Essential Cold Water Swimming Gear: Wetsuit or Dry Suit
Several factors need to be considered when choosing the kind of suit to wear for swimming or any other water activity. Most of the factors are optional or those that are dictated by the wearer’s preferences. For example, how much exposure to the sun is the swimmer willing to take? Here, he or she will pick a swimsuit based on the extent of body coverage the garment will provide. Of course, trends in fashion will also be in his/her mind.
But one factor that always has to be given weight is water temperature. It is advised that swimmers use the kind of swimsuit that will give them sufficient body coverage and protection during cold water swimming, as in swimming in outdoor bodies of water (oceans, rivers, or lakes). Two types of swimsuit are recommended for this purpose: wetsuit and dry suit.
Open water swimmers and deep divers use wetsuits because of the thermal insulation they provide. A typical wetsuit is made of neoprene (a synthetic rubber), which is foamed with small bubbles of nitrogen gas. These bubbles reduce heat conduction by minimizing heat transport through the gas. Note that like most other gas, nitrogen has minimal thermal conductivity in relation to water. Apart from insulation, wetsuits also provide abrasion resistance and buoyancy, the latter made possible by the low density the bubbles give.
An efficient wetsuit is one that fits snugly. If a suit fits too loosely, it will cause water to break away from between the body and the suit, taking the body’s heat away as well in the process. An important feature of a wetsuit is the flexible seal at each cuff, which helps in the retention of water.
A reminder to underwater swimmers and divers: A wetsuit’s thermal insulation and buoyancy properties are reduced as the foamed neoprene gets compressed at depth.
This suit is often used in cold water swimming, diving, and other such activities or sports done in or around outdoor bodies of water. Wearers of dry suits are provided with thermal protection while immersed in water or exposed to cold temperatures while, for instance, windsurfing or canoeing.
Except for the head and the hands and feet, a dry suit protects the entire body during extended immersion in cold water, especially if the water temperature is below 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). Some divers or swimmers find discomfort in a wetsuit during prolonged stay in cold water, and thus they prefer to wear a dry suit instead.
Compared with a wetsuit, a dry suit provides better thermal insulation as it is designed to prevent the entry of water. If only for this, many open water sports enthusiasts prefer dry suits over wetsuits, as they consider the former more suitable for use in cold water.
A dry suit has three necessary parts:
1. Waterproof shell – This is the main part, which is made from synthetic rubber (example, polychloroprene) that gives the suit its thermal insulation property.
2. Seals – These are usually made from latex rubber, and are set around the neck and cuff portions of the suit to prevent entry of water. They are, however, not perfectly watertight, such that seepage is possible during use.
3. Waterproof zipper – This essential part is commonly set up across the rear of the shoulders or the front of the torso (diagonally or straight down the middle).
It is a fact that water is more efficient than air when it comes to conducting heat away from the body. Cold water is understandably even more efficient in this respect. Hence, an improperly geared open water swimmer or diver faces the risk of hypothermia (below normal body temperature). A wetsuit or dry suit is therefore important in any cold water activity.