Scuba Wetsuit vs Drysuit
Differences between Wetsuits and Drysuits
Have you ever wondered why usually photos related to diving always show the diver with only a swimsuit? Rarely do you see a wetsuit and it feels like a drysuit is pretty much never to be seen.
It certainly seems more enticing to anyone to dive in warm tropical waters compared to thinking of cold waters up farther north. Once you hit water below 80’ish degrees you’ll quickly figure out that the bathing suit is not keeping you warm at all.
That’s the time to think of a wetsuit. It’ll help to stay warm in colder water. When you get into regions where the water temperature drops below 50’ish then even a wetsuit won’t do much to keep the cold out.
At that point you’re looking at a drysuit. It’ll keep you dry and warm even at such low temperatures. There’s more differences as to whether you have to dry your hair or not after a dive looking at these two kinds of suits.
To have a pleasant and safe dive experience, you need to stay warm under water. That’s usually no problem if the water temperature is above 80 or so degrees. If you go below that temp then you have to either look at a wetsuit or a drysuit. The choice is not just a question of water temperature but of other factors as well.
What factors should you consider when choosing between a wetsuit and a drysuit?
First of all, it’s certainly your requirements for staying warm. Either type of suit helps you stay warm by slowing down the heat loss you are exposed to in cold water. In other words, they do not actively keep you warm but instead slow down the time it takes for you to get cold.
A wetsuit is less capable of allowing you to stay warm. The way it works is that it traps a thin layer of water between your skin and the wetsuit. This layer warms up and insulates you from the cold water outside of the suit. The suit is usually made from a material called neoprene. In warmer waters you want to use a thin suit. Getting into colder waters requires you to use thicker neoprene wetsuits. Once you get down to 50’ish degrees you’ll reach the end of the capabilities of a wetsuit to slow down or prevent heat loss.
That’s where you have to look at a dry suit. A drysuit does what it says. It keeps you dry. By itself it does not keep you warm though. However, as you stay dry you can wear warm undergarments to keep you warm while you’re in the water. If you intend to dive in water that is colder than around 50 degrees Fahrenheit then it becomes inevitable to use a dry suit with insulating and warm undergarments.
Buoyancy and Weighting
The first thought would be that dry suits have more inherent buoyancy as they trap air in them. While that technically might be true, they are easier to handle than wetsuits. A wetsuit will compress with depth. The result is that it loses some buoyancy. Another side-effect of that compression is that is loses some of its ability to insulate which means you will get colder faster!
The loss of buoyancy of the wetsuit through compression also requires you to adjust your weights. The result could otherwise be that you have too much weight when your wetsuit loses its lift from the compression. Adjusting or losing weight is pretty much impossible during a dive without ditching weights. You need to be careful to get your weights right in the first place.
A dry suit does not compress and also does not lose any of its insulating capabilities. You are also able to adjust the buoyancy of the dry suit by increasing or decreasing the pressure. That way you can counteract the compression from the water at depth. Diving deep, you will be better off with a dry suit.
A wetsuit is great if you use it in the right conditions. If the conditions change by either getting too cold or the compression gets too high then it quickly reaches its limits.
A dry suit offers a lot more flexibility and adaptability. You can add layers of undergarments to stay warm even in very cold environments. If you dive in warmer environments you simply reduce or eliminate the thermal layers of your undergarments and you will still be comfortable.
Only a few years ago dry suits were prohibitively expensive for the recreational diver. That has changed and you get an entry level drysuit today for the price of a high-end wetsuit. When you think of the fact that you will only have to change how many layers of undergarment you use versus having to buy several different wetsuits in a variety of thicknesses, the drysuit can actually end up being cheaper with more flexibility.
Dry suits will usually also last longer than a wetsuit. Yes, a wetsuit is easier to maintain as you usually only have to wash it off after a dive. A dry suit might need seals and zippers to be repaired or replaced, etc. However, dry suits are usually built sturdier and besides having to fix a few things will often outlast the life of a wetsuit by factors of 3 to 4x. At that point the drysuit can actually end up being much cheaper than the number of wetsuits you’ll be using during the same timeframe!
Advantages and Disadvantages of each
- More choice – large selection of wetsuits available in different thicknesses and styles
- Availability – Easy to find to buy or to rent
- Maintenance - easy to take care of: simply wash it down with fresh water and hang it up to dry
- Initial price – cheap to buy
- Don’t keep you warm – you will freeze in cold water and even get cold during long dives in warm water
- Deep dive ability – don’t work well for deep dives as they compress and you get colder, lose buoyancy and run into weight issues
- Unpleasant wetness – putting on a wetsuit that is wet (yeah, comical) is quite unpleasant: if you intend to dive a lot on a trip then bring two wetsuits so one can always dry while you use the other one!
- Work in any environment – you can wear them in warm or cold water
- Always dry inside – get in and out as often as you want, the suit is dry inside and easy to put on
- Easier to control – drysuits don’t compress and they have more controllable buoyancy and trim
- Long lasting – with proper maintenance you can expect a drysuit to outlast many wetsuits you’d have to buy
- Initial expense – Drysuits cost more initially than a typical wetsuit
- Training needs – they require some training and time to master and get used to: need inflating like a BC and can overwhelm a new diver.
- Maintenance – need more care as you have to maintain the seals and zipper so they won’t break
What about a Semi-Dry Suit?
During the last few years a new category of suits has come up. These semi-dry suits are really nothing else than a thick wetsuit with tight seals at the wrists, ankles and neck.
The advantage is that they usually keep you warmer than a wetsuit. They won’t keep you as warm as a drysuit. However, they are cheaper than a drysuit by quite a bit and as such you can end up cheaper, at least initially, compared to a dry suit. An additional advantage over the dry suit is that you won’t need extra training to get used to it.
When to use what?
Consider the water temperature you’re diving in as well as the depth you’re going to dive to. Also take into consideration that as a beginner you will have more difficulty with a drysuit.
Most recreational divers will not dive in really cold water and as such won’t really have the need for a dry suit. Diving is usually more enjoyable in warm environments and that means that a wet suit is often the best choice for a recreational diver.
With regards to temperature you want to somewhat think of the following suggestions for the different temperature ranges. These suggestions are very generic. You have to consider your own tolerance for cold and warm. It’s a very personal choice as to what kind of dive suit you will use at what temperature range.
Suit to use
Below 55/60 degrees
Between 55/60 and 70 degrees
Dry suit, double layer wetsuit (7mm) or semi-dry suit
Between 70 and 80 degrees
Wetsuit (5 – 7 mm)
Above 80 degrees
Wetsuit (2 mm) or swim suit
Which is better?
There’s honestly no ‘better’ or ‘worse’. It simply depends on your needs and preferences. You also want to consider your experience level and the environments you typically dive in.
If you only dive in warm water and you have an average tolerance to cold water then you’ll be perfectly happy with a wetsuit. It’ll be completely sufficient for your needs.
Diving in a variety of environments from very cold to warm water, it makes sense to have a closer look at a dry suit. They cost more but you will only need one dive suit for all those environments. Less gear to buy and to have lying around.
If you’re not having the funds for a drysuit or you are simply getting cold very fast even in warm water then have a closer look at a semi-dry suit. They are a little more expensive than a wetsuit yet they can keep you a lot warmer.
Lastly, if you’re a technical diver or you are constantly in the water then consider a drysuit. They provide a consistent environment for you and you can get and out of them many times without discomfort as they are dry inside. This will more than offset the higher need for maintenance for you.