Wetsuit fitting tips

Bob Grundmeyer
So, you’ve been to your local dive shop to look into purchasing your first wetsuit. You’re tired of the rental suits not fitting properly or perhaps your size is never available so you have to settle for one that is slightly too large, which in turn means cold. They always smell funky and according to your instructor, neoprene was supposed to feel more like a flexible foam rubber and not like thick cardboard.

The shop helper looks you up and down, asks your height and weight, and looks over the rack of wetsuits in front of him. After a bit of searching, he selects a suit and proclaims it to be the one you need, sending you off to a restroom or dressing room to try it on. For those of you who have yet to ever put on a wetsuit, it is seriously one of the most unpleasant experiences in the sport. Until you get the hang of it, putting on and removing a wetsuit can be a workout of a proportion that can wear out many of the most stringent fitness freaks. And, of course, the suit you were given doesn’t fit. In fact, it’s not even close. And to make matters worse, the shop helper begins to question if you are telling the truth when he asks again for your height and weight. Another suit. And other struggle. Not only are you getting worn out, but getting discouraged. You’ve never before had trouble fitting any other sort of clothing. What’s wrong here? Frustrated and exhausted you either wind up leaving without the new suit you had set your sights on or you settle for a suit that you can get on the easiest and seems comfortable in the store when you are wearing it just so you won’t have to go through the ordeal any longer.

Nobody tells you that there is no such thing as a comfortable wetsuit on the surface or above the water. In fact, if it’s comfortable in the store that means it is loose and anyplace it is loose is where water is going to pool. So, the first couple times you use the suit you wind up being cold. After a few uses, you get tired of being miserable and you might add a hooded vest to it or worse yet wind up heading BACK to the shop to try on new suits once again because now you are convinced the suits from the manufacturer you chose aren’t good suits and aren’t warm enough. At this point the cycle begins again.

The reason for this is quite simple. Your average person working in your local dive shop honestly hasn’t a clue on how wetsuits are sized or how to properly sell you one. They have been doing what they were taught, or what they’ve experienced themselves, learned from people who learned from people, who learned from people who originally started selling wetsuits back when they all fit lousy no matter what due to the limitations of technology and materials. And none of them have any idea about the manufacturing of suits, so in turn have no clue on how to fit you.

First and foremost, the 2 most important measurements you need to have accurate and handy when buying a wetsuit are your WAIST and CHEST/BUST measurements. The reason for this is that inches won’t lie. You have to fill your suit out properly, keeping the thinnest layer of water possible trapped between the suit and the body. The suit insulates it, and body heats it. If you get too much water between the suit and the body, your system cannot heat the water faster than it flows through the suit making you colder, faster. Remember, water conducts heat 4 times faster than air does, and your body can only do so much to keep up with this ever changing water in your suit. After these two measurements, height is your secondary measurement. Wetsuit manufacturers don’t put a lot of real scientific thought into this. They simply look around the office or factory they work out of, compare the dimensions of what they see and fudge it a few inches high and low. If you are within an inch or two, high or low of the manufacturer’s sizing chart, generally speaking you will be fine. If short, your boots and gloves cover the exposed area and if too long you can always roll a cuff or push it up a bit if need be. If your height is off more than this you’ll want to look at another manufacturer’s chart, as they are not all the same or you’ll want to find a manufacturer with “tall” or “short” sizing variations.

Finally, the LAST measurement you ever want to use is weight. In fact, I tell people to completely ignore it on a sizing chart about 99% of the time. The ONLY time I’ll use weight as a factor in choosing a wetsuit is when a person is on the fence between two sizes all the way up the sizing chart. Other than that, it’s pretty well useless as the manufacturers of wetsuits are sporting goods companies, not clothiers. They never take into account that muscle is denser than fat and as such two people can be identically sized in inches and height but one can outweigh the other by as much as 25-30 pounds based solely on fitness levels. Think about it. When was the last time you purchased a shirt, pair of pants or a dress based on your weight or ever saw this on a size chart for any other garment?

So, keeping all this in mind the following few tips will keep you warm and toasty during your dives:

1. All suit manufacturers vary. Start by using the appropriate manufacturer-sizing chart to help locate your suit size. Remember that in order for the suit to work properly it needs to fit snug. All suits are sized proportionally to height and weight, respectfully.

2. If you purchased a 2 piece suit, start by pulling the pants all the way up and secure the velcro strap on your shoulder. Now start the zipper on the jacket, step through and pull the jacket on. Reach back and put your arms through the suit and pull it up. Finish by zipping the suit up.

3. For 1 piece suits, pull the suit all the way up to your waist. Reach down and work the arms up one at a time. If it is a back zip suit have your buddy help zip the suit up. This will help reduce the risk of damage to the zipper. Zippers tend to snag neoprene or get tangled in hair.

4. Once you have the suit on, inspect the suit for fit. The suit should conform to your body shape. If this is your first time in a wetsuit, remember it will fit snug and you will feel a reduced range of motion. Remember--this is normal. Walk around in the suit for a few minutes. You shouldn´t have any loss of circulation in your hands or feet. You should be able to take a full breath of air without too much discomfort. There may be a small crease in the back of the elbows or knees.

5. If you do not have a perfect, off the rack, fit do not feel alone. Many people need to have minor alterations done to their wetsuit to achieve that "custom" fit feel. You can get a custom fit for a little more than the cost of an off the rack wetsuit.

6. The colder the water, the more important the fit. Remember hood, boots, and gloves need to fit properly