Choosing a Wetsuit - Why I bought a SolaFX for Monterey
Updated: Oct 13, 2019
A friend recently reached out about what they should consider with buying their first wet suit, and since I've been wanting to do a series on the gear that I dive with, it seemed suitable to start with the first thing I purchased! I'll see myself out.
I dive in an AquaLung SolaFx Semi-Dry wet suit, which has 8mm neoprene at the torso and 7mm neoprene for the arms and legs. It has a built-in hood, and seals around the hand and feet openings are designed to keep more of the water inside of the suit to reduce how much water is flowing between you and the suit. I'm 5'8" and weigh around 160lbs - the sizing chart that AquaLung posts suggests that size 10, 10L, and 12 would all be possible sizes that could fit. I wear a size 14, and while it's a little too big for me around the waist and hips, it was $150 off at our local dive shop, so I took the plunge on it and it's been working out great for our dives in Monterey, where the average temperatures are in the 50-54°F (10-12°C) range. As a bonus, because it's just slightly large in the torso, getting it on and off is a breeze!
When you decide to buy a wet suit, the biggest thing to consider is the temperature where you're going to be using it. Generally speaking, you'll want to pick something that will keep you as warm as you feel like you need to be, depending on how sensitive you are to the cold, while also picking a thickness that isn't overly restrictive (your range of motion will be reduced quite a bit in an 8mm suit when compared to a 2.5mm shorty).
While I'm very comfortable diving in my SolaFx at 50F/10C, some Monterey divers prefer to dive dry to stay warm, others wear 7mm suits, and I've even met a few divers who dive in a hoodless 5mm suit! It ultimately comes down to your own tolerance, so I recommend renting a few different suits if possible from local dive shops to try a variety and see what works best for you with your local diving scene. I've read anecdotally that some folks even choose to dive in a dry suit with a lightweight underlayer, even in warm water, just for the convenience of staying dry during the dive. There's no one-size-fits-all answer - your choice of exposure suit is a personal one (and this is true of all dive gear purchases). I found this temperature chart from SportDiver to be a good way to think about diving in different temperatures:
So, what are other things to keep in mind?
Fit. You want your wet suit to feel snug and cover your arms and legs entirely - which is why I'd recommend trying out a number of different suit cuts from various manufacturers. In my experience, I've observed that many dive shops will stock a few brands in various sizes/styles, but there may not be too many different options on the floor. Definitely talk to the shop to ask about their stock, see if you can try on some of their rentals in different sizes, and if you can, visit a couple of different shops that stock different brands.
Cost. Exposure suits aren't cheap - my SolaFX was $459 new, on sale, from a local dive shop (LDS). Generally speaking, the thicker the suit, the more expensive the suits will be within their brand / line. That said, one reason I went with the semi-dry was because I dive so frequently in Monterey, and a new dry suit would have cost twice what the SolaFx did. There is also the option to buy used, but make sure that you feel comfortable with what to look for in a used suit (or bring an experienced friend along with you!)
Future wear. When well cared-for, wet suits can last for seven years (or more), but it's important to think about whether or not you anticipate moves to other areas or any major changes in your diving. For example, if you think you might want to start doing deeper diving, you might experience a larger temperature gradient at depth that could require a different exposure suit.
Style. Wet suits come in a variety of styles - you can do two-piece suits that layer, suits with built-in hoods, suits that come in long or short-sleeved varieties, and even suits with built-in pockets. Different types of wet suits also come with different zipper styles - some zip across the front and others across the back, which are usually easier to don with a buddy.
If you will be cold water diving, I would recommend getting dive suit certified before you decide whether to buy a 7mm or 8mm wet suit. It will give you a point of comparison, which I found very helpful for deciding to go the wet suit route. It's helpful to know before you buy if you find yourself strongly preferring the dry suit! It's also important to consider if there are additional accessories (like a hood) that you might want to buy along with the suit you end up deciding on.
I ended up deciding on the SolaFX for a few reasons: I wasn't in a position to spend the money on a dry suit at this point in my diving career, and I knew that the 8/7mm would keep me warm enough in my primary diving location. I had the opportunity to dive with the suit and test it out in a few different sizes, so I knew that the one that I was buying would be the one I had tried on. I also appreciated the front zip, and that the hood and suit was all one piece. While the fit wasn't perfect, I knew that there would be limited options with rental gear, so when it was on sale, I snapped it up and I've been extremely happy with it.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, buying your gear will be a personal choice and it's best to make decisions that work best for the style of diving you do, your location, and your goals. Happy diving!