3 years and a half. This is the time it took me to finally acquire my very first dry suit. Here is the story of my successful/unsuccessful trials and my tips to choose yours. Every time I jumped in the water wearing a new one it was full of learning toward one goal: feeling good underwater whatever extreme cold conditions I could face.
Buying a dry suit is not really like choosing a wetsuit to go diving in South East Asia or the Caribbean. For the scuba divers who are not afraid of extreme cold conditions, there are so many different types at such a big price difference. So from the moment I passed my dry suit diver speciality back in 2011, I kept wondering: how do you make the right choice?
The body shape issue
We are all different. Even if you are far from my description, a rather petite woman with thin neck and wrists, we may face the same issue: our body is not average. Then when it comes to a dry suit, it is a one-piece suit from the feet to the neck which is supposed to be both adapted to your shoe size, your height, and your body shape. In my case I’m 1m68 / 5ft6in, my shoe size is rather large – 40/7 – and I have thin wrists and neck… not easy, especially at critical locations that are the neck and wrists seals, where water can penetrate. The one solution if you want to avoid the overpriced tailor-made dry suits: trying as many as possible.
In countries where a dry suit is an obvious choice to go diving, renting one is reasonably priced. In the UK, renting a dry suit is possible for less than £20, which is not expensive compared the 80€ I was asked for most of the time in France. You can also find dive shops equipped with trial pools which are a good option but never as good as trying in real conditions.
There is another interesting option to try different models on the same day for a cost of virtually zero. You can take advantage of the promotional events organised by some scuba diving gear manufacturers such as the Dry Suit Tour held by Aqualung in Europe. This is what I did, and I took the opportunity there to pass my dry suit diver certification. Remember that, as you add air inside your drysuit to stay warm and toasty, you need to learn how to use it properly to avoid any involuntary express ascents to the surface with the all the potential problems that go with it.
It went well with the first model I tried, but I wanted to know more about dry suits before making up my mind. So in all destinations where it was necessary to wear one, such as in Argentina or Switzerland, I took the opportunity to try more models. Unfortunately, I should say most dry suits come in a very limited choice of sizes and seem to be designed only for heavier men.
My main issue was always the neck seal diameter. It was almost ok to get flooded at the beginning of spring in Northern Spain with water at 13°C. In Switzerland with water at 2°C, it was close to the “no-go” when we found out none of the available dry suits had a tight enough neck seal for me.
Hopefully, 6 months before the owner of the dive centre of Ushuaia, Argentina gave me a tip to deal with this kind of situations: the “dog collar”! It can be an elastic or a plastic collar, but even if it saved my dives in Ushuaia, in Switzerland and finally in Scotland for my first dives, I was always worried about getting water inside as it is not a perfect solution.
When, last summer in Scotland, even with a children-sized dry suit, the neck seal was still too large and then leaking underwater, I decided it was time to stop trying and get my own. I had been through enough testing; no other drysuit was any better than the first one I tried!
Neoprene vs. Trilaminate drysuits
At some point, being surrounded by tech divers who almost exclusively only dive with trilaminate dry suits, it seems it was the only right way to go… but not necessarily for anyone. Contrary to neoprene dry suits, even if crushed, trilaminate does not offer any positive buoyancy or thermal insulation. This technical fabric is made of three layers of different materials, hence its name. Materials chosen vary from one model to another, but usually, the ones with Cordura on top are the most resistant.
Being much looser than the neoprene ones, this allows adapting the thickness of undergarment to wear depending on the water temperature conditions. They tend to be faster to dry and, generally speaking, lighter to transport. The drawbacks? They are the most expensive dry suits and offer a less smooth diving experience as it is looser it makes the suit less hydrodynamic. It is actually for these 2 reasons that I chose a neoprene dry suit.
First of all, I like the extra insulation of the 7mm neoprene. Then, I like the sensation of diving with a neoprene dry suit not being much different from a wetsuit. I care about this especially when shooting pictures or video as my position and trim in the water matters. From a comfort point of view, wearing a neoprene dry suit exposes you less to a painful squeeze effect on your legs when you go deeper. Besides, today, it is possible to find thin and warm undergarments to put below this type of dry suit.
The trilaminate drysuit might let you save weight and volume in your luggage, but this gain might be lost by the weight and size of the undergarment you need for this type of dry suit. Regarding the drying issue, in my travels, as I like to take it slower, I usually allocate a day of drying for my equipment in my organisation before moving to the next place. So finally, after thinking trilaminate dry suits were the best in my case, I analysed better my needs and realised the neoprene in addition to being cheaper was just the right choice for me.
Important features of a drysuit
You will also have the choice between latex rubber or neoprene seals for your neck and your wrists. Latex rubber offers the comfort of adjusting the diameter perfectly to what is required for your body shape (you can cut the seal which has the form of a cone at the right dimension for you). Considering the issue at the neck I was facing, it should have been the right choice for me.
Unfortunately, this material is also very fragile. I saw so many scuba divers having to fix their seals a bit too often. Given the gymnastics needed to get into your dry suit, a fingernail too long and the game is over. So for the scuba traveller I am, I chose the most resistant option: the neoprene seals.
When it comes to your feet, you will usually have the choice between integrated booties or a sock style. With the latter, you will have to add boots that can be heavy. For travels, I highly recommend integrated booties that are lighter than additional boots. In any case, think about investing in good thermal socks.
Finally, quality gloves will be essential. Even if you can buy dry gloves that you can clip to your drysuit, these are still expensive and wet gloves can still do the job. After several trials, including mittens that I didn’t like because of the lack of dexterity, I found the best compromise with my Aqualung 5 mm gloves.
How to purchase a dry suit without breaking the bank?
With a price going from 600€ to 1500€ on average, many scuba divers are reluctant to invest in their dry suit. Having your own dry suit will be a matter of comfort and, as a result, a matter of safety. In the case of this very particular piece of diving equipment, it cannot be truer as diving in cold water is more challenging. If you want to keep diving anywhere where the water is cold, here are some ways of acquiring a dry suit for less:
- Dive shops usually rent dry suits for one season and renew them the following year. As a result, they sell for a good price the second-hand dry suits. The advantage is that they are controlled on a regular basis by the dive shop so that you will have less risk of potential issues.
- Dry suits used for promotional events can also be sold by dive shops at a discounted price. In this case, the dry suit has been much less used, and sometimes not even worn. This is how I got mine. Don’t hesitate to ask your favourite dive shop or register on their e-newsletter to be informed of these special promotions.
- Yearly scuba diving shows are usually an excellent way of buying scuba diving gear at more affordable rates. You may pay your ticket about 10€, but if you are looking for some pieces of equipment, you are going to make huge savings in the end. I saved 150€ on my BCD, and I had 20% off my video lighting system this way. Look online for the next scuba diving show in your country. The most famous ones are the Boot show in Düsseldorf, Germany and The Paris dive show in France, both in January, the London dive show is in February and the DEMA show in the USA, the biggest, is in Florida or Las Vegas usually in November.
To sum up, thanks to an opportunity arising, I managed to find the first dry suit I tried at a fantastic price which fitted me the best. I now have equipment that matches my needs as a scuba traveller and underwater photographer/videographer. It is warm, robust and easy to maintain. My first dives in the Scottish lochs confirmed it: I had finally found the one!
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