Cold Water Wetsuit: Staying Warm and Safe in Icy Waters

Jörg Matzdorff
Jörg Matzdorff

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Cold water activities such as surfing, diving, and open-water swimming require not only skill and bravery but also the right equipment to ensure safety and comfort. One of the most crucial pieces of gear for these activities is a wetsuit specifically designed for cold water.

This article explores the science, materials, design, and key considerations behind winter wetsuits, providing a comprehensive guide for anyone looking to stay warm and safe in frigid conditions. Snuggle deeper into your cozy blanket and let’s embark on our icy adventure in search of the best cold water wetsuit.

In this article, you will get answers to the following questions:

  • What makes the best cold water wetsuit?
  • How much does a wetsuit help in cold water?
  • What wetsuit thickness do I need?
  • And how does a wetsuit keep you warm?

The Invention of the Cold Water Wetsuit

The invention of the cold water wetsuit marked a significant breakthrough in aquatic apparel technology, revolutionizing water sports and activities in cooler environments. Initially conceptualized to enhance comfort and extend the season for surfers, the wetsuit has evolved into a multifaceted garment with diverse applications across various water-based disciplines.

The journey of the wetsuit began in the early 20th century, when surfers sought ways to stay warm in cold waters without compromising mobility. The key challenge was to design a suit that could insulate against the cold while allowing freedom of movement. The breakthrough came in the 1950s with the development of neoprene, a synthetic rubber material that proved ideal for creating wetsuits due to its insulative properties and flexibility.

Neoprene wetsuits gained popularity among surfers and divers, enabling them to pursue their passions in colder conditions. Over the decades, advancements in material science and design have further refined winter wetsuits. Thicker neoprene layers were introduced for enhanced warmth, while innovations like sealed seams and neoprene laminates improved durability and water resistance.

Beyond surfing, wetsuits became integral to other water sports such as diving, paddleboarding, and open water swimming. Each discipline necessitated specific variations of wetsuit design, tailored to balance warmth, buoyancy, and agility. For instance, diving suits evolved to include features like integrated hoods and reinforced knee pads for durability against rough underwater terrain.

What differentiates a Cold Water Wetsuit from a Normal Wetsuit?

The general question: How does a wetsuit keep you warm? can be answered quite quickly. A wetsuit keeps you warm through a combination of insulation and trapped water. 

Wetsuits are primarily made from neoprene, a type of synthetic rubber with excellent insulating properties. Neoprene traps a thin layer of water between your body and the suit, which your body then heats up to create a warm thermal barrier.

The layer of water trapped between your skin and the wetsuit is crucial for insulation. When you first enter the water, your body heats this thin layer of water to near body temperature. Because neoprene is a poor conductor of heat, it helps maintain this warmth by minimizing heat loss to the surrounding water.

1. The Cold Water Wetsuit Thickness

Material thickness in wetsuits refers to the measurement of the neoprene or other materials used in the construction of the suit. The wetsuit’s thickness plays a critical role in determining the wetsuit’s warmth, flexibility, and overall performance.  


If you want to know what wetsuit thickness you need, you can consult our comprehensive wetsuit thickness guide.

The thickness typically ranges from 1mm to 7mm, with variations in different parts of the wetsuit depending on the intended use and environmental conditions. Wetsuits designed for warm water conditions, such as tropical climates, usually have thinner neoprene, typically around 1mm to 3mm. This thinner material provides adequate insulation without compromising flexibility or mobility.

In contrast, wetsuits for swimming in cold water conditions require thicker neoprene to provide sufficient insulation against lower water temperatures. These wetsuits typically range from 4mm to 7mm in thickness, with thicker panels, e.g., 5mm to 7mm, commonly used in critical areas like the torso, thighs, and back.

2. Special Materials for Cold Water Wetsuits

Neoprene is the fundamental material used in wetsuits due to its insulating properties. For cold water wetsuits, neoprene is often thicker. Beyond thickness, the density and construction of neoprene also contribute to a wetsuit’s insulation properties. 

High-density neoprene with closed-cell construction is more effective at trapping air and providing thermal insulation, making it ideal for colder water conditions. Titanium-infused neoprene is a popular enhancement in cold water wetsuits. Titanium particles are embedded into the neoprene fabric, which helps to reflect body heat back to the wearer.

Some cold water wetsuits feature plush or thermal linings on the interior. These linings are designed to provide additional warmth and comfort by trapping air and creating an extra layer of insulation against the skin. 

