So you want to go river surfing when either the water or the air is cold enough that board shorts just going to cut it anymore. It’s time for a new piece of gear; maybe the most important piece of surfing gear next to the surfboard: the river surfing wetsuit.
The first step in determining what wetsuit is right for you is determining the water temperature you’re probably going to encounter. So how do you figure out your water temp? Our friend the USGS can help you out, at least if you’re in the United States. Some of their gauging stations have water temperatures, like this one for the Beaver Wave.
And you can search for historical data too on their full site. Don’t sweat it if your exact gauge doesn’t sample temperature, just look for nearby drainages and try to get close. On the Beaver Wave, which is what that gauge is linked to, a lot of springtime temperatures fluctuate from the mid 40s to mid 50s Fahrenheit, which is pretty standard for a lot of Rocky Mountains rivers in the spring.
Your target temperature will dictate how thick you want your wetsuit to be. Thickness is expressed in millimeters, and where you see more than one number, the first (higher) number is the torso thickness, and the second (lower) number is the thickness for the limbs (since you want them to be more flexible and they’ll lose less heat). Three numbers are split torso/arms/legs. Here is the general breakdown between water temperature and wetsuit thickness:
Temp (F): Equipment
75+: Board shorts, rashguard. No wetsuit needed
75-63: 2mm Top or Shorty (short-sleeved suit)
58-64: 3/2, maybe long sleeve springsuit
55-60: 3/2mm full suit, booties
48-55: 4/3mm, booties
43-48: 5/4mm, booties, hood
<43 6/5: booties, hood, or drysuit
Just about all manufacturers separate their suits by neoprene thickness. Patagonia is an outlier because they line their suits with merino wool, so their R4 wetsuit, for example, offers the warmth of a 5/4 wetsuit. Otherwise, just pay attention to thickness.
Pick a Price
So, you’ve decided what thickness of wetsuit you need. Make sure you’re looking at surfing wetsuits; dive and triathlon wetsuits will be geared towards different movements and different requirements. A little looking around will tell you that even if you’re looking at one manufacturer — O’Neill, for example — you’ll still find more than one suit for each thickness, at significantly different prices. So what’s the extra money for? Generally, more money will get you (1) stretchier, more flexible material, and (2) better stitching. Sometimes it’ll also get you bells-and-whistles like panels intended to keep water from flushing through your zipper etc., but generally the material and the stitching will be the big differences. More often than not, you get what you pay for.
More stretch in your neoprene will allow the suit to fit closer to your body, keeping you warmer. Higher-end suits also often have solid panels around your torso that are windproof to keep your core warm, though this addition is trickling down to the cheaper suits as well. Ironically, the stretchier material tends to break down a little faster than the cheaper stuff, but generally there aren’t huge durability differences. Different manufacturers call their super-stretchy neoprene different things, but they’re generally talking about the same thing. Additionally, more money will generally get you fewer panels, which means fewer seams, more flexibility, and a warmer and more comfortable suit.
Stitching and Seams
Stitching has a big impact on how durable a suit is but, more importantly, it can have a major impact on how warm the suit is, because seams can either be full of holes, letting in cold water, or nearly airtight. Though there isn’t much agreement as to what the various kinds of neoprene should be called, seam-stitching methods usually go by the same names across manufacturers, so if a suit’s seams are described one of the following ways, you have a pretty good idea of what they’re talking about:
Flatlock – If you’re wearing a T-shirt, this is probably the stitching you see that looks like railroad tracks. Visible from both sides of the fabric, this riddles the seams with holes that let in cold water. Fine if you’re getting out in warmer water, but not great for colder weather.
￼Overlock – Think of seams on your pillowcases – they’re done kind of like this. Two pieces of fabric are stitched together, then the seam is flipped so that you don’t see the stitches from the outside. Fewer holes than flatlock, but still not watertight.
Blindstitched – Done with a hooked needle, these stitches never penetrate the neoprene completely, giving a much drier seam. These seams are often then glued or sealed together over the stitch to add to the waterproofing.
