/3 mm is most often classified as an all-season wetsuit rather than a full winter wetsuit, but for southern Europe, this is the perfect wetsuit to wear all winter. So location and water temperatures play a big role in defining the perfect winter wetsuit for you. On a 4/3 mm, also called a 4.3 or 4 mm the 4mm panels are located in the body and upper legs panels. The 3mm panels are in the arms and lower legs where they allow for more flexibility. A 4/3 wetsuit usually doesn’t have a built-in hood, but some brands do sell a hooded 4/3 mm.
5/4 mm wetsuit: water temperatures around 8~10°C
A 5/4 mm, also called a 5.4 or 5 mm is the most common thickness for a winter wetsuit. It is slightly warmer than a 5/3 mm due to the extra millimetre thickness in the arms. The same story applies here where 5mm panels are used on main body panels and upper legs, while the 4mm panels are used on the flex areas such as arms, shoulders and back lower legs. A 5/4 mm wetsuit can have panels used between 5 and 4 mm but are not always mentioned in the thickness description. So it could be that your side panels are 4.5mm for example. The collar panel is usually thinner than 3mm and is not mentioned.
5/4 mm hooded wetsuit: water temperatures around 4~10°C
A 5/4 mm hooded wetsuit would be the ideal mid-winter wetsuit for most people in Europe. They are very warm mainly because your head is insulated properly too. If you combine this wetsuit with some neoprene winter booties and neoprene gloves, you can surf all winter long without a problem. A 5/4 hooded would have the same construction as a normal 5/4, just with the addition of a built-in hood. In spring, when your hooded wetsuit becomes too warm, you can consider wearing a normal 5/4 mm without hood, or go directly to a spring/autumn wetsuit such as a 4/3 mm.
6/4 mm and thicker wetsuit: water temperatures below 8°C
When water gets below 8 degrees, a built-in hood is advisable. So wearing a 6/4 mm without a hood is an option, but you will find that you get cold quickly when duck diving. Ice cream headaches are not fun. For the real diehards that surf subzero conditions in northern Europe or conquer winters in Scotland and Ireland, a 6/5 mm or even 7 mm wetsuit isn’t a bad idea. But these wetsuits are harder to come by.
Fixed hood or separate hood?
You lose a lot of heat through your head, especially in sub-zero temperatures. Therefore keeping your head warm is an effective way to maintain body heat and prevent hyperthermia. Wearing a neoprene hood is the best way to stay warm for longer. There are wetsuits available with a built-in hood, or you can buy a separate hood to wear with any wetsuit. However, a wetsuit with built-in hood seals off much better, so it’s worth spending the money on them. A 5/4 mm wetsuit with a built-in hood would be the best option for most surfers in western Europe. 6 mm or thicker hooded wetsuits could be considered in the middle of winter in northern European countries such as Norway or Denmark. Hooded wetsuits also do a great job of preventing surfers ear. A hood blocks wind hitting your ears which causes surfers ear, even in warmer weather.
Winter wetsuit seam constructions
The right seam construction is important in a warm wetsuit. There are a few different seam constructions that can be used in winter wetsuits. Choose a high-end seam construction for a longer lifespan of your wetsuit. At all costs, avoid flatlock seams in any winter wetsuit, as they are not waterproof and will make you get cold quickly. Flatlock seams are only used in summer wetsuits such as shorties.
GBS / Glued and Blind Stitched
Glued and blind stitched wetsuit seams are the most common, but not the most high-end seam construction used in winter wetsuits. Glued and blind stitched seams prevent water from entering your wetsuit. Firstly, the edges of the neoprene panels are glued 3 times and pressed together to make a waterproof triple glued but joint. Secondly, a specialized sewing machine with a curved needle is used to stitch the two panels together. The needle only stitches through the top half of the neoprene panels to prevent the needle stitching through the panel completely and creating holes. This process creates a strong yet waterproof glued and stitched seam. Blind stitching can be done on the inside, outside or both sides of the neoprene, depending on the required seam strength and characteristics.
