Along with your freediving mask, a good wetsuit is a very important piece of equipment in freediving. All too often I see students attracted by the lure of carbon fins or a fancy diving watch, only to have no budget left for a good wetsuit. This is the worst decision you can make as a beginner freediver, and any experienced freediver will tell you so.
This is especially true for cold water freediving or spearfishing, where a good quality, custom fit, high quality neoprene wetsuit makes all the difference.
As a reference for our international community, when I mean cold, I mean outside temperatures of 0-10°C (30 – 50°F) and water temperatures of 4-8°C (35 – 45°F).
Going for a dip in Waterton Lakes National Park. The glacial waters here can reach 5C degrees or less. A high quality, custom-made 7mm wetsuit is necessary. Photo by Sea to to Sky Freediving.
Read below to find out what key things you should look for when getting a new wetsuit!
In this article we’ll answer questions such as:
Should I get a lined wetsuit or unlined wetsuit?
What is the best neoprene?
Shoud I get a custom fit or stock sizing?
What thickness of wetsuit do I need?
Should I get a long John or high waist bottoms?
Do I need to poke holes in the hood for equalization?
Should I get a custom fit or stock sizing?
This is the big question people ask themselves at the “checkout”. Should I pay extra for a custom fit suit?
If you’re an experienced freediver or a competition diver you know you want a custom, regardless of where you’ll be diving.
And if you’re just getting started in the sport, here’s what you need to know:
If you’re starting off freediving in warm water or you’ll be training exclusively in the pool, then a custom sizing fit is not as important. Buy a wetsuit that fits accordingly (most manufacturers provide a sizing chart) to your body type. Try out several models and sizes if you can. Like any other sport, you’ll figure out what you’ll like or don’t like, and in time adjust your preferences as you improve. If you can afford the extra cost of a custom fit, you’ll feel more comfortable and the suit will likely last you longer.
If you’re a beginner to freediving in cold water (i.e. 5°C to 20°C or less), then you should get a custom tailored fit. It is well worth it, believe me. Why? The first line of defense against the cold is reducing the flow of water against your skin. When a wetsuit is fitted snug to your body, there will be minimal flow of water, which will allow you to maintain a constant body temperature for longer. Of course this depends on the temperature gradient of your body, the wetsuit thickness and the outside water temperature (some more info here).
What are some signs that your wetsuit doesn’t fit too well?
There’s several folds of the neoprene around the chest, neck, armpits and back. If you can grab (gently) or pinch these and there’s plenty of space beneath then it’s likely too large and will flush with water.
It’s constantly flushing as you duck dive or move at depth. If you keep noticing a chilling flush of cold water down your back or elsewhere, then yes, there’s an issue.
If it’s uncomfortable around the chest area, or neck then it could be too tight. This is also very bad since it can restrict breathing and motion.
A very tight wetsuit can increase the likelihood of a barotrauma or a “squeeze”. I’ve experienced this personally and know other instructors that have as well. For a while I dove with a wetsuit that was very warm, but all too tight around the chest and neck. This caused even more discomfort at depth (compression of the neoprene) and resulted in minor trachea squeezes that otherwise never occurred before.
What is the best neoprene?
The common type of neoprene used in freediving comes (mostly) from Japan and is made from limestone. There are several manufacturers of neoprene such as Yamamoto (example: Oceaner wetsuits), Heiwa (example: Azure wetsuits), NJN and Sheico. These manufacturers use a closed-cell foam design that allows for a light weight, compressible, flexible neoprene with high heat retention.
Among these types of neoprenes, the most common for high-end suits are Yamamoto (more common in North America) and Heiwa (more common in Europe). Both manufacturers create neoprenes with very good flexibility, comfort, and strength. Naturally these are all characteristics you want in your wetsuit.
The biggest issue with cheaper freediving wetsuits and neoprene is compressibility. Neoprene for freediving suits consist of >80% gas, and this gas compresses at depth. Some neoprene can compress and decompress thousands of times. Other neoprenes compress only a few times. A cheap 3-mm suit can decrease in thickness by more than 1 mm (over 30% decrease!) after a few diving sessions. A good neoprene will remain flexible and warm for a long time if properly cared for (see here for care and maintenance).
