The main elements of surf gear are a surfboard, a leash and some kind of clothing to help you get out into the surf and ride waves for an hour or more.
However, the type of surf gear needed depends greatly on the conditions in a given surf area or destination, particularly around wearing a wetsuit.
With this mind, many people curious about surfing ask the following question: why do surfers wear wetsuits?
In short, wetsuits keep surfers warm out in the sea, meaning that they can stay out longer in the surf colder water. Wetsuits are designed for this purpose, and exactly how they work to do this will be covered in this article.
Why do wetsuits keep you warm?
Wetsuits keep surfers, and other users, warm by using body temperature to warm up the thin layer of water that each wetsuit allows in. Once a wetsuit lets this water in, your body temperature will gradually warm the water over a few minutes.
This means that wetsuits often mean a bit of a cooler start, but things warm up from there on as you move and the water then changes with your body temperature.
This is also the reason why they are called ‘wet’ suits, not drysuits, as dry suits are used for diving and do not let any water in at all.
Wetsuits are also worn skin-tight, meaning that only a small amount of water can get in but also meaning your body’s warmth is not lost as the wetsuit clings to you tightly.
If looking to buy a wetsuit, be sure to check out my full guide to help you get the right one for you!
As you can probably see, wetsuits are a fantastic piece of engineering and innovation, meaning that watersports enthusiasts like surfers can actually do things that would be impossible without them.
What is the benefit of wearing a wetsuit when surfing?
Wearing a wetsuit when surfing has 3 main benefits:
- More time in the water
- Can surf year-round
The warmth offered by wetsuits means that surfers can actually surf. If you think about jumping into an ice bath versus jumping into a mild, slightly warm bath, no doubt you will realize that extremely cold water can make you tighten up and lose much of your flexibility as your body reacts.
However, if protected by a wetsuit when the water temperature is colder, your body can retain more of its warmth, leaving you to surf more freely and do tricks and try new things.
Continuing on from the above, having more time in the water then means catching more waves and surfing more, so you can have a lot more fun!
Wetsuits extend the time surfers can spend in the waves, which is always a bonus if you want to get maximum time in the sea without feeling cold and uncomfortable.
Wetsuits also allow surfers to surf in places and regions all year-round, where it simply would not be possible otherwise. Wetsuits for surfing were only properly invented in the late seventies, before which people could not even attempt surfing in some of the winter months around the world.
Fast forward to today and surfers are surfing all over the globe, 365 days a year, all thanks to their wetsuits and the innovations and improvements in them.
Wetsuits have also allowed surfers to explore the possibilities of riding waves in places around the world with such low water temperatures that it would not be possible otherwise, like Iceland, for example, as you can see in the video below:
Are there any drawbacks to wearing a wetsuit for surfing?
Surf wetsuits, although fantastic, mean that it is harder to move when wearing one because of their tight fit and the way that they absorb water. Both of these points make surfing more difficult all-round, as we’ll explain below.
Wetsuits are made of neoprene panels, stitched and glued together in the shape of a human body. Although flexible, the neoprene still needs to be at least 1mm thick for it to work as a wetsuit, with winter surf wetsuits or ‘steamers’ getting up to 6mm thickness.
As you can no doubt imagine, the thicker a surf wetsuit, the heavier it is and therefore the less flexible it becomes.
This is not ideal since thicker wetsuits are needed in colder water, but the cold also makes your body struggle to move more, so it’s a double whammy of restricted movement from the thickness of your suit and your body’s reaction to the cold water.
On top of this, wetsuits also absorb water by design. This might not sound like much but a wet wetsuit can double in weight when wet.
This then feels more like wearing a weighted vest for resistance training than just a bodysuit!
I’ve actually tested this and found that, after a surf, all my wet wetsuit gear and accessories weighed 11 pounds, from around 5 pounds when dry.
With these points in mind, you can probably see that surfing with a wetsuit can restrict the dynamic movements needed for riding waves and also means more effort on the part of the surfer wearing one.
However, for many surfers in colder regions, this is the trade-off for being able to surf at all, since many would simply be watching from the beach without a wetsuit.
Why is neoprene used for wetsuits?
Neoprene has a few key properties which make it ideal for use in wetsuits, as follows:
- Insulation properties for warmth
- Buoyant so helps you to float in water
- Remains flexible in many temperatures
So, a good wetsuit will keep you warm out in colder waters, help you to float when you fall off your surfboard and also will not stiffen up if the water is hotter or colder, making for a reliable and consistent material for a high-performance sport like surfing.
It also helps that neoprene is not too expensive to manufacture and produce, helping to keep costs down and mean wetsuits remain affordable to most consumers.
Why do surfers wear bodysuits? As explained in this article, what some call ‘bodysuits’ are actually wetsuits. These mean surfers can stay warm in cooler water and stay out in the sea for longer. In some places, it would not be possible to surf without a wetsuit as the water is too cold.
With this in mind, we can see that wetsuits can actually making surfing possible in places where it would be impossible otherwise; places like Alaska, Norway and Iceland all have great waves on their day but all need a wetsuit to be able to surf in the frigid waters there.
Why do surfers wear black wetsuits? Wetsuits are mostly black because this color means that the wetsuit retains more heat energy from the sun, keeping the surfer inside warm. They are also black because most neoprene comes in black as standard, helping to keep production costs down.
Why do surfers have long hair? Some surfers have long hair simply because it is part of the care-free lifestyle that surfing embodies. There is absolutely no practical advantage of having long hair as a surfer and so it is 100% a stylistic choice, rather than a functional one.
The tendency for surfers to have long hair is likely related to the way in which surfing has often been perceived as a ‘counter culture’ in places like Southern California, with rebellious roots in spending long days at the beach instead of doing the more expected things like ‘getting a job’ or working day and night.