In addition to the stitches above, seams can also be “glued” which means a layer of glue is laid along the seam to keep it dry. They can also be “sealed and taped,” which usually means that the seam is glued, and then a layer of sealing tape is applied over the glue. This is the driest and usually most expensive seam.
Beyond materials, you may see the following designs:
Back Zip: The standard for years and years, upsides of the back zip include a drier neck and easier entry/exit. Downsides include less flexibility in the back/shoulders and a large entry point for water along the zipper.
Front Zip: A front zipper gives you a greater range of motion in your back and shoulders, and a smaller zipper for water entry. Downsides are they’re tougher to enter and exit, and some necks have issues with flushing.
Zipperless: Possible thanks to very flexible material around the neck, these suits are a pain to enter and exit, but tend to be dry and flexible.
Fit is critical to staying warm and comfortable in a wetsuit. Different manufacturers have their own sizing guides – take a look at them as a starting point. But try on as many wetsuits as you can before buying one; many people find that a certain manufacturer’s cut fits them better, and they’ll stick to that particular manufacturer. A good-fitting suit will fit snugly against your body all over your body, with no areas bunching up or feeling loose. Make sure you can lift your arms with any major restriction. Same goes for squatting down. Most people find it most comfortable to wear nothing under a wetsuit, but your mileage may vary. If you have trouble getting your feet through, try covering them with plastic bags first. Overall, look for a fit like a second skin that doesn’t unduly restrict your movement (though some restriction is hard to avoid with heavier winter suits 5mm and thicker).
Putting It All Together
It’s worth trying out as many suits as you can, but sometimes you’re landlocked and have to order online. Here is an overview of a few major manufacturers and their offerings. For each, I’m going to give you their 4/3 fullsuit options so you can compare similar high-end and low-end suits, along with a couple other offerings. Price are good as of the date of posting:
Epic 4/3 ($170) Their entry level wetsuit, sporting blindstiched-and-glued seams and a decent chest panel. The 3/2 version was my first wetsuit.
Psychofreak 4/3 ($500) Their top-end wetsuit. Over twice as much money gets you much better neoprene, better cuffs, better body panels, a better zipper, etc.
Heat 4/3 ($300) Halfway between the Epic and Psychofreak. Better seams than the Epic, but not as many top end features or as much top end fabric as the Psychofreak.
Hyperfreak Zipperless 3/2 ($207) Another midpoint option, with a zipperless entry. A lot of other manufacturers have similar options in their lineups, so from here on I’ll just look at the top and bottom of the ranges.
Axis 4/3 ($230) Their entry level suit, sporting blind-stitched and glued seams with interior tape. It sports better features than O’Neill’s baseline model, but it’s also more expensive.
Drylock 4/3 ($400) Again, twice as much money gets you better neoprene, better linings, better seams and seam taping, and a better zipper
Syncro 4/3 ($155) About what you’d expect in an entry wetsuit; price is reasonable,
seams are glued and blind stitched, but no real bells and whistles.
AG47 4/3 ($325) Not quite twice as much money gets you lighter neoprene, infrared-reflecting lining, and taped and sealed seams
Syncro 4/3 ($144). Roxy is a sister brand of Quicksilver, so they share roughly the same offerings. This one matches the Quicksilver Syncro.
AG47 4/3 ($310) Ditto. Same Features and same price point.
River Surfing Wetsuit Care and Feeding
Since you’re river surfing instead of ocean surfing, you’re avoiding one of neoprene’s biggest killers: salt water. But the two others areWetsuit Care and Feeding still around: sun and heat. It’s still worth washing your suit down in clean water after getting out of the river, since body funk still breeds in fresh water. Once you’ve rinsed it off, don’t keep it in a hot car – the heat will do damage to both the neoprene and the seams. And if you’re hanging it out to dry, keep it out of the sun, since UV rays don’t do the fabric any favors either. And finally, after letting your suit hang dry for a day (off of a bar of some sort, not a single hook), flip it inside-out to allow the other side to dry.