Last summer, I tested a handful of pricier suits in Iceland. A novice, I rode a sporty Fish Q82 by Nature Shapes and a lazy What I Ride longboard by Robert August. A handful of locals swore that their island has a half dozen excellent breaks but unfortunately a high-pressure zone hung over the country for most of my three months there. Thorlaksöfn, a beginner-friendly beach break just south of the capital, was no Mavericks. That said, the weather proved excellent for testing. Sea temperatures ranged from 45 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Adjusted for windchill, air temps ranged from 25 to 70 degrees. Summer in Iceland was not unlike winter in California.
Eric Hansen testing wetsuits.
Our Favorite Wetsuits: Matuse Scipio
The all arounder
At 10 p.m. one cloudy night, I surfed in the inky, wind-lashed, 49-degree North Atlantic. This should have been too frigid for a 3mm suit, and indeed, by midnight, my gloveless hands felt like spatulas and my hoodless noggin suffered a permanent ice-cream headache. But the Scipio kept everything it touched toasty.
Part of the credit surely goes to the Scipio’s spare-no-expense materials. The rubber not only repels water, allowing the body to heat trapped air instead of trapped moisture, but also supposedly reflects warmth back to you like a space blanket. Whatever the mechanics, the Scipio kept me so warm that a couple of head-to-head comparisons weren’t enough to determine whether it insulated any less effectively than a bulkier 5/4/3mm suit.
But it wasn’t just the Scipio’s uncommon toastiness that stood out. There were supremely nice touches, too—including a super easy to use back-zip entrance, a short inner bib that shunted water seeping through the neck during wipeouts, and tiptop construction and craftsmanship, especially noteworthy during a day canyoning up a glacier river. My Icelandic buddy was about two sizes too large for the Scipio but chose to wear it nonetheless, and because the Viking had never worn a wetsuit, he accidentally put it on backwards. Then he just left it on that way. We clamored over enormous boulders and fell on sharp rocks and generally abused our suits. No harm done. At the end of the day, the Scipio still looked like it had been plucked off a showroom hanger. The glued, stitched, and taped seams were perfect. Once doffed, it was bone dry within six hours, or half the time required by the suit I was wearing.
All in all, the Scipio strikes me as the suit for twice-daily sessions in California. For up to four seasons a year. For many years. But a word of caution: Matuse—like Arc'Teryx in the mountaineering world—sizes for athletes. If you’re chubby, look elsewhere.
Our Favorite Wetsuits: Axxe Bohemian V
The Platonic ideal
Before trying the bespoke Bohemian, I doubted the benefits of a custom fit; Afterward, I wonder if any wetsuit feature matters more.
Backing up: the process. First you discuss with a trained Axxe retailer the suit’s ideal thickness for your home break (some combination of 2mm, 3mm, or 5mm neoprene), then he measures you (at 27 points on your body), and lastly you choose your options—lining, cuffs, logos, etc. The specs are sent to Japan, where a dozen tailors in a 35-year-old workshop on the coast cut and assemble your suit from different rubbers, all of which are exclusive to Axxe. After a thorough quality check and some three weeks, your suit arrives in an unassuming brown box.
The contents astound. My 5/3mm Bohemian was easily the most limber of all suits tested. The perfect fit means that the neoprene isn’t pre-stretched—around your thick thighs, for example—so all of the rubber’s stretch can be taken advantage of on the water. And what a lot of stretch that is. The gummy arms were twice as stretchy as that on the O’Neill Heat, for example. On top of this, the Bohemian’s butt and knees are nicely articulated. The upshot: During a six-hour session in frigid water and strafing winds, I often felt like I was surfing Malibu in my baggies. Driving back to the city, I was astounded to see the roadside thermometer read –4 degrees Celsius, or 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
Aside from the top-quality, proprietary rubber, and ideal fit, that amazing performance is thanks to inspired design. Take just the arms. The smooth rubber is not only gummy but also cheats the wind. And in the pits, where heat is so often lost, small swatches of thick neoprene up the warmth without adding significant bulk. I couldn’t tell if the “Drain Espa” lining trumped Rip Curl’s or Patagonia’s linings, but it easily equaled another millimeter of neoprene, and, unlike competitors’, the cozy, chamois-like fabric covers only what you want. (In my case, torso and thighs.) The super-flexible hood makes looking down the line effortless even on backhanders, and attaches to just the inner back, thus freeing the shoulders even more. Inside, a triple-layer collar secures with hidden, flat snaps. During a rare swell from Greenland, on a day so heavy that my leash snapped, hardly a dram of water seeped in through the hood.
I could go on and on. Suffice it to say, the Bohemian is nothing less than a perfect product. Surfers on the mid Atlantic couldn't find a better suit for November to May. Those elsewhere might want to check out Axxe’s thinner and less expensive Bohemian Feathered.
Judging by the meticulous fit and finish, I doubt any Bohemian will fall apart or lose its flex prematurely. If one does, you’ll want to repair it, and, thankfully, replacements are reasonable. The factory in Japan can fit you with a new, custom-sized sleeve, for example, for about $120.
Our Favorite Wetsuits: O'Neill Heat FSW
The fun suit
I, being a chicken, did not plunge into Iceland’s glacier lagoon. But if I had taken a dip beside the icebergs, I would have worn the Heat.
It’s a workhorse, one that I trusted completely and never fussed over. Left crumpled in the trunk overnight? Big deal. Scraped on the bottom? No one can tell. Bobbing alone on a cold, dark night? At least I’ll be warm when I drift out to sea. Often called the first wetsuit company, O’Neill has a long history as the utilitarian’s go-to rubber. My experience supported the reputation.
The Heat is made from value-conscious neoprene and enhanced with well-executed details. Synthetic insulation in the torso kept my core extra cozy and flexible bands around the wrists made sure the tacky cuffs stayed in place while I flailed at a rocky pointbreak. The sash-style inner collar proved delightfully easy to climb into and out of at the truck. Minimal seams allowed as much flex as possible from the rubber, and waterproof glue stopped any water from penetrating at the seams.
Sometimes a weird suction effect developed in the suit—sliding off my board, I’d find the neoprene clinging to my crotch—but this seemed a small tradeoff. The Heat costs half as much as a decent board and allows you to surf virtually anywhere, including alone under the arctic sun.