Buying a Drysuit (May 2016)

If you are serious about diving in the UK you will understand the need for some thermal protection (the UK climate being what it is!) and in theory you have a number of options: wetsuit, semi-dry & drysuit.
  • wetsuit; regardless of how thick you might get it, due to the fact the water is in contact with your body & is more than 20 times more efficient at sucking the heat away than air means it is just not going to be any good most of the year & will restrict your diving to balmy summer months (should we get them!) in fairly shallow water
  • A semi-dry; some rufty-tufty divers will tell you is enough. Here you still get wet but in theory once the water is inside, it mostly stays there & you warm it up. Well let me tell you: you don’t have to suffer for your sport and unless you are only to dive the warmer months the energy expended keeping the water warm (& the fact it doesn’t all stay inside) is going to chill you faster & restrict your adventures.
  • A drysuit; keeps all that water on the outside & your body only has to heat the air, in theory meaning you expend less energy & spend the dive in far more comfort

hollis-dx300Why not dive in relative comfort, right?

So, a drysuit is the way to go; the bad news is it is the most expensive option, in fact it is likely the most expensive single item you are likely to buy as you are assembling your dive kit (anything from £350 to £1500+!) so it is important you get it right.

So how do you choose?

In my research to ensure my pounds were spent wisely I found the following that were of help in understanding the essential questions that need to be answered

Advice & Explanations of the terminology:

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If you’ve read all that you now have a pretty good understanding of the concepts & options; here are my thoughts on the core items:

 

 

  • Suit: Neoprene or Membrane – Neoprene tends to have a fit closer to a wetsuit (though not very tight) while membrane is more ‘baggy’, Neoprene comes in natural or compressed and is heavier than membrane, natural is quite thick (6mm or more) and warmer (initially, until it gets compressed at depth, about 40% per 10m and will similarly uncompress on ascent giving an extra buoyancy boost around 10-6m which has to be compensated for by losing a lot of air) but you’ll need more weight to sink it, compressed is less warm than natural (you’ll need an undersuit) but doesn’t suffer the expansion issues of non-compressed and takes less weight to sink. Membrane suits dry quicker & tend to be lighter than neoprene. Both are about equally durable, though neoprene will deteriorate more over time. You’ll want a thicker undersuit with membrane. Another thing to remember about dry suits is that insulation means weight, every litre of air inside needs a kilo to sink it.  Many divers say that after a while you can lose weight on your drysuit; well this is probably your undersuit losing bulk with wear so yes, you won’t need so much weight to sink it, but it has lost insulation also. I went for compressed neoprene but I may well try membrane next time – your choice
  • Zip: Shoulder or Front – Front means you can zip yourself in & out (though watch that last inch or so under your arm, miss it & you’ll know about it!) while shoulder needs a buddy; front tend to be less common & some feedback indicates they may be more prone to damage but other feedback contradicts this; depending on the placement of the rear zipper & the suit fit make sure your arm movement is not overly restricted. Bear in mind there’ll likely be other divers around willing to help you out of a shoulder zip so don’t feel you have to go for the self extraction option but you might want to consider a P-zip or equivalent, just in case you are caught short & there’s no one to get you out!
  • Dump: Shoulder or Wrist (or Hunchback or Please sir!) – In theory the shoulder dump is automatic with a setting to restrict its’ efficiency to keep the suit at a constant volume, in reality you’ll likely end up adopting a Quasimodo hunch & tilt, while a wrist dump is a simple affair that will dump if you raise your arm up (above the rest of your body) – for some the wrist option can restrict equipment placement on that arm & having to raise a hand that you might want to be doing something else might be troublesome, while for others the act of raising a shoulder & twisting is equally intrusive/awkward – go with whatever is comfortable for you
  • Feet: Boots or socks – Boots mean you’ll likely need fins that are open heeled & probably a larger size than you’re used to, if the boots wear out you’ll have to get the drysuit serviced to add new ones, socks mean you can use foot-pocket fins should you so wish and boots (with open heeled fins) if you so desire (and you can replace boots with new ones as required). Neoprene socks also make a suit easy to turn inside out for drying and are easier to get off and on than attached boots – Socks sound like the answer (my suit has boots!)
  • Seals: Neoprene or Latex – Latex tends to have a closer fit but has a shorter life (it is easily damaged & doesn’t like being left in sunlight), neoprene occasionally lets a dribble of water in, particularly on the neck if you’re craning your neck to, for example look around a wreck – you can of course mix-and-match & a latex neck & neoprene wrist is what I’d go for
  • Pads – Yes! Definitely ensure your drysuit at least has knee pads for those kneeling on the bottom/platform/whatever moments, particularly during training & those ‘collecting yourself’ moments after descending but before setting off
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Which is best?

