Whether you’re new to the waterlife or are a seasoned adventurer adding to your gearbox, understanding the difference between wetsuits vs dry suits means making sure to pack the right gear for the journey ahead.
While they share one specific function, the differences between wetsuits and dry suits are far greater...and can make or break a wearer’s adventure if the wrong one’s donned.
Why? Because open water conducts heat away from the body, and it’s possible to become hypothermic in the middle of summer, given long enough exposure. The cooler the water, the greater the risk.
Wendell Uglene, Mustang Survival Engineer and expert on cold water survival and safety—reminds us that:
“One of the biggest mistakes people make around cold water is they mentally compare the water temperature to that of air, and it’s very different. Water takes heat away from your body 26 times faster than air.”
That’s why determining whether to wear a wetsuit or a dry suit matters.
Consider this your definitive guide to picking whether a wetsuit or a dry suit is going to support you best in your planned pursuits.
However, before we get into the details and respective differences and shared traits, let's take a look at a brief history of the two.
We’re going deep; come along for the dive.
Origin of the Wetsuit and Dry Suit
The original wetsuit was introduced not long after the development of Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) gear during World War Two.
Back in the 1950s, a physicist at the University of California Berkeley named Hugh Bradner decided to use neoprene foam—which incorporates gas bubbles trapped in the neoprene it’s made of—to create the first wetsuit.
Dry suits, on the other hand, are born from the heavy suits made of waterproof and watertight canvas that protected wreckage divers in the 1800s, today’s dry suits are designed and engineering feats that consider the entire surface environment - beyond what the wearer will need if/when they happen to go in.
Wetsuits and dry suits have come a long way from their original inception. However, their desired functions haven't. Now that we know a bit more about their history, here's a breakdown of each.
What’s a Wetsuit?
Wetsuits are designed to provide thermal protection from the cold water by securing your body's heat. Unlike dry suits, which use air and multiple under-layers to retain heat (more on that in a minute), wetsuits insulate our body's natural heat via thin layer of water and the suits material.
Wetsuits are designed with closed-cell foam materials, usually neoprene, that feature thousands of gas bubbles. Upon entering the water, a thin layer of water creates a protective layer between your skin and the wetsuit. This process creates a thermal barrier that allows your body to stay warm for extended periods of time.
Wetsuits are available in varying thicknesses, typically from 2mm to 8mm. Naturally, the thicker the suit, the thicker the neoprene, the more trapped gas it can hold, and the cooler the water it can be worn in. And, you can buy liners to go underneath the wetsuit that extend the temperature of your wetsuit.
What’s a Dry Suit?
Dry Suits keep you dry - whether staying at the surface or planning to submerge. Since all Mustang Survival Dry Suits are designed and engineered for surface use and wear, we’ll stick to those.
Specifically, surface dry suits are often made with breathable, waterproof fabrics as it’s easy for wearers spending much of their time on the surface to get overheated and/or dehydrated. Unlike wetsuits, which trap a thin layer of water and preserve body heat, dry suits are waterproof.
Mustang Survival’s Hudson Dry Suit is made with Marine Spec BP fabric; a highly durable, abrasion-resistant, breathable and waterproof material innovated by Mustang Survival, for our recreational and professional grade gear.
Along with being breathable, dry suits are waterproof and watertight to prevent exposure of the skin to water; insulating against heat transfer to the surrounding environment. Aiding in keeping water out, the neck and wrists often incorporate soft rubber (like Latex) or neoprene seals to keep water out, and purge valves to evacuate any water that happens to creep in.
Other words used to describe surface dry suits? “Immersion Suits” or “Anti-Exposure Suits”; terms often used by aircrews who fly over water.
Dry suits can be more cumbersome than wetsuits; a product of their purpose and how they’re made. They’re meant to fit loosely, with space for you to layer thermal base layers—or more specifically the Mustang Survival Kazan Dry Suit Liners—and perhaps a light layer atop that for close-to-the-body warmth.
You may be able to find dry suits designed with your specific activity or job in mind. And, for most recreational users, you’ll find dry suits tend to offer a generalized fit for all surface activities—much like the Hudson Dry Suit.
Professionally, some suits are tailored to custom jobs - particularly in the public safety space: Rescue Swimmers wear dry suits specially cut to allow full range of motion while surface swimming and freeing distressed persons from obstacles. And, you may have seen photos or videos of Coast Guard helicopter crews in orange outfits; their dry suits/anti-exposure suits are engineered in high visibility colours in case they have to ditch at sea (where high contrast is essential in successful rescues).
Likewise, and interestingly, suits designed for use by aircrew and other military personnel are also flame resistant to protect from fires that may happen while in the air, on a surface vessel, or while in the water, while bailing out. In the case of wetsuit vs dry suits, aircrew would strictly stick to dry suits.
Women in marine sport tend to have to accommodate the engineering and ergonomics of suits designed for men, though there are some female-specific suits hitting the market like our new Helix Dry Suit for women.
What’s the Difference Between Dry Suits vs Wetsuits?
The list of similarities is significantly shorter than their differences.
The one function these two different suits share is this: they both act to protect the wearer from direct exposure to water. Thus, they're designed to keep you warm and safe from hypothermia in cold water.
But - they do it in entirely different ways. Put simply:
Wetsuits anticipate the wearer being, and staying, wet. The materials and construction anticipate some water making its way into contact with skin. Wetsuits are lighter and tight fitting compared to drysuits. As well, they are usually made of cheaper material and have a shorter lifespan than their dry counterparts.
Wetsuits are suitable for cold water and will keep you warm. However, depending on water temperature when dealing with extreme conditions, we suggest using a dry suit.
Conversely, dry suits anticipate the wearer being dry - with its construction and materials engineered to be completely watertight. A dry suit's design allows for added layers. Extra layers provide more thermal protection. This extra protection may be critical in certain climates and environments.
As well, dry suits, such as the Hudson and Helix are made to last. Unlike a wetsuit, which frequently rips and requires constant repair, a dry suit has a longer lifespan.
As a pseudo-second similarity in addition to protection from direct exposure to water, both suits offer a small amount of buoyancy (thanks to the trapped air) along with protection from abrasion, marine life, and the environment - both in and out of the water.
Dry Suit vs Wetsuit, Take Your Pick
Whether you choose a dry suit or wetsuit for waterborne activities depends on multiplied factors, but most importantly on the activity and temperature of the water.
So, as you consider what suit is best for you, think about:
- What activity/activities you’ll be getting up to
- How long you’ll be in the water
- And what temperature the waters will be where you’re headed in.
Deciding between a wetsuit and dry suit doesn’t have to be difficult. And from there, go forth and adventure with confidence, and in safety!