Luca wearing an Oceaner Yamamoto 45 Tropical 1.5mm wetsuit. Although very thin, the high quality neoprene and custom fit allows you to stay comfortable and warm for hours. Visit our Shop for more details (www.seatoskyfreediving.com/shop). Photo by Sea to to Sky Freediving.
Most manufacturers of freediving suits will let you know what type of neoprene they use in their suits. If they don’t, keep shopping and don't buy from them!
If you’re a beginner diving in warm water or training in the pool, you may not need a top-of-the-line suit to start off with. You will be wearing a thin wetsuit, for which the type of neoprene won’t make as much a difference in the comfort and flexibility during your dives. However, if you have the budget, see it as a long term investment (that’s what I tell myself with every wetsuit I buy).
If you’re a beginner diver in cold water that is a different story. You will have to wear a thicker wetsuit (anywhere from 5mm to 8mm) to stay warm, and thus having a neoprene which is custom fitted, flexible and comfortable will make a huge difference. However, ensure you get a lined neoprene (see section below) and learn how to properly put on and remove the wetsuit.
To conclude, cold water freediving in itself is far different than freediving in the tropics. Having a higher quality of neoprene will go a long way in keeping you both warm, comfortable, but also safe.
Should I buy a lined or unlined freediving wetsuit?
If you’re a beginner freediver, get a wetsuit with an outer lining. An unlined wetsuit (both inside and out) is very easily torn or ripped, and we don’t recommend it for beginner freedivers. Additionally, you can use a lined suit for spearfishing and diving around rocks and sea lions without having to worry about it getting torn to shreds.
But what is lined or unlined? So, what’s open cell or closed cell?
There is a lot of confusion around the term ‘open cell’. Open cell foam is foam with an interconnected network of cells (think the kitchen sponge). Closed cell foam has cells that are not interconnected (neoprene). However, in our terminology we abuse the term open cell to talk about any unlined side of neoprene. Anything called an ‘open cell’ freediving suit usually means a suit without a lining on the inside. Usually we prefer unlined on the inside, and lined on the outside. A lining can be of fabric or smoothskin (a smooth lining made of neoprene or rubber that does not absorb water and is slightly stronger and creates less drag than unlined neoprene).
If you plan on spearfishing you want the outside of the wetsuit lined with either lycra or "super-stretch" nylon.
These linings will protect your neoprene wetsuit since the linings have a good resistance to abrasion. Lycra (known as spandex) tends to be more flexible than nylon, but less resistant, whereas nylon is better with abrasion, but at a cost to flexibility. This also depends on the thickness of the lining, subject to different manufacturer’s designs. Some manufacturer’s have “super stretch nylon”, which is a combination of both characteristics.
Unlined, or “smooth skin” provides a far more comfortable fit then any lining available, however, at the cost of durability and strength. A smooth skin wetsuit is far more susceptible to tearing or ripping. Smooth skin wetsuits are excellent for competitions because of the low drag they create and because they don’t absorb any water.
Remember, an unlined (inside) wetsuit must be properly lubricated on the inside before putting it on.
Once again, if you’re an experienced freediver you might even be able to spear for Lionfish with a smooth skin wetsuit and get away minimal scratches.
If you’re a beginner freediver in warm water or mostly do pool training, you should have a lining on the outside, lycra or nylon. Your wetsuit can easily snag on the pool edge or on a coral. Since you’re in warm water you can also have a lining on the inside, which will sacrifice some comfort unlike the unlined, but it will be easier and faster to put on or take off since you will not need any lubricant.
However, if you want a real nice snug fit with greater comfort, then having unlined smooth skin on the inside is the way to go.If you’re a beginner freediver in cold water, you should still have a lining on the outside, either lycra or nylon. You should not have a lining on the inside. However, remember that the inside is still prone to scratches and tears, so proper care must be used when putting on and taking off the wetsuit.
Staying warm before getting in the water and when getting out is critical to having a long and enjoyable dive. Photo by Sea to to Sky Freediving.