Wetsuits are personal, they should mould to your body, keep you warm and protect you. Mark ‘Crowley’ Russell looks at the best around for the travelling diver
Wetsuits are a particularly personal item of kit: they should fit like a second skin and few of us like wearing rental suits that have been shared with scores of other people.
We all have different needs for thermal protection and those available to rent from dive centres do not always cater for our wide variety of body shapes. Most divers prefer to use their own suit which fits them well because fit is critical to a wetsuit. The body loses heat underwater up to 25 times faster than it would on land, and it’s easy to become cold in what would otherwise be considered warm water.
The standard material used in the construction of a wetsuit is neoprene, a synthetic form of rubber containing a matrix of tiny air bubbles – or ‘cells’ – which provide insulation against the water temperature. A thin layer of water becomes trapped between the inside of the suit and the diver’s skin, which is warmed by the diver’s body, helping to retain heat in the overall system. Hence the reason that wetsuits must have a close fit, and adequate seals at the neck, wrists and ankles, to prevent this internal layer of water from being continually flushed from the suit and replaced by cooler water.
Neoprene suits are made in a range of different thicknesses, most commonly 3, 5 and 7mm, with some variations. Heat loss is partly due to personal physiology, but also due to how often, and how long, a person dives. So, the type and thickness of a suit will vary among individuals, even if they are of a similar build and diving in the same environment. Advances in material technology mean that some thinner suits now offer more thermal protection than thicker options.
Deciding on style and thickness depends on where and when you will be diving, temperature range and personal preference. It’s worth noting that water temperature does not necessarily reflect what’s happening at the surface. Cold currents and thermoclines are present even in hot, tropical locations, so what’s ‘best’ is a difficult question to answer. A good default option is a 5mm, long suit, which can be used in almost all warm water and some temperate locations, with the possibility of adding layers should the water temperature drop.
Long suits also offer protection against stings from marine life and cuts from sharp objects. Shorties are often favoured by tropical divers, but are only really useful in the warmest of water. If you know for sure that this is all you need, then shorties are great for travel space and weight savings. Here’s a round-up of some of the best suits available for 2018.
Aqua Lung AquaFlex
Aqua Lung’s new 5mm AquaFlex suits (pictured) are the latest in a long range of quality products from the manufacturer, available in both male and female fittings. The super-stretch neoprene and soft interior are designed to make donning and doffing easier, while the seams are sealed with liquid rubber to prevent them from unravelling and keep the water out. A ‘skin on skin’ neck seal and three-way zipper seal protects against the dreaded icy dribble; panels on the chest and back and extra padding around the kidneys help to keep warmth in the body’s core. The AquaFlex is only available in the 5mm version, divers who wish to explore a wider range of options might look at the Aqua Lung Dive range, which contains 5.5 and 7mm long suits, plus a 4mm shorty.
BARE S-Flex and Nixie
BARE is an exposure suit specialist and boasts some of the warmest suits for the thicknesses available. The men’s S-Flex and women’s Nixie models have a wide range of variations, with a 2mm shorty, 2/3, 5 (pictured) and 7mm full suits and a 7mm hooded suit completing the ranges. Both feature extra-long back zips and are made from BARE’s proprietary blend of stretchy neoprene. Divers looking for that little bit extra might want to consider the men’s Reactive and women’s Evoke ranges, made using BARE’s new Celliant® Infrared Technology, which captures wasted body heat during activity and reflects it back to the body, promoting more efficient circulation to increase warmth and endurance. The Reactive and Evoke are priced at £419.95 and £409,95 for the 5mm full suit, 3 and 7mm versions complete the range, although the 3mm suit is not currently available in the EU.
Cressi caters very much to the warmer water diver, with none of its current wetsuit ranges coming in at more than 3mm in thickness. The Morea is a one-piece long suit design, perfect for ‘light scuba diving in warm waters’, available in both male and female designs. A simple, but handsome suit, featuring smooth exterior neoprene panels around the chest for improved elasticity and speed of drying, the Morea has a preformed neck seal for a better anatomical fit, a dorsal YKK zipper with Aquastop flap and ‘overlok’ cuffs at the wrists and ankles to prevent water ingress.
