Wetsuits or boardshorts? What to wear when surfing?

March 1, 2017

Deciding what type of surfing gear you’re going to use when going out for a surf session might be easy if you are at a tropical and warm place or at a frigid location. You won’t have any doubts to wear only a pair of boardshorts in Nicaragua and a 5/4mm fullsuit if you are in Northern California during winter time. The problem resides when the air and water temperatures are always changing, like in Southern California.

Even on summer you will have to use a 3/2mm fullsuit some days in San Diego. Then, next week you can find yourself wearing only your boardshorts and a neoprene vest at the same spot. So, if you’re looking to buy a new wetsuit, the terminology, and huge range of choice, can be a little confusing. Here we’ll look at a number of different wetsuit shapes, from a simple vest to a fullsuit.

surf clothes - the vest
surf clothes – the vest

The Vest

The vest provides a little bit of neoprene coverage, giving protection from wind chill. The wetsuit vest is ideal to keep you more comfortable on a summers day surf (it’s also called tank top or singlet). The vest is normally either 1mm, 1.5mm or 2mm thick. Some people opt to use only a Lycra rashguard, that won’t prevent from cold but is good to protect your skin from the sun.


surf clothes - the jacket
surf clothes – the jacket

The Jacket

A slight step up in the warmth stakes when compared to the vest. Jackets can have short or full length arms and offer additional warmth for the top half of the body. You’ll be more protected against the elements. Jackets are normally constructed from 2mm thick material. Beware a full length chest zip at the front, these can be quite uncomfortable for a surfer while paddling.


surf clothes - the shortjohn
surf clothes – the shortjohn

The short john wetsuit

Your torso down to your thighs are now covered, giving you core warmth. Ideal for taking the chill off during a dawn patrol surf, while not becoming too hot as the sun gets higher. As there’s additional neoprene between the stomach and knees, you can dispense the use of board shorts.



surf clothes - the longjohn
surf clothes – the longjohn

The long john wetsuit

This gives you full body coverage, while leaving your arms uncovered. Great for easy paddling, you can flail your arms around with no neoprene resistance. The long john is ideal in conditions where the air temperature is warm but the water temperature is a little chilly.




surf clothes - the shortjohn
surf clothes – the shortjohn

The Springsuit

Has arms and legs coverage, at least in part. It comes with short legs, and can have both short and long arms. Ideal for summer surfing, long arms and full body keeps the sun off your skin, and your body core temperature increased.


surf clothes - short arm steamer
surf clothes – short arm steamer

The short arm steamer

Is normally made with a mix of 3mm and 2mm neoprene, and covers the trunk and legs. It also covers the upper arms, while leaving the forearms exposed. Your paddling should not be too affected. This design is built for warmth.


surf clothes - fullsuit
surf clothes – fullsuit

The Fullsuit

This wetsuit if for the cold water surfer, and comes in a range of wetsuit thicknesses, depending on the level of warmth required. For cooler temperatures, you would choose a 3mm/2mm wetsuit. For very cold weather you would need a 6mm/5mm/4mm wetsuit to allow you to stay in the water for longer. Some even come with hoods attached. A 6mm fullsuit with attached hood, wetsuit booties, wetsuit gloves, and heated rash guard, will see you stay in the water longer, but all those things will make you fell a lot heavier.

How to take care and wash the wetsuit?

Washing your wetsuit after every session helps wash away the salts and other things found in seawater. It also helps you keep away or at least delay that bad wetsuit smell. Then every once in a while your wetsuit needs a good wash. So, after every use or wash there is a time to dry it. There is the right and the wrong way to dry a wetsuit and this is where you can really shorten your wetsuits life. Please read carefully, as they are not cheap and you want them to last as long as you can.

First, some things that you cannot do with your wetsuit.

Don’t use any chemicals, soaps, detergents, bleaches and other similar aggressive substances. They can ruin the neoprene. Also don’t use washing machines, drying machines, cleaners and hot irons, of course. Just ordinary fresh water will do for regular everyday rinses. You can ask our teachers at

For everyday washing and rinsing, you get out of the water, get into the shower with your wetsuit on and rinse it while you are wearing it. Just make sure you don’t use hot water until you take it off . Neoprene doesn’t like hot water that much. Another simple wash method is to hang it outside and rinse it with water.

A more effective and a bit more time consuming way is using a tub or a container. Fill it with water and submerge your wetsuit into it. Leave the wetsuit soaking in the water for an hour or so. This way fresh water will really get into the neoprene in flush away everything that can be flushed by it. Then rinse it and hang it out to dry.

A few times a year – depends on how much you use it – you will want to wash your wetsuit a bit more thoroughly. This means using a shampoo. There are special shampoos intended for neoprene care and it’s best if you use them, they are mild enough not to harm the neoprene and they will leave a pleasant fresh smell. You can also use an ordinary mild shampoo instead or a few drops of washing detergent. The purpose of the shampoo is to dissolve all the greasy and fatty stuff that mostly gets into the wetsuit from our bodies and is in fact the breeding ground for bacteria which are the things that stink up your suit.  

Once your wetsuit is washed you need to dry. Neoprene biggest enemy is the sun with its UV rays. These rays will accelerate the aging of the material and your neoprene will turn pale, become harder and less flexible. So, no direct sun please. The ideal place to dry it is in a warm, shady and a bit windy place. If you squeeze the end of wetsuit arms and legs after it hangs for a while it will dry faster.

There are no rules on what to use, because every person has different sensibility to cold, but below there is a little graphic that can maybe make it easier to choose. Now, make your choice, have fun and stay warm.

Water Temperature Wetsuit Type Extras
40°F / 5°C 6/5/4 Sealed Rashguard, booties, wetsuit hood, wetsuit gloves
48°F / 9°C 5/4/3 Sealed Rashguard, booties, wetsuit hood, wetsuit gloves
52°F / 11.5°C 4/3 Sealed & Taped Warm Rashguard, booties, wetsuit gloves
56°F / 13.5°C 4/3 Sealed Neoprene Top
60°F / 15°C 3/2 Sealed Neoprene Top
65°F / 18.5°C 3/2 Flatlock
72°F / 22°C Springsuit / Poly Top / Jacket
80+°F / 26+°C Rashguard, waterproof sunscreen