If you surf, paddle board, swim, kite, or do anything that involves large, cold bodies of water, you will feel the benefits of a wetsuit. Sure, those hardy cold-water folk out there might disagree, but try surfing in the English Channel in January. We give it 10 minutes before the towel is well and truly thrown in.
The fact of the matter is that modern wetsuits are excellent at extending sessions in cold water without restricting freedom of movement. With the right gear (neoprene hats, boots and gloves), you can surf in the Arctic Circle and still come away with your digits intact.
But for those new to aquatic adventures, folk looking to pack light for a trip or those who simply don’t want to fork out for the latest wetsuit tech, there is also the option of renting or hiring a wetsuit. But is it a good idea? We take a look at both sides of the argument.
Unless you are going to opt for something grabbed at a local petrol station, today’s wetsuit technology isn’t cheap. On average, you can expect to part with £300/ $300/ AU$ 550 for a 3/2mm spring/summer suit and around £350/ $350/ AU$ 600 for a more winter-friendly 5/4/3mm wetsuit from reputed brands, such as Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl.
Of course, it is also possible to spend a lot more, with the likes of Patagonia, O’Neill and Vissla offering up surf suits that can cost double what we previously mentioned.
Swimming and triathlon wetsuits from the likes of Zone3, Orca, and TYR are also on the pricey side, seeing as they require numerous panels and advanced stitching technology to ensure they don’t restrict swimming movement or cause discomfort during endurance efforts.
However, renting a suit is often charged by the hour or the day, which will almost always work out cheaper if you only occasionally get in the water. What’s more, many hire companies will throw in a free rental wetsuit if you hire a board, for example.
That said, if you are looking to surf, kit or paddle on a weekly basis, it makes financial sense to bite the bullet and buy.
Winner: Renting - it’s nearly always cheaper for occasional users.
Any good rental establishment will use an anti-bacterial wetsuit shampoo on a suit before it heads back into the deep blue again. That said, we’ve witnessed plenty that thinks a quick hose down with some cold water will do.
Let’s not get too graphic here, but a rental wetsuit will be worn by multiple people, and the odds of one or two of them going to the bathroom in it are high. With that in mind (or preferably not), owning your own wetsuit is going to be a surefire way of keeping it fresh, especially if you take good care of it and rinse it after every use. Oh, and use a W/C, not the sea, for bodily functions.
Winner: Owning - it’s the only way to know what’s occurred inside the wetsuit.
Today’s wetsuits are surprisingly thin and featherweight, thanks to massive improvements in neoprene, stitching and insulating technology. But there’s no denying it’s an additional item to pack, which is especially pertinent if travelling with hand luggage only.
If jetting off to warmer climates, where a skinny 2mm suit is all you need, go ahead and invest in your own if the budget allows. It’s not likely to take up too much room, and you won’t have to worry about adhering to rental time schedules.
However, cold water suits packing 5mm, 6mm or even 7mm of rubber will feel decidedly cumbersome in any backpack and will take up a surprising amount of space in even larger suitcases. In this instance, it may be simpler to rent.
The same can be said for storage and maintenance, as large bulky suits can be a pain to clean off and dry after a session in the salty seas, while they take up a significant amount of wardrobe space. Not to mention the fact they tend to make everything around them whiff of slightly damp rubber.
Winner: Renting - it takes up less space when travelling.
When it comes to wetsuits, finding the right fit for your body shape is essential to the technology functioning properly. After all, a wetsuit keeps you warm by trapping a thin layer of water between the rubber and your skin. Body heat then warms this layer of liquid, providing a toasty slither of insulation.
However, every wetsuit brand is different and finding the right fit - namely, one that isn’t too tight and restrictive or too loose and baggy - takes time and effort. Ideally, you should head to a wetsuit stockist and try on several brands, opting for the manufacturer that fits like a glove.
This is where the rental experience falls down, as many surf schools strike a deal with an individual wetsuit manufacturer, purchasing in bulk. You might find it tricky to find a Billabong or Quiksilver suit that fits correctly, for example, or said rental outlets simply might not have the right size on the day.
What’s more, wetsuits have a fairly limited shelf life and start to lose their original shape and fit after months of intensive use. This might not be an issue if you own one and only don it every few weeks, but rental suits are likely going to be used heavily most days.
Unless the rental establishment rotates its wetsuits regularly and brings in fresh products, it’s highly likely you will find they’ve lost that new suit feel and won’t perform as well in the water as a result.
Winner: Owning - it's the only way to get the perfect fit.
We go much deeper into the issues surrounding wetsuit production and its environmental impact here: Are wetsuits environmentally friendly? But for brevity, most wetsuits are made from a synthetic rubber called neoprene, which is made from petroleum or limestone, both of which aren’t renewable resources, while the material itself doesn’t biodegrade.
There are issues of neoprene waste, the toxic production methods often employed, and the associated carbon emissions to consider, which is why natural and plant-derived rubber alternatives, such as Yulex, have started to come onto the scene.
But as with cars and other forms of petroleum-based transport, you can reduce your environmental impact through sharing - or, in this context, renting or hiring a suit.
Similarly, the resale value of a wetsuit that has been treated well is surprisingly good, and there’s a vibrant used market in most areas that are popular with surfers and other water sports enthusiasts. Another way to avoid waste is to sell it to someone whose budget perhaps doesn’t stretch to buying new. Similarly, buying used if you think mucking around in the ocean is just a passing phase.
Winner: Renting is arguably a more environmentally friendly approach.
If you are looking to get in the water on a regular basis, investing in the right suit is a wise decision. Not only will it fit better, but you can ensure it's the correct thickness for the water temperature and general weather conditions. Treat it well, rinse it after use, hang it out to dry, and it should go the distance.
However, if you are dipping a tentative toe in the physical and metaphorical water, try renting or hiring first to see if the newfound hobby takes. Similarly, if you aren’t planning on getting in the water too often, it could also be financially beneficial to rent or hire - not to mention better for the environment.