Fourth Element Xenos
£249.95 (5mm long)
Fourth Element was born in 1999 in Sharm El Sheikh and has since become one of the most well-regarded watersports clothing manufacturers in the world, from drysuits, undergarments and wetsuits, to their OceanPositive range of rash guards and swimwear, which are made from recycled ghost gear. The Xenos wetsuit is designed for rapid donning and doffing, particularly for those multi-dive days, and especially on liveaboards. The suit contains a ‘Thermoflex’ internal lining with blind-stitched and glued seams, hard-wearing knee panels, and ‘Hydrolock’ wrist and internal ankle seals to prevent water entry, all in a flexible, form-fitting design. The Xenos is available in 3 and 5mm (pictured) long suits, plus a 3mm shorty version.
Mares Flexa and Flexa – She Dives
Mares has taken a slightly different approach to wetsuit design with the Flexa range, constructed from ‘strategically placed’ different thicknesses of neoprene to provide thermal protection where it is most needed, with thinner materials in areas where increased flexibility is a priority. Three variations of the suit are available, the 8.6.5, 5.4.3 (pictured) and 3.2.2 (the numbers reflect the thickness of the component parts), designed for cold, temperate and warm water respectively. Each has a front zip and a buckle on the right thigh for attaching a hood, or the separate Flexa Smart Pocket. The ranges are complemented by the Flexa Core, a 4mm shorty with integrated hood which can be used for additional thermal protection, or as a suit in its own right.
O’Neill has been making wetsuits for over 60 years, in its own words: ‘committed to developing authentic and functional dive products without resorting to gimmicks or hype’. O’Neill describes the Sector as having ‘everything you need and nothing you don’t’, with minimal seam designs that are flat-stitched, glued and Fluid Seam-welded to prevent discomfort and water entry. The Super Seal neck and O’Ring cuffs, together with the ‘Firewall’ torso insulation envelope and urethane coated rear zipper all serve to maximise thermal protection while maintaining flexibility. The Sector long suit is available in 3, 5 (pictured) and 7mm male and female versions. Exclusively warm-water divers might prefer the O’Neill Explore which comes in 3mm full and shorty designs.
Pinnacle Siren and Tempo XT
Pinnacle is another manufacturer devoted solely to the production of exposure protection, with a wide selection of suits available. The female Siren and the male Tempo XT are available in 3, 5 (pictured) and 7mm versions, constructed from high-stretch Elastiprene titanium-lined neoprene and Pinnacle’s patented Merion lining, providing a claimed 35 per cent increase in insulating power over previous models of the suit. The rear zipper is equipped with an extra thick spine flap to provide extra spinal protection and smoothskin seals along the zipper, ankle and wrists provide barriers to water entry. Moulded rubber shoulder pads provide extra comfort while helping to keep the diver’s BCD in place.
The Definition Steamer is built with what Scubapro calls its ‘Body Map System’, a manufacturing method that uses a 3D cut to create a suit tailored with more detail to the human anatomy. The Definition is made from Scubapro’s ‘X-foam’, a form of neoprene made from limestone which is lighter, more flexible, more thermally efficient than standard neoprene, and petrochemical-free. Adding to Scubapro’s green credentials is the water-based, solvent-free adhesive used in most of its neoprene products. The suit itself uses panels across the chest and sides for flexibility, the rear zipper is diagonal for ease of use, and zippered cuffs and ankles assist with donning and doffing the suit while keeping the seals tight. The infrared fleece interior reflects body heat for increased thermal protection. The Definition is available in male and female 3 and 5mm (pictured) versions, and a 2.5mm shorty.