Liquid sealed seams
A high-quality way of finishing a traditional GBS seam is adding a liquid neoprene seal on top of the stitching. Liquid sealed seams are mainly used on high-end winter wetsuits. This seal reinforces the seam and over time, it prevents pinholes to form in areas where multiple wetsuit panels come together. It’s a more durable construction that lasts longer than normal GBS seams. The technical name for this seam construction is S-seal.
Powerseams are a narrower version of a liquid neoprene seam without blind stitching on the outside. Usually, powerseams have blind stitching on the inside of the wetsuit or are completely stitchless. Powerseams come in a variety of colours. Due to the thin seal without the reinforcement of blindstitching, powerseams can be less durable than the wider S-seal liquid sealed seams.
Taped inside seams
An even stronger reinforced high-end wetsuit seam construction uses neoprene tape applied on the seam’s inside. Neoprene tape, also called neotape can be applied to the inside of both GBS or liquid seam-sealed seams. Neotape inside seams make the seam even more waterproof by forming an extra layer of protection against water leaks. It also protects against seam irritation to the skin. Neotape can be glued on by hand, or it can be machine applied by a heat welding machine that applies a hotmelt glue layer to fix the tape to the seam. The hand-glued tape can leave traces of glue next to the tape, which can cause irritation to the skin. The machine welded tape, also called neotape 2.0, eliminates the glue residue and forms a nice and flat inside seam.
Double lined or single lined wetsuit?
Should a winter wetsuit be made out of single lined or double lined neoprene? Firstly, single lined neoprene also referred to as mesh, glideskin or smoothskin can be used as an outside finish of a wetsuit panel. The outside surface looks more like smooth rubber, while double lined neoprene has a woven textile coating. Single lined neoprene has a heat-sealed outside skin surface which seals the raw sliced neoprene foam to make it durable and water repellant. It’s often used on chest and back panels of a wetsuit to keep you warmer in windy and cold conditions. The water-repellent surface makes the water droplets run down faster. This protects you against windchill and makes it warmer than double lined neoprene. Single lined neoprene doesn’t have a protective lining, so be aware when taking off your wetsuit, to not damage single lined neoprene with your fingernails.
Double lined neoprene
Secondly, a stronger but sometimes colder type of neoprene is double lined neoprene. Double lined or double nylon refers to the knitted jersey layer that is laminated to both neoprenes inside and outside. Double lined neoprene doesn’t let water thru, but it is not water repellant like single lined neoprene. Water droplets can sit in the outside lining which can cool you down when the windchill factor is high. However, the lining makes wetsuits more durable and protects the neoprene foam against outside influences like UV and ozone. Outside lining also offers protection from fingernails cutting through the fabric when pulling on the wetsuit and sitting on the wax of your surfboard. The inside of most wetsuits is lined with a flexible and soft lining that is comfortable to wear on the skin. Double lined panels can be coloured in any colour, while single lined neoprene is usually black.
Single- and double lined neoprene combined
Modern high-end winter wetsuits usually use a combination of single and double lined panels, strategically placed to ensure ultimate performance and warmth. Water repellant, extra thick and warm panels are used on the chest and back of a wetsuit to keep you warm, while thinner more flexible double lined panels are used on arms and legs to enhance flexibility and unrestricted movement. Plush quick-dry inside lining gives extra warmth to the body where it’s needed most. This plush lining makes it possible to use full double lined wetsuits without single lined chest and back panels, but for the warmest winter wetsuit, single lined chest and back panels are essential for retaining body heat.
Plush inside lining
Plush insulation or quick-dry inside lining has gained popularity in cold water high-end wetsuits over the past few years. It’s the fleece type inside lining that helps retain body heat. It insulates the wetsuit by air bubbles that are trapped between the hollow nylon fibre lining and your body. Plush can have a quick-drying function which allows a wetsuit to feel dry to the skin, even if it’s wet. Water is channelled to the back of the lining, where it runs down the wetsuit. This also allows the wetsuit to dry quickly between sessions. Plush lining is mainly used on body panels where extra warmth is needed and flexibility is less important. Plush lining can take away a fraction of the stretch of the neoprene. The arms, shoulders and lower legs often use the most flexible stretch lining without quick-dry lining.