Your First Dive Gear: Suits
For recreational diving, your mask, snorkel and fins can be taken with you pretty much anywhere in the world, but when it comes to buying your own exposure suit, you need to ask yourself some questions about where you’re going to be diving, and what the water temperature is likely to be when you get there. I’m going to focus on the traditional wetsuit as that will be most familiar to most recreational divers looking to make their first equipment purchases; drysuits are a specialist subject in their own right, and I am really not the go-to guy when it comes to their use.
We already know from our training that thermal insulation is provided by the thickness of the material, and the small layer of water that gets trapped inside and warmed by our bodies. The most important feature of any wetsuit is, therefore, the fit. To use the old cliché – it should feel like a second skin, with close-fitting cuffs and collars that prevent too much water from washing in and out of the suit and taking your body heat away with it. A wetsuit that is too loose will offer little in the way of thermal protection, and suits that are too tight are restrictive, possibly painful, and even dangerous if they are too tight around the neck or chest.
It is imperative that you try it on. This will be a horribly uncomfortable, probably very sweaty experience in the dive shop changing rooms, but it is essential. It’s also important to note that new suits may feel tight but will loosen a little through use, so you can check by small tests such as taking a deep lungful of air. If the suit stretches enough that you can breathe unimpeded then this is a good sign. You should be able to pull the arm and leg cuffs away from your skin by inserting your fingers into the openings – there should be a good seal, but some freedom of movement.
The whole process is a little subjective. You know your own body better than the next person, but hopefully there is an able shop assistant at hand to provide help and advice, and objectively note where a suit may appear too restrictive or too loose. You may have to try several to get it right, but it’s very important that you do.
When it comes to thickness, the standards are 3, 5 and 7mm, long and short, but there are plenty of variations, and no single one-suit-fits-all solution. If I had to make a recommendation for a versatile, general-purpose exposure suit then it would be a 5mm “combination suit” – a full length, long-sleeved 5mm suit with a 5mm “shorty” that can either be worn as individual suits or together. This was, in fact, my own first wetsuit purchase and it served me very well indeed, with the 5mm long-and short combination covering the broad range of temperatures (20 – 30C) that I encountered during a season. If this style of suit is beyond your means then as a secondary, general purpose 'safe bet' I would go for a 5mm full-length suit – it will cope well in most tropical environments.
Hoods are an excellent companion to a suit for thermal protection, but my recommendation is for a headpiece that fits well underneath the collar of your suit – it will give better insulation for the head and neck, and help to prevent those icy cold dribbles of water that always find their way into the back of our suit!
It’s difficult to give one single piece of advice – just make sure it fits well, and fits comfortably, before you part with your money.