Only a surfer knows the feeling of being blown out of a snarling six-foot barrel with the spit chasing you and stinging your skin.
Surfers often get lost on the specifics of discussing boards and fins, but few of them ever stop and think about the other gear they wear in the water.
If you stop and think about it, there’s actually quite a lot going on with the rest of your apparel. This guide unpacks everything you need to know about what to wear surfing.
When you start surfing, you’re dealing with two primary natural elements – the wind and the water. When you’re surfing, you have to dress to accommodate these factors and how they affect the conditions.
The gear needs for coldwater or wintertime surfing are very different from summer surfing. We broke down your apparel and gear requirements into cold water and warm water conditions.
- What to Wear Surfing in Warm Water
- What to Wear Surfing in Cold Water
- What to Wear Surfing in Heavy Water
- Extra Gear for Surfing in All Water Conditions
- Where Should I Buy My Surfwear?
What to Wear Surfing in Warm Water
If you have the good fortune of surfing in warm water, you don’t need much other than a pair of shorts to enjoy a few hours in the waves.
However, there’s a bit more to your apparel than you think. Let’s look at the gear you need for warm water surfing.
Boardshorts might seem like a relatively boring item to drone on about. Still, the design and construction of boardshorts actually make a difference to your surfing. Boardshort technology continues to advance with new-generation lightweight, stretchable fabrics.
The cut of boardshorts looks to increase the maximum range of motion in the groin and hips. You don’t want your shorts riding into the unknown when you bust that air reverse. Four-way flexion technology, quick-drying materials, and a secure fit around the hips are all design features in top boardshorts.
You get flexible waistbands with grip on the interior to prevent them from riding up when you wipe out on a decent-size wave. The laces in the band also feature grip materials to prevent them from coming undone and falling off your hips (believe us, this happens occasionally).
So, if you’re wondering why it’s so expensive to buy a pair of new boardshorts, that’s why. You get what you pay for, and the premium boardie’s from the best brands will go a long way to making you feel more comfortable in the water.
Rash guards aren’t just for competitive surfers and bodyboarders; surfers can wear them too. But seriously, we get it if you love surfing in that old t-shirt, we do it too.
However, when you’re a beginner, you’ll spend some time with the whitewater throwing you around when you fall. It takes time to learn how to stabilize yourself during a fall and get behind the wave.
So, to prevent your t-shirt choking you to death underwater, use a rash guard instead. They’re available from many brands in short and long-sleeve options and a range of colors and designs.
When the fall rolls around and the mornings start to feel fresh, you might find yourself getting cold faster than normal. Keep your session time with a wetsuit top. These tops are one-piece pullovers, like a thicker rash guard, typically featuring neoprene materials.
They give you that little bit of extra warmth to get you through the cooler mornings during the seasonal change. You also have thicker models with a zip-through design. They’re ideal for colder mornings, and they are also a popular choice for girls.
If you have fair skin and you like spending time out on the water, you’re going to burn in strong sunlight conditions. A surf hat can help you avoid sun damage to the skin. Melanoma is a real thing, and you don’t want it.
A sun hat will keep you safe from the sun’s UV radiation. Most models have chin straps to prevent them from coming off when duck diving waves. They might look stupid, but we’re all for it if it stops skin cancer.
Sunscreen is the most essential part of surfing. Unless you want to look like Gandalf the Grey at 30-years old, you need to protect your skin from the sun. We recommend using surf-specific sunscreen.
There are plenty of brands offering zinc-oxide-based products with excellent sun protection. We recommend only buying reef-friendly sunscreen brands. Sunscreen can kill coral, so protect your skin and the ocean by choosing reef-friendly sunscreen.
What to Wear Surfing in Cold Water
If you live in a cold water spot like Cape Town or Western Oz, you’ll need the right equipment to get you through the inter. Even Northern California can get pretty chilly in the winter. There’s no chance you’re going out at Trestles without a wetsuit.
Let’s look at the gear you need in colder climates and when the winter rolls in.
The waves of winter are calling us home. When the wintertime arrives, so does the swell, and every surfer can’t wait for the first big storm to send waves to their local break.
The problem with the winter is the cold. Getting up at first light deep in the North Carolina winter to hit the Outer Banks breaks is a chilly experience; just ask Brett Barley.
Even if you’re in the temperate waters of the Pacific around Hawaii, the winter requires a spring suit if you’re out there for an extended session.
So, what wetsuit do you need for your local break? It depends on the water and wind conditions. Here’s a quick guide to the right wetsuit thicknesses.
- > 24 °C / > 75 °F: No wetsuit needed.
- 22 – 24 °C / 71 – 75 °F: 1 – 2mm neoprene wetsuit top.
- 19 – 22 °C / 66 – 75 °F: 2mm spring suit.
- 17 – 20 °C / 62 – 68 °F: 2mm full suit.
