Scuba Wetsuit vs Drysuit – How to Stay Warm in Cold Water
Have you ever wondered why underwater photos often show the diver with only a swimsuit and rash guard? Rarely do you see a wetsuit and it feels like a drysuit is pretty much never to be seen. Yet, when you dive yourself you know that you need either. What are the differences when you compare drysuit vs wetsuit?
Differences between Wetsuits and Dry Suits
It certainly seems more enticing to anyone to dive in warm tropical waters compared to thinking of cold environments up farther north. Once you hit below 80’ish degrees you will quickly figure out that the rash guard and bathing suit is not keeping you warm at all.
At that point, you’re looking at a dry suit. It’ll keep you dry and temperate even at such low temperatures. There are more differences as to whether you have to dry your hair or not after a dive looking at these two kinds of suits.
What factors should you consider when choosing between a drysuit and a wetsuit?
First of all, it’s certainly your requirement for staying warm no matter whether you’re looking at a wetsuit or drysuit. Either type helps you stay warm by slowing down the heat loss you are exposed to. In other words, wetsuits and drysuits are not designed to keep you warm actively 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 from your body heat and insulates you from the cold water outside of the suit. The heat your body provides to warm up the thin layer of water is not enough to significantly cause your body temperature to drop.
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. You can also choose whether you’re going for open cell or closed cell neoprene which has differences in longevity and convenience.
Once you get down to 50’ish degrees you will reach the end of the capabilities of a wetsuit to slow down or prevent heat loss. The thin layer of water between your skin and the neoprene is not enough to keep you warm and your body temperature will drop.
That’s where you have to look at a drysuit. It does what it says. It keeps you dry. Every opening, including the zipper, is insulated and waterproof and seal against your skin at your neck, ankles, and wrists.
By itself, it does not keep your body warm. As you stay dry you can wear undergarments to keep you warm while you’re inside the suit.
If you intend to dive below 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 might be true, their impact on buoyancy is easier to control than wetsuits.
A wetsuit will compress with depth. The result is that a wet suit loses some buoyancy. Another side-effect of that compression is that it 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 drysuit does not compress or lose any of its insulating capabilities. You are also able to adjust the buoyancy of it 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 regulate your temperature even in very chilly 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 dry suit can actually end up being cheaper with more flexibility.
Drysuits will usually also last longer. 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 inspected, repaired, or replaced, etc.
However, drysuits 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 freshwater 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 yet less than a dry suit. However, they are cheaper than a drysuit by quite a bit. An additional advantage is that you won’t need extra training to get used to it.
When to use what?
Consider the water temperature as well as the depth. Also, as a beginner, you will have more difficulty with a drysuit.
Drysuit vs Wetsuit – Which is better when?
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 regard to the temperature, you want to think of the following suggestions to wear drysuit vs wetsuit vs semi-dry suit the different temperature ranges. These suggestions are very generic.
You have to consider your own tolerance for temperature. It’s a very personal choice as to what kind of dive suit you will use at what 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.
Wetsuit for warm water
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 will be completely sufficient for your needs.
Scuba diving in a variety of environments from warm to very cold 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.
If you’re also surfing, sailing, or kayaking then definitely go for a wetsuit. You’ll need it in lower temperature environments and you can potentially use the same wetsuit when you kayak or surf or scuba dive!
You can’t say that for using a drysuit. If you insist on diving with a dry suit then you will need a wetsuit for kayaking, surfing, or sailing. And who wants to pack a wetsuit and a drysuit when you’re going on vacation?
Semi-Dry Suit – Who does it work for?
If you are not having the funds for a drysuit or you are 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.
Drysuit for Cold Environments or Technical Diving
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.
Here you have it. Scuba diving is the only activity where you have to make a choice between a wetsuit and drysuit. Most other activities can’t use drysuits so you have to opt for wetsuits. And as most scuba diving is also less fun in cold waters, drysuits are usually not required. However, if you insist on both and cold environments then pack your wetsuit and drysuit on your next trip and have a blast!