October 29, 2020

Surfing is an old-school pastime with tons of modern momentum. Techniques have been passed from one generation to the next, and new surfing stars are constantly conquering big waves around the world.

If you’ve never surfed before and you are craving the waves, you’ll want to gear up properly before paddling out for the first time. 

Here is a breakdown of the most popular surfwear based on experience level, weather conditions, and style. 

Fullsuits And Springsuits

It’s easy to list off all the great things about surfing: sun, fun, and an incomparable rush of adrenaline. But like most intense endeavors, we tend to overlook some of the dangers, like leash tangles, riptides, and those gnarly sea bed wipeouts. 

For first-time surfers, maximum protection is the name of the game. This is a hazardous sport any way you look at it, and even casual hobbyists need to keep risk at a minimum by wearing clothes specifically designed for surf safety.

Newcomers are going to want to rock a full suit, which is considered the standard wetsuit for surfers worldwide. Your choices will typically be between 3:2 and 4:3 full suits, which refer to the millimeter thickness of the neoprene, the most common synthetic rubber used in surf gear.

The first number indicates the thickness of the chest panel, while the second refers to the thickness in the arms and legs. More coverage on the torso keeps you warm, and we tend to lose less heat in the limbs. Plus, we generally want more movement in the arms and legs to stay flexible and mobile on the board. 

While full-coverage wetsuits are typically meant for cold-weather surfers, most professionals recommend you wear one for your first time out, so don’t worry about how you look. 

Is it cool to wear a full suit as you paddle out to the smallest waves on the beach? No, but that’s not the point. Embrace the mindset of slow and steady improvement and recognize that even the best all-time surfers had to start somewhere. 

Once you’re riding the world’s biggest waves, you’ll want more coverage anyway, so it’s best to get used to the process of putting on these one-piece garments early on.

Different variations of the full suit are available if you want more or less coverage on your limbs. The spring suit is short-sleeved with leg coverage down to the knee, while John suits have a sleeveless top and various lengths on the leg.  

Vests And Jackets

Not all surf sessions are big-wave bonanzas, and you can get away with a bit less coverage if you feel up to the challenge and the stakes aren’t too high.

Neoprene jackets are a great option for those chilly mornings when nobody else is at the beach, and you have the whole world to yourself. Who wouldn’t be willing to throw on a thick top layer to get the best surf of the year? No better feeling than that!

Think of a jacket as a half-wetsuit, allowing you to wear your favorite pair of board shorts for maximum freedom of motion once you stand up on the board.

Since jackets can be a bit restrictive, many surfers prefer to ditch the sleeves altogether and sport a neoprene vest, which gives you greater mobility while still protecting your torso from cold water and rashes.

The vest is a highly versatile piece since it can be worn under your regular wetsuit or paired with a stylish rash guard for color-blocked aesthetics and full arm and shoulder protection. 

Vests are also one of the more affordable neoprene surf wear products on the market, so if you’re falling head over heels for the sport, it’s a great first purchase to seal your commitment. 

Rash Guards And Shorts

If you’ve been out surfing several times before and have a good feel for the waves, you may not need the full-body protection of a suit, vest, or jacket any longer. 

As you may have noticed, those garments are tricky to put on and can be somewhat restrictive when navigating the water. 

Until you’re ready to abandon your shirt altogether and get your photo taken for the next extreme surf Instagram gallery, it’s always smart to keep a layer on, even when it’s hot. 

Remember that functionality matters more than fashion when surfing, so leave your favorite tank tops and tee shirts behind for the time being. You can always put them back on once you safely return to the sand.

What we’re trying to avoid here is not sharks or sea urchins (although those should be avoided as well), but surf rash, which has long been the bane of the beach. 

Contrary to the landlubber assumption, surf rash is actually caused by the softening of the skin after prolonged exposure to saltwater, which causes tiny abrasions in the skin that can worsen quickly if not addressed. Think of it as an exfoliation session at the spa gone way too long. 

If you surf more than a couple times per week, surf rash can lead to inflammation and pain and even cause superficial wounds in the skin that could sideline you for weeks. 

While there are some natural remedies to rub on your skin to heal the immediate effects of surf rash, the best thing you can do is to simply step off the board for a while and let things heal up on their own. 

Of course, that’s not an option for many of the adrenaline-addicted surfers out there, which is why so many of them prefer to wear rash guards and prevent the ailment altogether. 

Rash guards are simple garments that don’t look much different from the typical athletic long-sleeve shirt, but they are engineered to be highly effective in preventing surf rash. 

The best rash guards on the market are made of roughly 80% polyester and 20% spandex, give or take a few percentage points on either end. This combination of synthetic materials creates a light, flexible fabric that protects your skin in a way that cotton never could. 

Find a rash guard that also protects you from UV rays and dries quickly so you can transition to a beachside kickback in no time. 

Even the most accomplished surfers on the planet usually wear a rash guard at the very least when hitting the beach since surf rash is such a major bummer.

As far as board shorts go, you’ll want to keep things simple as well. Make sure you get coverage down to your knee to prevent rashes on your thighs and find a fit that offers flexibility without leaving too much extra material in your way. 

The best board shorts are more than 90% poly, with a bit of spandex thrown in for good measure. They should be quick-drying, antimicrobial, and offer UV protection, just like your favorite rash guard. 

When paired together and color-coordinated, your board shorts and rash guard should be a match made in surfwear heaven.

Accessorize When Necessary

It takes a while to learn which surfing gear works best for your style and what temperatures and conditions you can withstand with certain outfits. Still, there are a few accessories you can work into your surf wardrobe for even greater control over your experience. 

Many surfers who take on huge waves in chilly climates choose to wear some form of headgear to protect their necks, heads, and ears from getting crushed by ice-cold waves. 

You may not be on that level quite yet, but a wetsuit hood could help you stay calm and confident on the board. Some old-school surfers like Tom Carroll also wore helmets when riding bigger waves for added protection. No shame in that!

It’s also worth investing in a pair of neoprene booties or gloves if you are braving some ice-cold weather in the name of gnar. Style can take a backseat when you’re tackling monstrous waves at near-freezing temps, and more than likely, nobody will even be on the beach to watch.


Surfing is one of those easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master skills that can be picked up at any age, given you have a bit of core strength and a willingness to take some spills in the water. 

If you’re committed to learning the art and science of the surf, make sure you sign up for lessons with a patient professional at your local beach and be prepared for a wild ride. It will take some time to get the hang of things, but when it finally clicks, that feeling can’t be beat. 

Be sure to wear the surf gear that matches your experience level, and put your ego aside when selecting the proper garments. Don’t run the risk of a nasty rash or day-ending wipeout if it can be prevented. 

Eventually, you can wear that clean, minimal swimwear look and turn heads up and down the beach as you ride the waves to glory.