Which wetsuit for open water swimming?

muta triathlon

Which wetsuit to choose for open water swimming?

You love swimming, but your local pool is closed? You’re now ready to swim outdoors but don’t know which wetsuit you should choose for open water swimming? Most open water swimmers felt that way before purchasing their equipment for the first time. 

Open water swimming has developed in the past years. The offers on equipment are increasing which is great for us water lovers. So much so that it can feel a bit overwhelming.

There are so many types of wetsuits for different purposes, different thicknesses, different budgets… Where should you begin? Let me help you! In this article, I will help you understand when the wetsuit is needed. How does it work? And why there are so many styles? I will explain how you should choose your wetsuit and why the prices can vary so much. And finally, I will list extra accessories you could purchase to help you feel warmer.

When do I need to use a wetsuit?

Water is very different from air, it is heavy and dense and conducts heat more efficiently. This is why when the air and water have the same temperature, the water will feels cooler. Because it is carrying heat away from your body.

Swimming in cold water without a wetsuit can put you in danger of hypothermia. That doesn’t mean you can’t swim in cold water without a wetsuit. Some people do it every day without getting sick and actually enjoy it!

What you need to do is learn about your own limits and preferences. There is no rule or specific temperatures when you should wear a wetsuit. Some people wear a wetsuit in 27°C (80°F) water in the Summer. Some can swim in freezing water wearing only their swimsuit. I personally prefer swimming without a wetsuit. But it starts feeling uncomfortable when the water gets below 19°C (66°F). This is when I prefer wearing a wetsuit for better comfort.

What is a wetsuit, and how does it work?

A wetsuit is a piece of clothing made of different layers, the most important being neoprene, a synthetic rubber. The layers work as insulation, trapping, and reflecting the heat.

When you immerse yourself, a bit of water infiltrates between your body and the layers of the wetsuit. This thin layer of water quickly warms up creating insulation and keeping you warm. Magic!

So, now we know that we want to keep the thin layer of water against our skin. And to avoid cold water to get in, we need our wetsuit to be well-fitted and snug.

Here is a link to the proper scientific explanation.

Different types of wetsuits for different purposes

The Neoprene material was invented by DuPont Scientists. But it is Dr. Hugh Bradner, known as “the father of wetsuit”, who invented it. His invention changed surfers’ and scuba divers’ lives. It became popular in the 1950s and nowadays, there is a type of wetsuit for every water activity.

So what is the difference between all the different wetsuits ?

  • The scuba diving wetsuit is made of durable material. Scuba divers do not need to do a lot of movements. Their wetsuit is strong but also fairly stiff. In other words, the wetsuit will last longer but won’t let you move your arms around very well. That is why swimmers don’t choose this type of wetsuit.
  • Surfers need some freedom of movement. But it still needs to be tough and warm. It is like an intermediate kind of wetsuit, durable but still too stiff on the shoulders to swimmers’ taste.
  • The swimming wetsuit needs to be very flexible on the shoulders to avoid any constraints. That means that the wetsuit is built with different panels of different thickness allowing more freedom of movement. It also means the swimming wetsuit is more fragile and needs very good care.

Which one should you choose as an open water swimmer? You can get started with any type of wetsuit to keep you from hypothermia. No need to get anything fancy, any wetsuit is better than no wetsuit. But eventually, you will get annoyed by the stiffness of the scuba and surfing wetsuits. If you’re going to purchase this piece of equipment, I suggest you get straight to the swimming wetsuit type.

What about the thickness?

Open water swimmers will usually choose a triathlon wetsuit, they are the easiest to find.

Triathletes pick their gear thinking not just about one activity. Once they get out of their swim, they need to change to their cycling gear as quickly as possible. Their wetsuit is studied to make them do the least effort possible in the water. And it should be easy to take off.

The thicker your suit will be, the warmer and the more buoyancy it will give you. But also the less flexibility it will have. Each brand will give you a detail of the thickness of the different panels.

Triathlon wetsuits vs natural swimming wetsuits

Triathlon wetsuits’ material is thus very flexible. Panels will be thicker on the front of the body and upper legs to increase buoyancy. Which means swimming faster with less effort. If you have trouble keeping your legs at the surface, this type of wetsuit is perfect for you!

