Whether you’re surfing, swimming or scuba diving, a good wetsuit is like a second skin – one that lets you brave the chilliest waters, or just a few laps around the local, unheated lido in winter.
Wetsuits come in a whole range of styles, lengths and thicknesses. Full suits are best for cold water and cold seasons, while “shorty's” (legless/3/4 leg suits) and one-pieces are better for summer.
Almost all wetsuits are neoprene – it is hard to beat for flexibility, warmth and drying quickly. Some people are allergic to neoprene, though, so it’s really important to try on a suit if you can, or watch out for signs of dermatitis. Patagonia offers a great alternative to neoprene that’s made from ethically sourced rubber, and is just as effective against the cold.
Different sports need different suits, and tastes vary. Generally speaking, if your body will be mostly in the water (surfing, swimming or bodyboarding) you don’t need to worry too much about windchill: look instead for a thickness that will cope with the water temperature you plan to use it in.
If you will be upright or out of the water for long stretches – windsurfing or paddle boarding, for example – air temperature is an important consideration. A thinner wetsuit with more coverage (legs and arms) would do even if the water is cool.
Your wetsuit size is based on your height, waist and chest measurements, and it's best to go for a size up if you're between exact sizes. The right fit will feel snug when you try it on but not restrictive: it should be skin tight when dry. Don't worry – it will loosen in water and after a few wears, but should never feel baggy anywhere. O’Neill has a good guide to wetsuit sizes and fit.
Where appropriate we tested these suits in the bracing cold of the Atlantic on a surf and swimming tour of the Wild Atlantic Way. Summer suits came with us to our favourite local wild swimming spots and the lido – a full suit wouldn’t fit in here, but a one piece is a perfect compromise, offering good UV protection on the back and arms. We looked for durability and warmth, and in particular for well-sealed seams with no danger of leakage.
We also tested wetsuits for triathletes and wild swimmers. Sleeveless suits are great for vigorous swimming and they keep your shoulders free and mobile; easy-to-reach zips and a slightly more flexible fit are important for tri-suits, where precious seconds can be lost in transitions.
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Quiksilver highline plus 3/2mm chest zip wetsuit
A supremely flexible, warm and comfortable wetsuit with the kind of professional-level technology that can handle very cold water effortlessly. This suit is designed for surfing – which it’s brilliant for, with light and flexible knee pads and quick-drying neoprene that makes it easy to jump out of the water for a quick barbecue break. But because it’s so light and supportive, it’s also wonderful for cold water swimming. We tested this suit in the coldest water of all our reviews and it performed beautifully: the seams were absolutely watertight, and the soft thermal layer absorbed all the initial shock and kept us comfortable throughout. The chest zip entrance is a great idea, and tucks away neatly.
Buy now £310.00, Quiksilver
Patagonia women’s R3 yulex back-zip full suit
The best full suit for people who are allergic to neoprene, this is made from natural rubber and is comfortable, flexible and really warm. Just right for sea swimming, it has snug cuffs in the ankles to keep the perfect fit, and an internal gasket at the back zip to stop chilly water flooding into the suit. It also looks good – a tricky thing to manage with a wetsuit – thanks to the little pops of colour on the ankles and shading around the chest. It has impeccable ethical credentials: the rubber is Forest Stewardship Council certified by the Rainforest Alliance, much of the other materials are recycled, and it is Fairtrade certified. We found it performs just as well as neoprene, especially in mild to cool water.
Buy now £312.00, Patagonia
Olaian women’s surfing shorty
A stylish and budget-friendly shorty that’s perfect for summer bodyboarding and short surf sessions. It fits nicely, with a kind of triathlon suit style support, and the long back zip that makes it easy to slip on and off. It’s not designed for cold water, but worked great in our outdoor swimming tests during the heatwave, staying snug and secure even with vigorous competitive swimming. With its sleeves, back and shorts offering a bit more protection from harsh sunlight, this would be a great suit for snorkelling in tropical water.
Buy now £24.99, Decathlon
Osprey men’s full length wetsuit 3mm
A comfortable wetsuit with plenty of flex that’s ideal for swimming in warm water, surfing and paddleboarding. The fit is close but non-aggressive – close to what you’d get with a hired suit on holiday – and, while it can feel a little tight to start with, it relaxes perfectly when you get into the water. For the price, it has plenty of nice touches – like wind resistant paneling on the chest and back, knee pads and decent seam seals – we didn’t notice any water ingress during testing. We tested it in warm UK water, but this would be a great pick for snorkelling or swimming in hotter countries.
Buy now £49.99, Osprey
Lululemon will the wave long sleeve one piece
Perfect for summer surfing and spring season, this slinky offering is a good compromise between a shorty and a regular swimsuit. It’s fantastically robust and fits really well, with excellent support, making it ideal for experienced swimmers who want to want to make the most of a dip in the sea on holiday. The flexible lycra can also handle chlorine, so it can comfortably withstand chilly lidos. The sleeves are flexible and warm and offer good UV-protection – great for sports like paddle boarding or kayaking, or anywhere your arms will be exposed to the sun for long periods.
Buy now £118.00, Lululemon
Dhb hydron women’s sleeveless wetsuit 2.0
A new season version of dhb’s popular swim and triathlon-angled wetsuit that feels more flexible and is significantly easier to get on and off than most suits – exactly what you need for race-day transitions. It’s sleeveless, which gives you maximum flexibility and freedom around the shoulders, and while it is stretchy, it fits very snugly to help you glide through the water. It’s thin, so not designed for cold or very cold water swimming, but worked beautifully in warm summer water in our tests. If you do decide to compete, the quick release calf panels and smooth, easy to reach zip will shave seconds off your PB.
Buy now £100.00, Wiggle
O'Neill epic 5/4mm full wetsuit chest zip womens
A super soft and flexible suit from the company that claims to have invented wetsuits, this full-length offering is a fantastic example of the best new innovations in wetsuit technology. The two-layer seal around the neck stops water rushing in from the top of the suit, where the zipper entry is, which is one of the worst things that can go wrong with a wetsuit. The seams are smooth, blindstitched and glued so the neoprene isn’t punctured all the way through – this significantly reduces the risk of leaking, even if a thread breaks. It’s designed for surfing, like most O’Neill suits, but would work well for wild swimming as well. At 5/4mm, it can cope with most English weather.
Buy now £189.95, O’Neill
Billabong salty dayz 3/2mm fullsuit for women
A silky smooth and gorgeous-looking wetsuit from a brand you’ll recognise from surfing competitions. This is an ideal Autumn suit – thin and flexible, with thermal panels to protect against windchill and add warmth in the water. As you’d expect from a high-end suit, the seams are blindstitched and triple glued, and really don’t let any water in. A supremely durable option that’s ideal for competition, it’s also available in a rainbow of colours and styles.
Buy now £220.00, Billabong
Olaian women’s full wetsuit 3/2mm
The perfect bridge between hiring a wetsuit and splashing out for an all-season model, this attractive offering is great for summer swimming and short surf sessions. We found it to be a very snug fit the first few times we tried it, but it loosens with use and when you get in the water. The little extras – a small key pocket on the leg, hoops for attaching boots and flexible pads in the knees – are a thoughtful addition that raises this suit well above its budget price point. The back zip, with a long, grabable ribbon, makes getting it on and off easy, and having it at the back makes this suit more comfortable for paddling out and bodyboarding.
Buy now £79.99, Decathlon
The verdict: Wetsuits
It’s expensive, but Quiksilver’s suit is the one we would trust the most in the worst weather. Lululemon’s classy long-sleeved one piece is our new favourite for holidays and chillier trips to the local lido.