3. Additional Insulation Support for Cold Water Wetsuits

Manufacturers strategically place thicker neoprene panels in areas where warmth retention is crucial, such as the core of the body. Thinner neoprene is often used in joints and areas requiring greater flexibility, such as the shoulders, elbows, and knees, to ensure ease of movement and avoid wetsuit rashes.

Neoprene used in cold water wetsuits often includes added features for improved thermal insulation. Advanced cold water wetsuits may feature additional materials or technologies that enhance insulation. This may include materials like titanium-infused neoprene or specialized thermal linings that help retain body heat and resist cold water penetration. 

Additionally, some wetsuits use thermal linings or coatings on the inner surface of the neoprene to reflect body heat back towards the wearer and reduce heat loss. Based on basic differences in physique and temperature perception, female athletes may need different women surf suits than men.

Some cold water wetsuits may include features like hooded designs, integrated gloves, reinforced knee pads or incorporated water-repellent coatings on the exterior surface. These coatings help to shed water quickly, reducing the wetsuit’s weight and preventing wind chill from evaporating moisture on the surface. These elements provide added protection and warmth in areas that are more susceptible to heat loss or abrasion.

Choosing the Right Cold Water Wetsuit

Depending on your water sport and location of choice, choosing the right wetsuit can make the difference in being able to go into the water at all or quitting before having even set just one foot into your session. 

Some sports are just difficult to keep apart from each other, like kitesurfing vs. kiteboarding, and some sports are not only technically different from each other, but only in how extremely they are practised. So does a scuba diver not necessarily need the best wetsuits for swimming in cold water, while a deep sea diver does need it to be able to endure the temperatures that sink constantly on the descend towards the ocean floor.

By understanding the importance of neoprene thickness, thermal features, and fit based on water temperature, you can confidently choose a wetsuit that meets your needs and enhances your water sports experience. Whether you’re braving icy waters or enjoying warmer climates, the right wetsuit will keep you comfortable and protected throughout your aquatic adventures.

Very Cold Water (Below 10°C / 50°F)

In extremely cold water temperatures, you’ll need a wetsuit that offers maximum insulation and protection against the cold. Here’s what to consider:

  • Neoprene Thickness: Choose a wetsuit with thick neoprene, typically ranging from 6mm to 7mm in the core areas (chest and back) to minimize heat loss.
  • Additional Thermal Features: Look for wetsuits with thermal linings or coatings on the interior for enhanced warmth and comfort.
  • Sealed Seams: Opt for wetsuits with sealed seams (glued and blind-stitched or welded) to prevent water entry and maintain insulation.

Cold Water (10°C to 18°C / 50°F to 64°F)

For colder but more moderate water temperatures, you’ll need a wetsuit that balances warmth with flexibility:

  • Core Neoprene Thickness: Choose a wetsuit with 5mm neoprene in the core areas to provide adequate insulation.
  • Limbs Neoprene Thickness: Select wetsuits with 3mm to 4mm neoprene in the arms and legs for flexibility and ease of movement.
  • Seams and Features: Consider wetsuits with sealed seams to minimize water ingress and enhance thermal efficiency. Smooth skin panels on the chest and back can also reduce wind chill.

Moderate to Warm Water (18°C+ / 64°F+)

In warmer water temperatures, comfort and flexibility become more critical:

  • Neoprene Thickness: Opt for wetsuits with thinner neoprene (2mm to 3mm) throughout to ensure flexibility and unrestricted movement.
  • Ventilation and Breathability: Look for wetsuits with strategic panel placements and breathable materials to prevent overheating.

Additional Tips

Besides the right wetsuit thickness according to the environmental temperatures, here are some additional tips to enhance your comfort and performance in chilly aquatic environments.

  • Fit: Ensure the wetsuit fits snugly but comfortably to maximize thermal efficiency and prevent water flushing.
  • Water Activities: Consider the specific water activities you’ll be participating in (e.g., surfing, diving, swimming) and choose a wetsuit designed for those purposes.
  • Quality and Durability: Invest in a high-quality wetsuit from reputable brands to ensure durability and long-term performance.

Taking Care of your Cold Water Wetsuit

A cold water wetsuit is more than just gear; it’s an investment in comfort and safety during your aquatic adventures. To ensure it serves you well for years to come, proper care and maintenance are crucial. 

A cold water wetsuit is designed to keep you warm and protected during water activities in chilly temperatures. To ensure it continues to perform optimally and lasts for many seasons, following a guide on how to wash a wetsuit and how to dry a wetsuit will save you money, time and a lot of frustration over malfunctioning gear.