Like a lot of open water swimmers, I started with a triathlon wetsuit. It was 4.5mm thick on the body and upper legs and 3mm on other parts. I loved it because it kept me warm. But I also hated it because it made me float too much. I had the feeling my legs were out of the water and I couldn’t use them to kick efficiently. It was thus very frustrating for that part.

So I made a bit of research. I found a few brands that design wetsuits for swimmers who prefer a more natural position in the water. The wetsuit is thus thinner all around still keeping me warm on the body. But it allows me to have better swimming sensations. I was afraid I was going to be colder with this thinner wetsuit. Instead, the fact I am able to better move keeps me warmer.

My pick is the Alpkit Terrapin Natural Swimming Wetsuit that I use in water between 9°C and 19°C (48°F-66°F). This is my second year using this wetsuit, and I’m very happy about it. It is very easy to put on and take off, and it has great flexibility. Mostly it gives me much better freedom of movement than my previous triathlon wetsuit and is very affordable.

Orca also makes this type of wetsuit with their “Alpha” and “Equip” models designed for the natural swimmer.

Budget for a open water swimming wetsuit

Which makes me get to the budget topic. How much should you spend on your wetsuit? It will all depend on the purpose you want to make of it. It can vary between €80 for a thin wetsuit to over €800 for the top range.

If you’re buying a wetsuit for performance, you want to get quality in material and easiness of use. And the higher the budget will be.

If like me, you use a wetsuit for comfort in cooler water, it is easy to find affordable options. My Alpkit Terrapin cost me €140 which I find very reasonable for the quality I get. 

There are many options in the €100-300 price range for triathlon and swimming wetsuits. It is probably the budget you want to spend on a first wetsuit purchase.

Choosing the right size

When you’ve decided what type of suit you want, you need to pick the right size. As I explained before, your suit needs to be snug not to let cold water get in. The best way is to measure your body and read carefully the sizing of the brand you picked. 

A new wetsuit will pretty much always feel too small for someone who has never used one. Don’t return it, it is normal! It takes time to get used to putting it on. It will get looser in the water when wet and with time. If you are really uncomfortable you can go up a size knowing that it could affect the thermal efficiency.

Accessories to keep you warmer

Now you have your wetsuit and are ready to go, but you’re still worried you’ll be cold. Not everybody has the same sensations and preferences in open water. I rarely get cold on the core of my body when I wear a wetsuit. But I tend to lose sensation in my fingers and feet at colder temperatures. You can add neoprene gloves and socks to your equipment to avoid this. It works perfectly for a lot of people. Personally, it didn’t work for me. I didn’t like the sensation of swimming with gloves and socks. And it simply didn’t prevent my extremities to get numb. 

What really helped though is the swimming neoprene hood. It really worried me at first as it has a chin strap, and I was afraid I’d feel strangled. Be reassured, they are very comfortable and make a huge difference to make you warmer. The best part of wearing it is that it protects my ears from getting cold water in. The water getting in warms up with the neoprene effect. 

Woman wearing a neoprene swim hood and a wetsuit for open water swimming

If you want extra protection from the cold for your ears, you can also use swimming earplugs.

Another thing to keep in mind is the amount of time you spend in the water. If you are new to cold water, spend less time in the water at first and increase gradually.

Taking care of your open water swimming wetsuit

In order to make your wetsuit last as long as possible, you need to take very good care of it. The swimming wetsuits are fragile. You need to be careful when you put them on, especially with your fingernails. Once you have finished your swim, you need to rinse your suit thoroughly with fresh water and dry it properly. Never dry your wetsuit in the sun as it will burn it, and deteriorate faster. Use a wide hanger to hang it as the thin one could damage the shoulder part. And finally, make sure it is fully dried before you put it away.

Conclusion: wetsuit for open water swimming

There is no need to spend a fortune on a good wetsuit unless you are looking at performance. The choice of a wetsuit is very personal and is only yours. What works for one might not work for another. Purpose, comfort, and proper fit are the key to choosing which wetsuit for open water swimming. 

Have a good swim! Sarah

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