SEAC’s Libera (and Komoda) suits are made exclusively from Japanese Yamamoto Neoprene, the first of its type to be made of limestone, and thinner, lighter, more stretchy, and with better thermal protection over the standard neoprene. Yamamoto neoprene has a higher density of cells within the material which are filled with nitrogen, a much better insulator than air. As it does not absorb any water at all, the weight of the suits remains almost identical between wet and dry conditions. Yamamoto neoprene is also used for Seac’s ‘Aquastop’ seals at the wrists, ankles and neck, with a dry fibre lining for extra warmth and a YKK rear zipper. The seams are sewn and glued for strength and durability, and both the male and female versions of the Libera are available in 3.5, 5 (pictured) and 7mm thicknesses.
£114.99 (5mm full-length)
British Manufacturer Typhoon International is renowned around the world for its industry-leading drysuits, but it also makes a wide range of neoprene products suited to all water-based activities, from life jackets to surfing, kayaking, and wetsuits for diving. The Typhoon Storm is a rear-entry suit featuring robust T-flex Neoprene throughout the chest to maximise comfort and increase durability. It comes with a sealskin neck seal, YKK metal zip puller and durable knee pads to protect the suit from damage. The 5mm version of the Storm (pictured) is part of wide range of suits which includes male, female, and children’s variants in 5 or 3/2mm thicknesses, long suits and shorties.
Swedish manufacturer Waterproof is another specialist in underwater thermal protection, and the award-winning W50 is the 5mm version of a range that also includes the W30, a lighter, 3mm suit which is also available as a shorty, and the 8mm W80 for colder water. The W50 (pictured) is constructed of UltraFlex Neoprene with reinforced shoulders, seat, and knees. The rear YKK #10 zipper has a unique moulded Velcro tab which only sticks to the place it is supposed to stick to, preventing damage to the suit’s surface, and zippers in the legs allow for ease of donning. Gender-specific versions of the suit are available, which also come with Waterproof’s Personal Accessory Dock, or WPAD – a detachable pocket to you or me.
£179 (full-length suit)
Not strictly speaking a wetsuit but definitely worth an honourable mention is Lavacore’s full body suit. Lavacore is a market leader in the world of advanced material technology, with a wide range of products in its inventory. Developed around its Polytherm Tri-Laminate material, constructed using a flexible and durable outer layer, a waterproof but breathable ‘inter-membrane’ and an insulating thermal inner layer, Lavacore’s full-length suits have the look, feel and freedom of movement of rash-garments, but the thermal protection properties of a 3mm wetsuit. The front- or rear-zipped bodysuit can be used as an ultra-light, standalone suit for warm-water scuba diving, or as a thermal undergarment in conjunction with a regular wetsuit in cooler waters.
Tips for buying
Try before you buy: As with most gear, it’s always better to try it on before you buy it. This is a hot and sweaty procedure in the local dive shop, but it’s better than jumping in the water and realising that the icy trickle down the back of your neck is never going to go away. If you choose to buy an unfamiliar suit online, make sure it comes with a money-back trial period, just in case.
Size: Wetsuit sizing is based more around height than width. A tall and slender person who would usually wear a medium sized shirt, for example, would probably require an XL-sized wetsuit. Neoprene is very flexible and will accommodate a range of proportions, but overall the suit should fit like a ‘second skin’, without impinging on your ability to take a full lungful of air, or squishing the human body’s various protrusions. Most manufacturers have gender-specific designs tailored to the male and female forms. Rental suits often do not.
Temperature guides: Some manufacturers categorise their suits within the range of temperatures for which they are best suited, but these should only be used as a very rough guide. One website listed a 3mm suit as appropriate for temperatures as low as 16°C, which, based on experience, it’s definitely not.
Hoods: Hoods are extremely useful accessories. Contrary to popular belief, the human body does not lose heat mostly through the head, but significant heat loss through the head does occur. Hoods are not essential for warmer water, and not everybody likes wearing them, but they can make a difference when the temperature is borderline between enjoying the last 15 minutes of a dive or hoping that somebody runs low on air before you start shivering
Undergarments: Rash guards are useful, if not always essential, although many divers prefer them to bare skin. There are also thermal undergarments available from several manufacturers that are not much different to rash guards, are lightweight and pack tightly, and provide an extra layer of thermal protection.
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