1. Rinse Thoroughly After Each Use

After using your wetsuit, especially in saltwater, rinse it thoroughly with fresh water. This removes salt, sand, and other debris that can degrade the neoprene and stitching over time. Turn the wetsuit inside out and rinse both the inside and outside surfaces. 

This simple step can significantly extend the life of your wetsuit by preventing material breakdown.

2. Use Wetsuit-Specific Cleaners

Regularly clean your wetsuit with a wetsuit-specific cleaner to remove body oils, sunscreen, and other residues. Avoid using harsh detergents or bleach, as these can damage the neoprene and affect its elasticity. 

Gently hand wash your wetsuit in lukewarm water and rinse thoroughly. These cleaners are formulated to be gentle on neoprene while effectively removing contaminants.

3. Dry Properly

Hang your wetsuit to dry in a shaded, well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight and heat sources. Folding or hanging it in direct sunlight can cause the neoprene to deteriorate and lose its flexibility. 

Ensure the wetsuit is completely dry inside and out before storing it. Proper drying prevents mold and mildew growth, keeping your wetsuit fresh and odor-free.

4. Store Correctly

Store your wetsuit flat or hanging on a wide, padded hanger to maintain its shape. Avoid folding it for extended periods, as this can create permanent creases and weaken the neoprene. After some time, incorrect storage can lead you to an unwelcome answer to the question, whether wetsuits stretch out or not. 

When the material weakens, it loses its ability to return to its original shape. Store it in a cool, dry place away from pests and rodents. Proper storage helps maintain the wetsuit’s structural integrity and readiness for use, whenever you may need it.

5. Avoid Sharp Objects and Rough Surfaces

Handle your wetsuit with care to avoid tears and punctures. When putting it on or taking it off, be mindful of fingernails and jewellery that can snag the neoprene. Avoid sitting on rough surfaces that could damage the wetsuit material. 

Of course, it is not always possible to avoid contact with sand or rocks, especially when diving on the floor of the ocean or taking an involuntary fall at the end of surfing a wave. But trying to take these precautions helps preserve the wetsuit’s durability and performance.

6. Repair Tears Promptly

Inspect your wetsuit regularly for any signs of wear, tear, or stitching coming loose. Repair small tears or holes promptly using wetsuit repair glue or patches designed for neoprene. This prevents further damage and extends the lifespan of your wetsuit. Addressing minor issues early prevents them from becoming major problems. And a repair is much easier than it sounds. All you need is:

  • Wetsuit repair glue (neoprene cement)
  • Scissors
  • Patch material (neoprene patch)
  • Small brush or applicator
  • Heavy book or similar weight
  • Wax paper or plastic sheet

After the repair has dried, check the wetsuit by gently pulling on the repaired area to ensure the bond is strong. If the hole reopens, apply more neoprene cement and repeat the process.

7. Rotate Wetsuits for Extended Use

If you’re an avid water sports enthusiast who frequently engages in activities like surfing, diving, or open-water swimming, rotating between multiple wetsuits can significantly extend their lifespan and maintain their performance. 

Allowing each wetsuit to dry completely between uses reduces wear and tear and extends their overall lifespan. This practice ensures that your wetsuits have adequate time to recover and maintain their flexibility and insulation properties.

8. Avoid Excessive Heat and Chemicals

Taking good care of your cold water wetsuit means protecting it from elements and conditions that can degrade its materials. Exposure to excessive heat and harsh chemicals can significantly reduce the lifespan and effectiveness of your wetsuit.

Do not expose your wetsuit to excessive heat, such as leaving it in a hot car or near heaters. High temperatures can cause the neoprene to degrade and lose its insulating properties. Similarly, avoid contact with harsh chemicals or petroleum-based products. Keeping your wetsuit away from extreme conditions preserves its material integrity and performance capabilities.

Conclusion: How Much does a Wetsuit Help in Cold Water?

Cold water wetsuits are a vital piece of equipment for anyone engaging in activities such as surfing, diving, and open-water swimming in frigid conditions. These wetsuits are specifically designed to provide superior insulation and protection, utilizing advanced materials like thick neoprene, thermal linings, and specialized seals to minimize water entry and retain body heat.

Cold water wetsuits represent a blend of science, technology, and practical design, enabling enthusiasts to explore and enjoy cold water activities safely. By understanding and adhering to the best practices for selection and care, you can ensure that your wetsuit remains a reliable companion, providing warmth and protection in even the coldest waters. So gear up, take care of your wetsuit, and dive into your next cold water adventure without the fear of getting cold!

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Jörg Matzdorff
Jörg Matzdorff

Outdoor and surfing enthusiast.