 

It’s time for the next step: who makes them and which is best. I found the following article provides a good overview of what’s on offer.
  • Divernet drysuit buyers guide – The ever trusty divernet have produced a pretty comprehensive review of offerings from most manufacturers available in the UK (see below for omissions), their previous review (from 2008) is also of interest
 It is missing a few though:-
– Aquatek ( http://www.aquatekdrysuits.co.uk/ ) – from £460
– Scapa Scuba ( http://www.scapascuba.co.uk/dry-suits-manufacture-repair.html ) – from £650 made to measure
– Seaskin ( http://www.seaskin.co.uk/ ) – from £426
As you can see your are spoilt for choice! If you’re just starting out you’ll be finding the accumulation of kit to be quite a burden on the health of your bank balance so I suggest limiting your spending to no more than £600, which will get you a perfectly good (made to measure if required) suit from many of the listed manufacturers that will do you nicely for many years to come. If you really take to it then 5 years down the line you can upgrade if you feel it’s necessary.

 

Where to Buy?
Finally it’s time to buy, here again you have a number of options

 

  • Direct from the Manufacturer:
Many manufacturers will sell you direct, you can sometimes even visit the factory & see the suits being made & tested (which gives you a good appreciation of what goes into a drysuit – I enjoyed my trip to the Seaskin factory where I not only saw suits being assembled but also leak tested & they even measured me for my suit).
Suits are usually immediately available in a range of sizes off the peg, while many manufacturers also offer the option to measure you for a made-to-measure suit but bear in mind this latter option will likely take on average 6-8 weeks. Sometimes there are also ex-demo/remainder/returned suits available cheaper so look out for these.
The manufacturer list above is a good start & obviously the more local they are to you the better, particularly if you want alterations later.
Bear in mind if you are buying online then obviously ensure you take accurate measurements & understand their sizing chart or if you are submitting details for made-to-measure ensure again you understand what is needed.

 

  • Dive Shop:
Many dive shops will stock a range of drysuits but obviously they cannot stock all sizes from all manufacturers so if one shop doesn’t have a suit in the size you want to try then shop around (if you can – we seem to be in a bit of a Dive Shop recession at the moment) or ask them to order in, although in the latter case you may then feel pressure to buy it if it fits.
If the dive shop is local you have the benefit of somewhere to go if you need changes or have problems (sending a drysuit back to a manufacturer is a pain)

 

  • Used:
With the advent of the internet there are a wide selection of places to pick up second-hand kit from ebay to gumtree to diver specific forums such as Yorkshire Divers Forums, and don’t forget your local club where you may have members looking to trade-up or (perish the thought!) leave the sport.
There are obvious caveats with second-hand: if it doesn’t fit you can’t send it back (but hopefully you can sell it for close to what you bought it for), so know what you’re buying: are the boots the right size, how big is the person whose suit it was (don’t just assume that since you’re XL in other things you will be in this manufacturers drysuit – there is no standard, check the seals (wrist/ankle/neck) are in serviceable condition (or if not then know how much it will be to replace them (typical repair prices are here) or for DIY here.

 

Hopefully the above will help you make the right decision & although it is a lot of money, you should get a good 5-10 years out of your purchase and if you dive regularly then it isn’t a lot to pay for a little comfort!

 

Oh almost forgot!, you’ll need an undersuit regardless of the type of drysuit (neoprene or laminate). Undersuit warmth is rated in grams per square metre of material – 200g is common for UK diving. Higher means warmer but you will need more weight to get down since more air will be trapped – consider adding other layers if needed: thermals for example. Most drysuit manufacturers also sell undersuits. BeaverFourth ElementLomo, Mares, Waterproof  and Weezle also make them.

Photo by BLMOregon

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