Wetsuits generally: Wetsuits are made out of neoprene, which is traditionally a petroleum product. Most brands are trying to figure out more environmental ways to manufacture them. Most suits are designed either in the US or Japan and made in Thailand or China at factories. I may do some research on each brand or you can yourself, but for now let's keep it at that. Wetsuits are spoken of in terms of millimeters of thickness, usually ranging from 1.5-6mm. The thicker the mm the more cold the suit is supposed to withstand. Many feature a combination of thicknesses, so that you have more warmth in areas you do not move, and more flexibility in areas that you do (gussets, etc.). Wetsuits should always be tight fitting. Brand is a very personal thing and I will let you do your own research. Here is a list of brands (without links) in order of mainstream to retro: Oneill, Billabong, Ripcurl, Quiksilver, West, Hurley, Xcel, Isurus, Beull, Hotline, Matuse, Patagonia, Axxe, Amsterdam, Nineplus. I am surely missing a few here, but this is just a start for where to start looking.
What I wear: Instead of tell you what to get I am going to just talk about what I wear year round. I grew up in 50 degree water and have been wearing suits for the past 26 years. I like a bit of neoprene no matter how warm the water is. I am used it and I feel it gives me a little added protection from rib bruising, the sun, and whatever may lurk beneath me. Also, I have ear problems, so as soon as the water is cold enough to give an occasional ice cream headache, around 55 degrees, I'm wearing a hood of some sort.
September: In the beginning of September I'm in a 2mm spring suit, long john, or short armed spring. It can still be hot and the water is up in the high 60s, low 70s. On the colder mornings with offshore wind I'll don my 3/2 fullsuit for the first time.
October: I'm usually wearing the 3/2 all month.
November: The 3/2 still gets a bit of action and I may add a polypro hooded shirt. Towards the end of the month, depending on the year my hooded 4/3 comes into action. I am usually reluctant to wear gloves and booties. I won't wear them unless the water is under 50 degrees and the air is under 45.
December: The hooded 4/3 comes into action, as do the 3mm booties and 1.5 mm gloves. By mid-month or towards the end of the month I might already be in the 7mm booties and 5mm gloves.
January-March: Hooded 4/3, 7mm booties, 5mm gloves. [Caveat: a lot of people wear 5/4/3s or 6/4/3s but I haven't found them necessary in the three winters I have surfed in NY. I prefer the flexibility of the hooded 4/3 over the stiffness of the thicker suits. The key is to really protect your extremities. Also the thicker the suit the harder it is to get in and out. When it's cold you usually want to expose your skin for a minimal amount of time.]
April-May: The hooded 4/3 is still in effect, but I can start pairing down on the booties and gloves. As soon as the water hits 50 degrees my feet and hands come free. I'll also start wearing the 3/2 full suit with the hooded poly pro shirt.
June: 3/2 fullsuit and if we're lucky the 2mm springsuit and long johns or wetsuit jackets can come into play.
August-July: Bye bye fullsuit. Spring suit, trunks with a vest, jackets and surf shirts.
So in the end my ideal wetsuit quiver for NY is:
- 1 wetsuit vest or neoprene jacket/surf shirt ($25-$100)
- 2mm spring suit, long john, or short arm full ($99-$200)
- Poly pro hooded shirt ($75-$100)
- 3/2mm full suit ($100-$250)
- 4/3 hooded full suit ($200-$550)
- [sometimes a 5/4/3 or 6/4/3 hooded full suit for trips up north ($200-$600)]
- 1 pair of 3mm booties ($50)
- 1 pair of 1.5 mm gloves ($50)
- 1 pair of 7mm booties (rounded toe) ($50)
- 1 pair of 5 or 7mm lobster claw gloves (you need these to surf in the winter at all) ($50)
In the end it depends on your dedication to surfing year round and living in NY. In my mind, it is a worthwhile investment. Most suits last 2-4 years and many companies have repair services, so you won't have to spend this amount every year. There are also a variety of glues that you can use to repair your own suit with.