(The Gear Loop) - Surfers from the UK always get an appreciative nod when bobbing around in the line-ups of warmer climes, purely because those board-shorted locals appreciate that us hardy island folk have to suffer for our art. Thanks to the positioning of the craggy rock that we call home, the best surf typically rolls this way in the autumn, winter and spring, meaning anyone wishing to brush up their wave-riding skills has to also brave sea temperatures that regularly dip below 10°C. That's frigid to say the least.
But that doesn't mean you have to hang up your leash every time the mercury drops, because wetsuit technology is now so good, it's possible to enjoy hours of surf while staying toasty warm and without donning layers and layers of restrictive rubber. Innovations in quick-drying thermal lining now typically cover the chest and back, protecting the vital organs from severe cold, while modern neoprene is manipulated and shaped to fit the human form and prove flexible in all the right places. No more stiff shoulders, no more chafed necks and no more ankle and wrist cuffs that cut the circulation off to your hands and feet.
What's more, the likes of Patagonia (and soon, Finisterre) are turning to Yulex - a more sustainable form of purified natural rubber latex that significantly reduces impurities found in rubber production. Yulex also only partners with FSC-certified forest plantations to reduce the environmental impact that materials like neoprene (predominantly petroleum or limestone based).
The best winter surfing wetsuit for men
Xcel Infiniti X2 5/4MM Limited Edition
- Superior warmth
- Great flex and fit
- No hooded option
Xcel has long been at the forefront of surf wetsuit technology, establishing itself as a name way back in 1982. Since then, it has tweaked, refined and reworked its winning formula to come up with some exceptionally well fitting and hardy neoprene that is excellent for sub-zero temperatures.
The X2 Limited Edition packs what it calls a "Radiant Rebound" thermal lining, which uses a thin layer of metal under a textile to stop extreme cold temperatures from penetrating the outer layer. Plus, natural body heat also bounces off this layer and back towards the vital organs for great protection for the cold.
Fashioned from Japanese limestone neoprene, it's an exceptional light winter suit and doesn't have the awkward bulk of some thicker rivals. Great flex, awesome movement and a brilliant fit makes this suit a winter winner in our eyes.
O'Neill Psycho One 5/4mm Chest Zip
- TechnoButter 3 neoprene is mega flexible
- Minimal seams, less chafing
- Plain looks
- Not as durable
Originally founded in 1952 by the legendary Jack O’Neill, the company that bears his name is often cited as the inventor of the modern wetsuit. It's still going strong to this day and a plethora of big-name surfers rock the wetsuits.
Its TechnoButter neoprene is renowned for its stretch, comfort and mystical ability to keep surfers warm and free in the water. The latest Psycho One is available in a fantastic array of sizes, so you get the best fit, while it's front zip or back zip options cater to all tastes, flexibility levels and body shapes.
This is a fantastic, if slightly plain-looking wetsuit, but the downside of all that freedom of movement is a suit that doesn't last as long as others mentioned on this list. Some will see that as a happy trade-off, but it can get expensive chewing through suits season after season.
The Krypto Knee Padz certainly help reinforce one of the most commonly torn areas in a wetsuit and there is the ubiquitous external key pocket for stashing a single, analogue key in relative safety.
Patagonia Men’s R5 Yulex Front Zip Hooded Full suit
- Superior protection against the elements
- A more environmentally-friendly suit
- Not as flexible as rivals
- It's very pricey
Patagonia is at the forefront of surf exploration and designs its wetsuits for those athletes pushing the boundaries of where and when it is possible to ride waves. The R5 range is designed for water temperatures between 0°-3°C (that's the Arctic Circle covered) and is therefore one of the warmest suits on sale.
The built-in hood makes it easy to protect the head when duck-diving or bailing in frigid waters, while its seamless design makes that hood easy to remove when required. The compromise here is that the suit feels fairly stiff and heavy, due in part to its thickness but also because current Yulex technology isn't as forgiving as its neoprene counterparts. This makes it a bit trickier to remove when cold.
This isn't helped by the single exit zip, which means the opening for the head and shoulders is narrower than those with a rear zip or double front zip options. This is particularly bad if you've got broad shoulder or just aren’t very flexible. Plus, it's very expensive compared to less earth-conscious rivals.
Billabong Absolute 5/4mm Hooded Chest Zip
- Built-in hood
- Sealed external seams
- Recycled lining
- Limited sizes
- Plain looks
Billabong is, like so many other wetsuit manufacturers, attempting to reduce its carbon footprint and environmental impact, but rather than opting for brand new rubber technologies, it has decided to incorporate things like upcycled car tyres and other neoprene scraps into its recycled rubber.
The interior, heat-trapping lining, for example, is 100 per cent recycled and infused with graphene, delivering excellent thermal properties to the front and back panels without adding lots of extra bulk to the chest and back.
It's a very flexible, easy-to-get-on suit that features additional Silicone Stretch in the arms and legs, making it even easier to prise off with frozen digits after a long session in the depths of a UK winter.
What's more, there's a built-in hood for heating up the noggin and additional tape has been added to the seams in high-stress areas, which reduces the chances of any tearing or fraying, thus reducing the chance of ice cold water leaking into your toasty suit.
Prolimit Mercury 6/4mm Hooded Front Zip
- Thermal Rebound tech for added warmth
- Stretchy and soft
- Looks great
- Prolimit sizing chart isn't that accurate
It might not boast the same kind brand cachet as Billabong, Rip Curl or O’Neill, but Prolimit deals in a high-end range of winter wetsuits that don't cost the earth, yet use all of the advanced materials found in the most premium wetsuits.
In this case, its 6mm (for the body) and 4mm (for the arms and legs) limestone neoprene with FTM (fluid taping method) on the seams, a hardy YKK zip and a similar Thermal Rebound lining as the Xcel we mentioned previously. This uses the same kind of tech found in emergency foil blankets to quickly direct body heat back to where it is needed most. The second Zodiac2 fleece lining is also quick drying, although we found the suit still took a while to become bone dry thanks to it sporting very thick 6mm rubber.
That said, it's amazingly flexible for such rubber coverage and doesn't feel any bulkier than the 5/3mm combinations we've also tested. We also really liked the heather fabric used in the outer, which separates it from many of the bland, plain black suits currently on the market.
Go and try this suit on before you buy, as the online sizing guide is a bit off and you might find suits come up larger than you'd expect.
The best of the best
What to look for in a winter wetsuit
Try before you buy
Although some manufacturers go to great lengths to offer a variety of sizes, with many packing Short (S) and Tall (T) extras to traditional sizing in order to cater for body types, it's still very difficult to get a good feel for how a wetsuit, erm, feels without going and trying it on. Bottom line, every manufacturer has a different cut and fit, so you might be a Medium Short in an Xcel suit but this could change if you make the leap across to Billabong or O'Neill. The best thing to do is head to a trusted local surf shop or retailer and try it on for size first. You never know, they may also give you some top tips on secret winter surf spots.