There are dozens of wetsuit manufacturing brands. We recommend looking at the leading brands like Quiksilver and Rip Curl if you want the latest technology in your suit. Some brands also produce neoprene-free wetsuits, which are kinder to the environment.
Remember, your wetsuit will only last two or three seasons with regular use, so the disposal of the suit matters to the environment!
If you live in a cold water break, like the Outer Banks in the winter, you’ll need a full suit and a hoodie. The cold wind blowing against your ear can cause the onset of exostosis or “surfers ear.”
This condition causes the bone to grow around the ear canal. Eventually, you end up experiencing a huge reduction in your hearing ability in the affected ear.
You’ll have to have it surgically removed, and that’s no fun. A hoodie slows the process of the exostosis, keeping you out of the operating room.
You’re not going to find it easy to land your pop-up if you can’t feel your feet. Booties may feel terrible and look stupid, but sometimes, they help.
When you get to your feet, you’ll feel the board and the wax instead of wondering who gave your feet a shot of anesthetic underwater. They’re also great for preventing those cuts to your feet from the reef at Padang Padang.
Gloves help you keep your fingers from freezing in very cold conditions. Some models come with webbing to make paddling easier. We think it’s cheating, but whatever.
What to Wear Surfing in Heavy Water
When your skills reach that level where six-foot barrels no longer get your adrenaline levels up, it’s time to chase the heavy water.
Being towed into a monster barrel at Teahupoo or Jaws is exhilarating and the peak of extreme surfing. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a lifestyle of excitement for those who do it.
However, when there’s more water moving around, things can get hectic very quickly. Here’s the essential gear you need for taking on the big stuff.
An impact suit is a wetsuit with padding in certain areas like the hips and shoulders to absorb impact. Jamie O’Brien made these suits famous after collaborating with Buell wetsuits on a few designs.
Jamie rates the suit helps him when he’s taking a beating on the reef out at Pipeline, so it must have something to it.
When it gets over 20-foot, we’re talking heavy hold-downs that last for minutes., Bring yourself back to the surface faster with a surf PFD.
Pioneered by legend Shane Dorian, these wearables are like a wetsuit top with gas canisters and air bladders inside them.
When you fall on a big wave, you pull the tabs, and the vest inflates, sending you back to the surface instead of down into a cave. You know what they say; they’re always pulling bodies out of the caves.
If you watch a live feed of Pipeline on a heavy 10-foot day, you’ll see some surfers paddling around with helmets. That’s right, while the water is soft, the reef is hard.
Cracking your skull open on the bottom could leave you paralyzed and drowning in the water, with no help around.
A helmet helps protect your noggin from the rocks and reef, helping you build your confidence in heavy water conditions.
Extra Gear for Surfing in All Water Conditions
There is some gear that all surfers need, regardless of water conditions or experience. We recommend checking out these devices to improve your surfing if you have the budget.
Surfers don’t speak about sharks; we just don’t. We all know they are out there; we just pray that today isn’t that day. Well, there’s no need to surf in fear anymore. Buy yourself a wearable shark deterrent.
These devices emit a magnetic field (or something) around you, keeping the sharks away. If you’re always looking around for shadows at your feet, get yourself one of these devices and surf without your mind playing tricks on you.
Plenty of companies manufactures surf watches. Most of the leading brands like Rip Curl and Quicksilver have impressive smartwatches that link to an app on your phone.
Download your session data and find out how many waves you scored and your total session length. It’s a handy device and a must for competitive surfers.
Take your surf performance to the next level by wearing a Whoop watch. The Whoop 4.0 is a wearable device that monitors your biological functions.
The device links to your PC or laptop, giving you information on your strain during your session and your recovery from your last session.
This data is vital to help you decide when to push your performance at the swell’s peak and when you need to pull back and take it easy for a bit.
Where Should I Buy My Surfwear?
We recommend picking your surfwear up online. Surf shops charge a huge markup on their gear. Unless you’re looking for a second-hand board and some wax, we wouldn’t recommend buying anything else in store.
Amazon is a great site for picking up your gear. You get the best range and prices and free shipping directly to your door. There’s buyer protection on your order, and you get total piece of mind with a money-back guarantee.
The Best Surfwear Brands
Is it worth it to spend money on top surf wear brands? Well, it is, and it isn’t. For example, a Quiksilver wetsuit just feels amazing when you put it on. It has stretch in all the right places, and it feels ergonomic and lightweight. Try a cheap wetsuit, and you’ll notice the difference immediately.
Surfing in the latest Rip Curl boardies will feel way better than using a pair of old shorts. So, it makes sense that using the best products from the top brands will improve your surfing.
Surfing is a sport that’s all about feel and connection to the ocean. When you have the right gear, it increases that connection and your performance in the water.
If you’re looking for the best surfwear brands, we recommend sticking to products from Rip Curl, Quiksilver, Billabong, Da Kine, and a few others.