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A beginners guide to open water swimming wetsuits

Learn about open water swimming wetsuits, including the benefits of wearing a wetsuit, how to choose the right wetsuit and how to put one on correctly.

Are you in the market for your first open water swimming wetsuit?

Year-round swimming is becoming ever more popular as cold water swimming becomes trendy and swimmers grow attached to the freedom offered by open water over the predictable atmosphere of the pool.

Having a wetsuit in your gear bag will stretch out your season and allow you to enjoy the open water no matter what the water temperature.

For most swimmers, the primary requirement of a wetsuit is to keep them warm, but, like most things, there is a huge range of wetsuits on offer, and knowing what to look for will ensure you get the right wetsuit for you.

What are the benefits of wearing a swimming wetsuit?

Wetsuits keep you warm

The primary purpose of a wetsuit is to keep you warm in cooler water temperatures, but how warm it keeps you will depend on the thickness of the wetsuit and how cold the water is.

The key is finding the sweet spot between thickness, buoyancy and mobility. A thinner wetsuit will provide less warmth and buoyancy but more mobility, and a thicker wetsuit will keep you warmer and buoyant but can be more constrictive and uncomfortable for swimming.

Wetsuits boost confidence and provide safety

A wetsuit will make you more buoyant in the water which in turn can make you feel more confident in the water. Wearing a wetsuit is like having your own life jacket on, it’ll help keep you afloat which means if you get tired on a swim you can float and rest easily.

Wetsuits make you faster

The right fitted wetsuit will make you more buoyant, which in turn reduces drag and makes you faster (because you don’t have to pull as much of your body through the water). At the same time, you’ll also be more efficient in the water which will allow you to swim with less effort (you’ll take longer to fatigue, especially over the longer open water distances). Research has shown that wearing a wetsuit can make you as much as 10% faster.

Things to think about when buying a wetsuit

When choosing a wetsuit for open water swimming you want to ensure it is going to suit your specific needs. There are plenty of options out there for free diving, scuba diving and surfing but you will want a wetsuit specific for open water swimming.

Choose the right wetsuit for your needs

When choosing your first wetsuit for open water swimming, the biggest mistake many swimmers make is choosing one designed for surfing, scuba diving or free diving. You want to steer away from surfing and diving brands and look for an open water swimming or triathlon brand to find yourself a wetsuit suited to open water swimming.

You might ask what’s the difference between a surfing/diving wetsuit and an open water swimming wetsuit. Well, a surfing wetsuit is designed to be a little looser all over and is made for sitting and standing out of the water and diving down under the water.

An open water swimming wetsuit is designed to be tighter, float you higher in the water and allow you to move faster through the water.

How much coverage do you need?

Wetsuits come in all sorts of styles, the most popular being:

Full-length – A full-length wetsuit has long arms and long legs and will keep you the warmest and most buoyant.

Spring/Shorty – This style of wetsuit has short arms and short legs, which will keep your torso warm, but give you more freedom in the arms and legs. Variations of the spring suit will have long arms and short legs, or long legs and short arms.

Sleeveless – Sleeveless wetsuits have long legs and no arms (singlet style). For swimmers, this is great because you get plenty of coverage for warmth and loads of buoyancy, all while keeping the shoulders free to rotate without any restriction.

Tops and/or bottoms – If you’re after the most versatility in your wetsuit, you might like to go for a separate wetsuit top and/or bottom. This will give you the option to mix and match so you always strike the right balance between keeping warm and maximising mobility.

What is the ideal thickness?

Vorgee’s V-FORCE VIII Wetsuit (Full-length)

The thickness of a wetsuit will determine the warmth it provides and the buoyancy it offers.

Most open water swimming wetsuits will be designed with different thicknesses of neoprene in different locations, designed to offer flexibility where it’s needed, without compromising on keeping you warm.

In general, the thicker (i.e. 2-3 mm) panels will be through the upper body and chest, while the thinner (1-1.5 mm) panels will be in the shoulders, arms and legs.

The more basic wetsuits tend to have less differentiation in panel thickness, whereas the more premium wetsuits will distribute the thickness of neoprene throughout smaller sections of the wetsuit.

Getting the right fit

Ensuring your wetsuit fits properly is a very important part of the wetsuit buying process.

The way wetsuits keep you warm is by trapping a small layer of warm water between your skin and the neoprene. If your wetsuit is too loose it will let the water in, cool you down, create extra drag and make swimming harder. Whereas if you choose a wetsuit that’s too tight it will restrict your flexibility and give you a suffocating feeling.

Ultimately, you want a wetsuit that’s a firm fit and allows you to move your shoulders and arms without too much restriction.

Trying on your wetsuit

The key to finding the right fit is to try before you buy. Head to a store and try on multiple wetsuits to find the best fit or buy a couple online, try them at home and send back the ones you don’t like (check the returns policy before taking this option). 

First and foremost your wetsuit needs to be comfortable, after all, you are swimming in it. You want it to be firm but flexible in the right places. 

Once you have your wetsuit on, try doing some arm swings, leg swings and arm strokes to check you can move your arms and leg comfortably without too much restriction. 

Check your wetsuit fits snuggly around your wrists and ankles, the arms and legs of the wetsuit needn’t reach all the way to your hands and feet (this is often a design consideration).

The fit around the neck can cause new wetsuit wearers the most anxiety as it can feel constrictive and give them a sense of ‘choking’. Wetsuits are designed to minimise this feeling whilst ensuring water isn’t given an opportunity to get into the wetsuit. Some wetsuits will have a high neckline and others a low neckline, and which one you choose will be a personal preference.

How to put on your wetsuit

When you first start wearing wetsuits you’ll find putting on your new wetsuit a challenge in itself. The key is to take your time, have someone help you if you can, and make sure you protect your new investment.

  1. – Start by wearing a pair of cotton gloves (they often come with the wetsuit) to protect the neoprene from your fingernails
  2. – Hold your wetsuit out straight in front of you with the back facing toward you 
  3. – Unzip the wetsuit and fold the torso part to the front 
  4. – Put your first leg into the wetsuit (a plastic bag and pointed foot will help) and glide the wetsuit up your leg. Repeat with the other leg
  5. – Maneuver the wetsuit with your hands – from the ankle to the waist – so the legs are evenly distributed
  6. – Pull the wetsuit up to ensure the crutch and waist are in the correct position
  7. – Put one arm in and thread your arm into place – from the wrist to the shoulder – with your other hand, repeat with the other arm
  8. – Make small adjustments to your wetsuit to ensure it’s fitting snug and you feel comfortable
  9. – Zip your wetsuit up from the back by pulling the string over your shoulders
  10. – Allow the string on the zip to fall and fold the velcro flap over 

Shop for wetsuits

The Shop has a range of wetsuits to suit your needs.

  • Written by Ocean Swims on 6 June 2022
  • (Updated on 4 August 2023)



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