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Monday, January 24, 2011

Something New: A Drysuit Diatribe

I've decided to do something new and post some content other than dive reports. There are a couple of reasons I'm doing this. First, we tend to dive the same few sites a lot, and the twelfth report from K2 can't be that different than the eleventh. So the blog could use some variety. Second, there are some questions that Rob and I get over and over again, and/or I see asked in dive forums on a regular basis. So I'm going to start posting on these topics, so when someone asks, I can point them here, and they can read a well thought out reply. Otherwise I tend to sputter random thoughts and later realize I forgot to mention this and that. I'm going to try to post something like this once a week for at least the next couple of months (as I currently have a backlog of topics I can think of to write about).

This is the first of such posts. One of the most common questions I hear is about picking out a drysuit - whether it is what type of drysuit to get, or what bells and whistles to get on a specific suit. So that's where I'm going to start. I'm going to give some advice on what I would recommend if you are building your dream suit from the ground up. Please don't take this to mean that if you have something different, it is somehow wrong : I don't even have a dream suit that meets all of the criteria I will describe here (my next suit will hopefully be that suit). Also, please note that I'm not a gear, techy type of person, so my advice will be about what works for me and what has worked for my dive buddies, not about the theoretical aspects of this and that.

There are a lot of decisions to make when you pick out a drysuit, so I'm going to break this up into a series of posts, roughly head to toe, which will cover:

  • Seals
  • Zipper
  • Valves
  • Pockets
  • Boots
  • Undergarments
  • Accessories (including drygloves)

All of thse topics will be covered in future posts. In the rest of this post, I will talk about some of the higher level decisions and also give an overview of my personal drysuit experience, so you know where my advice is coming from (and can decide if you want to ignore it).

I've owned 4 drysuits, and all of them have been shell-style suits. Since this is all I have experience with, that's what I will mostly confine my discussion to. But it's worth mentioning why I've only owned such suits. With a neoprene drysuit, you have the same concerns about a balanced rig that you have with a thick wetsuit, since the material will compress and lose buoyancy at depth. So I don't consider these suits appropriate for deep diving.

All of the drysuits that I've owned have been DUI's. My first suit was a FLX50/50 (that's crushed neoprene on the bottom, and some sort of heavy tri-lam on the top). The other three were all TLS350's, two of which I currently own (which I will henceforth refer to as my "pink suit" and my "purple suit" -- it's a super cryptic code I speak). If you asked a DUI dealer about the relative pros and cons of these two suits (or the two materials - crushed neoprene versus tri-lam), I think they would tell you that crushed neoprene offers some warmth, and it is a bit more "robust" and less likely to tear or develop other leaks. I think there is some truth to both of these claims. On the other hand, I rarely have problems with my TLS drysuits leaking. But I know a lot of people (Rob for instance) who are constantly fighting leaks in their TLS suits. It's one of life's great mysteries why I manage to avoid leaks when I routinely end up on my knees on the Lobos ramp : Despite the benefits of the crushed neoprene, the TLS material is just easier to dive. I think this is because it is lighter weight, which makes you more flexible in the suit. Also, from my experience, a TLS suit that is a little too big is easier to deal with, because the material crushes down nicely. My pink suit is uber-big, I think it is about 50 pounds bigger than me, but it is still quite diveable. On the other hand, my FLX50/50 was just a bit long in the legs and too big in the shoulders, which was quite annoying because both kinds of materials were stiff and just seemed to stay where they wanted.

While I have only dived DUI drysuits, a lot of my friends have dived other suits - Diving Concepts is probably the next most popular, plus a few have Mobby's or BARE suits. But they all seem to prefer their DUI suits, and end up diving the other suit way less often. I think this comes back to the lightweight and easy to dive thing. Even though I clearly have a brand preference, most of the topics I am going to cover in this series are relevant to any drysuit, not just DUI.

People often obsess about which material to get, what style zipper, etc. but the single most important thing in picking a suit is getting one that fits well. You don't want to pay for all of the bells and whistles on your "dream suit" only to find that you can't reach your valves. Also, you need to think about what undergarment you will wear under the suit. You might find a suit that fits great with a fleece undergarment that you have, but if you have tech diving aspirations (at least in our cold water) you are going to need a thicker undergarment down the road. Your best bet for getting the right fit is finding a dealer who will do a good job of measuring you and recommending the suit for you. I can personally recommend Anywater Sports (in San Jose, CA) or Extreme Exposure (in High Springs, FL) for this. Once you take delivery of the suit, you should try it with your thickest undergarment to make sure you can do all of the range of motion stuff like "reaching your valves" (or over your head and down the middle of your back, to the uninitiated), crossing one leg over the other (standard fin-donning position), etc. If you can't do this stuff with your suit and undergarment together, try it with just the undergarment to make sure that that isn't the problem on its own.

If for one reason or another you end up with a suit that doesn't fit quite right, you can get them altered. I had some minor alterations done by Superior Drysuits on a second-hand suit that I bought. The workmanship and the price were both great and I never had any problems with it.

Stay tuned for the next post on seals...

P.S. Aren't we adorable in our drysuits?

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