Can I swim in a surf wetsuit?

One of the most common questions I am asked as a coach is,

“can I wear my surfing wetsuit for open water swimming?”

And the answer is

“Yes”………“but it depends on what you want to do”

That is because wetsuits designed for swimming are very different to those made for surfing and that can make all the difference to how you much you enjoy swimming and how well you swim in a wetsuit.

Let’s get to basics...

What they look like:

Swimming wetsuits are made of closed cell neoprene and have a coating over the top which as well as making you look smooth all over helps you glide effortlessly through the water. The down side to this is they are less robust for scrambling over a sandy beach or crawling onto a paddle-board.

Surfing wetsuits are made of open cell neoprene. They look and feel rougher to the touch which makes them excellent for protecting you against the nicks and knocks of surfing or paddle boarding but means a whole lot of drag in the water. It will feel like you are swimming towing a parachute.

Left: surf wetsuit Right: swimming wetsuit

These types of wetsuits can often have extra protection on the knees.


Left: surf wetsuit knee pads


Whatever stroke we swim, we need flexibility in all the important places like around the shoulders, arms, neck, legs. Swimming wetsuits not only use different combinations of neoprene and lining thickness in these areas to ensure maximum flexibility but also different brands use different panels in key areas for example, to help shoulder rotation.


I am often contacted by people who say they find it really uncomfortable around their shoulders or have an injury. The first thing I do is take a look at them in their wetsuit and then swimming. Often the solution is getting the wetsuit to fit better, which can mean changing their suit or sometimes making sure it is on properly.

Surfing wetsuits do not have the same level of flexibility as it is not needed in the same way when surfing.


A well fitting swimming wetsuit is worth its weight in gold when it comes to how it makes you feel, how warm it keeps you and how well you swim in it. Swimming wetsuits are meant to feel tight. Take a look at this blog on how tight a wetsuit should be. 

But wetsuits also need to feel that you can move in them.

Surfing wetsuits also need to fit well otherwise they will not keep you warm and also a badly fitting wetsuit is tiring to wear.

The lower and often softer neoprene neck line on a swimming wetsuit is particularly important as we need to rotate our heads much more when swimming than surfing.

And if you have ever had to take a wetsuit off in a hurry, you will know that the smooth inner lining of swim specific wetsuits can make all the difference. My top tip is to let in some water at the neck before getting out. As you go upright, this water is pushing around the wetsuit and makes it easier to get off.


A well fitting wetsuit is a great investment for whatever sport you do and looked after well will last you a long time or be good enough to pass on to others.

Click here to see a video about how to take care of your wetsuit 

The smooth surface of swimming wetsuits mean they are almost frictionless in the water but not so good for clambering onto a surfboard. All wetsuits can be mended either at home using a repair kit or if not then sent to Tri Wetsuit Hire.

So, yes it depends....and we come back to what you want to do.

If you are trying wild swimming for the first time and want to wear the surf / beach wetsuit you have then go ahead. If you catch the bug and want to swim regularly then a good fitting wetsuit will make all the difference to your enjoyment. Similarly, if you want to do longer swims or take part in swim events then a swimming wetsuit will be your greatest asset. 

Hiring one for a few weeks can be a great way of trying before buying.

Jude Palmer is an experienced wild swimmer, swim runner and Open Water Swimming Coach, Trail Running Coach based in Surrey. She loves nothing more than sharing her love for adventure with others. Follow her on social media @RunSurreyHills

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