Neoprene vs. Fabric—
Which is Best?
IT’S NOT SUCH a simple question. As with most scuba diving gear choices, it all depends on your individual likes and dislikes. If you prefer the feel of a wetsuit but need the thermal advantages of a drysuit, or if you’re on a budget, then a neoprene drysuit might be for you. However, if you dive in a wide range of temperate to cold water temperatures, and if durability is a factor, and you don’t mind spending a little extra cash, then a fabric suit, also called a shell suit, may be the way to go.
What’s New in Neoprene?
In the past most neoprene drysuits were made with thick 7mm material, which made them bulky and buoyant. Today there are “crushed neoprene” drysuits and “compressed neoprene” drysuits, as well as neoprene drysuits that are built with superstretch 3mm neoprene and special microcell 4mm material. This has made a huge difference in the fit, comfort and buoyancy characteristics of neoprene suits. You get the stretch and comfort of a wetsuit with the added warmth of staying dry. A thin undergarment fits underneath to keep you toasty.
What’s New in Fabric?
It used to be that diving in a shell suit was like swimming with a parachute. Since the bilaminate or trilaminate material didn’t stretch, the suit had to be big enough to accommodate a thick undergarment while enabling you a full range of motion. This often caused the suit to trap large pockets of air in inconvenient places.
Shell suits have evolved. Today’s models have been slimmed down and some use telescoping torsos and four-way stretch material for a streamlined fit, so hydro-drag and bulk are radically reduced. The net result is to make the suit fit better with more comfort.
The Major Differences
The biggest difference between neoprene and shell suits relates to where your insulation—and therefore you warmth—comes from. Neoprene suits get their insulation primarily from the gas bubbles trapped in the rubber, exactly like a wetsuit. Since you often don’t need any undergarments, and at most only a thin undergarment, these suits are able to fit much more snug than shell suits. Also, a neoprene suit’s buoyancy characteristics tend to be more consistent because most of the buoyancy is in the rubber rather in the undergarment. Finally, while there are definitely exceptions, as a general rule we find that the best neoprene suits will cost less than that best shell suits.
Shell suits, on the other hand, have no inherent insulation—or buoyancy. Both of these things they get from the undergarment. Shell suits fit looser than neoprene suits to accommodate a wider range of undergarment thicknesses, which allows them to be used in a broad range of temperatures. Shell suits made of a trilaminate material are generally more durable than neoprene suits. They are also lighter than neoprene suits, and dry much quicker, a factor important to traveling divers.
Focus on the Features
Once you’ve decided whether to go neoprene or shell, then it all gets down to the features.
Believe it or not, some of the most cutting-edge advances in drysuit technology have been in zippers. Traditional drysuit zippers were made with big brass teeth that pulled the rubber edges together to keep the water out. This zipper design is still popular, but more and more you are seeing brass zippers being replaced by plastic zippers. These new zippers do just as well keeping water out but are less expensive, thereby reducing the cost of the suit.
Drysuit zippers are usually located horizontally across the back or diagonally across the front of the suit. The front-entry zipper is designed to allow for self-donning and doffing, while the rear entry zipper requires the help of a buddy—usually. Recently, some back-zip suits have hit the market that can actually be self-zipped. This is due to the stretchy neoprene of the suit plus the smooth action of the plastic zippers.
Valves and More Valves
The most notable difference between the feel of a wetsuit and a drysuit is the squeeze that occurs as you descend. Pockets of air get trapped in the folds of a drysuit and compress and pinch. To counter this, air is added to the suit via a low-pressure hose tied into your regulator that connects to an inflation valve located center-chest on the suit. This air is also used to adjust buoyancy and, most importantly, to help insulate you from the cold environment.
You also have an exhaust valve, usually located on the upper left arm, that allows you to vent air and control your ascent. The exhaust valve can be set to let air escape automatically or manually when you press the button. Some suits like the Apollo Bio-Pro place additional exhaust valves at the wrist and ankles where air usually gets trapped, creating an even easier buoyancy control system.
Neck and Wrist Seals
Seals at the neck and wrists are either neoprene or latex. Most neoprene drysuits use neoprene seals. Neoprene seals have inherent thermal properties, adding to at-depth comfort. Some are smooth-skin-out designs--once your head and hands are through the nylon openings, you fold the seals under, placing the smooth side against your neck and wrists, creating a comfortable seal.
Others are skin-in. They are less bulky because no folding is required; however, they are a little harder to don and proper fit is more critical than with the skin-out style. (Apollo offers a product called the Bio-Seal that fits between your neck or wrist and the drysuit seal to create a super seal on any suit.)
Most shell suits use latex seals. They offer some advantages over neoprene seals in manufacturing and some are even designed to be field-replaceable. They provide excellent watertight seals but have no thermal properties.
Attached or Separate Boots
Drysuits come with either attached boots or attached soft socks, both of which eliminate the need for ankle seals. Attached boots can be super rugged with beefy soles able to withstand the most challenging rocky shoreline, or thin and flexible, good for walking around on a boat deck but not much else. Attached soft socks require the use of over-boots. The upside to soft socks is that you can pick from about a half-dozen styles of overboots available on the market, plus with soft socks the drysuit can be turned completely inside out for drying. Whether you go with attached or separate boots, chances are you’ll need a larger pair of fins than you normally wear with your wetsuit boot.
So Many Extras
Undergarments in myriad styles and thicknesses, hoods, suspenders and utility pockets are just a sampling of the options and accessories you can get with a typical drysuit. When shopping suits make sure to take an inventory of all the extras included for a true comparison.
Neoprene or fabric. Choosing the right type can enable you to enjoy the water when others are huddled at home. Each style offers its advantages, which is why most drysuit manufacturers offer both. If you’re not sure whether you’re more of a shell-suit diver or a neoprene diver, rent one of each at your local dive center and try them out in the water yourself--a good rule of thumb when shopping for any type of gear. SGR