Which is better – Neoprene or Laminate dry suit?

When people come into the dive centre this always used to be one of the question I least liked.

I could spend hours explaining all the technical differences, and the benefits of different types of materials and valves but I could never really answer “which is best for me” as that really was (and still is) personal choice.  However I do now think it is possible to guide people a little better and more clearly without the ramble.  So here goes…..

First of all what is a dry suit

To keep it simple, it is a loose fitting suit with seals around the neck and wrists and a large waterproof zip, usually across the shoulders that is used to get to enable the diver to get in and out of the suit.  The suit normally comes with integrated boots though in recent years this is changing to be an integrated thick rubber sock with “standard” heavy duty boots fitted over these.  The diver is then effectively sealed inside a waterproof bag.  The diver would then wear some form of undersuit to keep them warm.

What are the different materials used

There are actually a very wide range of materials used in dry suits.  Some are just thicker and more heavy duty versions of each other but essentially the main types are suits made from the following materials

  • Laminated materials – materials glued together to make heavy duty and water proof material
  • Neoprene – in different thicknesses and grades
  • Crushed Neoprene – As above but crushed !
  • Rubber – yes you still can get suits made of rubber

Before we look at the materials in more detail there is one more area to consider – air migration!!  This is the area that causes most problems to new divers.  Essentially when diving with a drysuit you don’t use your BCD to control buoyancy during the dive.  This is done by putting air into the suit.  Air is also put into the suit to provide insulation as air is a poor conductor of heat.  Obviously air rises to the highest point and so it can move around inside the suit.  Which can be a problem if it gets into your feet as this can cause a rapid and potentially dangerous ascent.  A snug fitting suit and undersuit will tend to have less air in it and therefore less to move around while a baggier suit may have more in it to give the extra insulation

Why so many and what are the advantages of one material over the other?

This is the crux of the problem and the best thing we can do is to look at each of them in turn and explain the differences

Laminated materials

There are several different types and constructions and it is way beyond the scope of this to discuss.  Essentially one or more layers of materials are glued together with the direction of the weave at 90 degrees to the other and this is effectively what keeps out the water.  Obviously the lighter weight materials are less hard wearing and durable and they can also delaminate.  The resultant drysuit then becomes a teabag!! and cannot be repaired.  If you chose a laminated drysuit you should go for a heavy duty material such as Cordura.  This type of drysuit has no thermal protection at all – it just keeps you dry.  To keep warm you must add one or more layers underneath to keep you warm regardless of the water temperature.  These suits tend to be quite a loose fit which means you have much more choice on what and how much you wear underneath.  More in winter and less in summer.  This type of suit would normally come with latex seals.  These can feel a bit uncomfortable and restrictive at first.  However you can opt for neoprene seals which are more comfortable.  At the end of the dive the suit will dry out very quickly as the suit doesn’t’ absorb any water

Neoprene

This is basically the same material as a good quality wetsuit is made of.  As with wetsuits they can be different thicknesses but for a dry suit it is usually 5mm or 7mm.  The joins are not sewn but rather glued and welded together to make a watertight seal.  Some are sewn, and then glued and welded for extra strength.  Because neoprene is a good insulator the suit itself provides some warmth for the diver, however this is unlikely to be enough warmth for most people.  These suits tend to be more comfortable as they flex like a wetsuit.  However as they are neoprene this will get squashed as the air compresses at depth thus some of the heat insulating property (and buoyancy)  is lost.  Depending on the temperature of the water it may not be necessary to wear an undersuit, but in cooler water this will still be necessary.   However as this suit is a more snug fit than a laminated suit, you are limited to what you can put underneath.  The suit comes with neoprene seals as standard.  Because it is made of neoprene the suit will absorb some water during the dive and it will take several hours to fully dry out

Crushed neoprene

This works in much the same way as a standard neoprene suit except it is slightly heavier.  The big benefit here is that the suit doesn’t compress at depth so it maintains its thermal protection and buoyancy properties

Rubber Drysuits

Rarely used in recreational diving.  Obviously being rubber,  unless it gets a hole in it, you can pretty much guarantee that it will be watertight.  As with a laminated suit you can use as much or as little thermal protection as you like.  The big benefit of these suits is that if you do find a small hole or leak it can be quickly and easily repaired on site, even on the boat between dives.

Thanks for the lecture … but which suit is best for me???

Well as I said earlier it is still up to you however…… I will try to summarise

Neoprene and crushed neoprene are very comfortable, and are less prone to air migration.  However, particularly with neoprene you usually can’t get as much thermal protection underneath so, depending on how you suffer with the cold, you may begin to chill in very cold water, say 8 degrees.  Of the two, crushed neoprene maintains its own insulation (and buopyancy) better so it will probably allow dives in very cold water, again subject to your own ability to endure the cold water.  Laminated materials offer no thermal protection at all but they are a looser fit so you can add much more protection underneath.  However this looser fit does mean that you can suffer more with air migration.  Not only that but the suit material can be quite heavy and stiff.  So much so that if you don’t put enough air in your suit it will pinch and bruise your arms or legs

So in summary if you don’t intend going too cold or too deep neoprene or crushed neoprene is the way to go

But what if you change your mind and want to go a bit deeper, or what if the water is colder than you thought…….  As I said – It is up to you J

 

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Comments

  1. Good exposition – thanks! There’s one thing I would add: weights. With all the extra air in a laminate suit, especially if you’re wearing more than one layer of thermals underneath, you tend to have to wear more weight than in a neoprene suit. Ankle weights are particularly useful (even if only psychologically…) to help prevent air migrating to the boots.

    Despite the extra weight, it’s definitely laminate for me. Less figure-hugging(!) and, as you say, more versatile in how much you can put under it.

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