Challenging the Front Zipper Full Wetsuit

(and how I learned to conquer it without calling 911)

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Patagonia’s front zipper full suit r4-3

By Tim Ryan

 Surfing in southern and central California for more than 20 years required wearing some sort of wetsuit year round.

But as surfers began visiting truly frigid shores, wetsuit technology advanced in becoming lighter, more flexible, warmer, and better at preventing water from entering the suit. It seemed like the only fly in the ointment was that back zipper where water seeped through the teeth and right on the spine.

I moved to Hawaii 30 years ago where cold water obviously isn’t a problem unless you’re a diver. On some visits back to the West Coast I would dig out my ancient O’Neil Animal Skin and booties and do my best to enjoy any surf I got. But there was still that damn dripping back zip.

Now I’m returning to California for about three weeks in a sort of nostalgia surf trip with my friend, Steve. Pretty much our biggest concern isn’t lack of surf but being cold. He’s bought a new O’Neil full suit with the back zip and I have Patagonia’s R4 merino wool-lined suit that has the newest innovation, the front zip which is much better keeping water out of the suit.

The general consensus is that the front zips are warmer because of the harder path water must take to get in, and the extra layer of neoprene over your upper chest at the zip area.

Probably like you, I’ve changed hundreds of times in and out of a variety of wetsuit styles but never the front zip. Steve strongly suggested I “practice” getting in and out of the wetsuit before that first go out.

“Come on,” I said, “how hard can it be?”

On a day when the house was empty I gave it a go. (Little did I know that there are actual instructional videos on YouTube to show how it’s done. I wish I had watched it first!)

You have to enter the suit through the front chest area where the zipper is located. What I didn’t do – as the videos later showed me – was to stretch the neck/chest area as much as possible so you can fit in more easily. Easy is a relative term here.

I also mistakenly put both legs in at the same time and my feet sort of got stuck. I ended up trying to yank the suit higher which I’m sure is not so good for the suit. All that did was make me break out into a constant sweat.

The videos would show that a small plastic bag over your foot allows it to easily slide all the way through without getting hung up. Basically, I did everything wrong. I tried pulling the legs up equally from the hip area rather than one at a time and lower. More sweating with a touch of grunting.

When I thought I had gotten the legs up as far as they would go – I badly miscalculated – I put my hands through the arms then reached behind me to grab the bib and neck hole.

This was not a pretty sight. It took me 10 minutes to reach it because I hadn’t pulled the suit up as high as it could go! If I ever was going to have a stroke, this was the moment. I sat down to breathe. More sweating.

The suit was all bunched up below my hips when it should have been well OVER them. Inch by inch I struggled to pull the suit higher so just maybe I could reach the damn bib flopping around my back.

Have you ever seen a grown man cry?

My arms went in smoothly so that was good. I finally just shook my shoulders to get the bib to one side and was able to grab it then pull it over my head. Then I zipped the front. Hooray!

A short-lived celebration. Getting it off was also difficult.

I got the bib and collar off my head easily. Then I needed to get one arm sleeve down past my elbow. With previous full suits I was used to sliding my arm out of the sleeve. What I found easier to do – again easy is relative – is letting the sleeve go inside out as I pulled my arm out. It took me another 10 minutes to figure that one out. Then I used my free arm to help get the other sleeve off.

I was on a roll.

I pulled the entire suit down below my waist then rolled one leg at a time down to my foot, again inside out. The suit needs to dry inside out so this method is perfect.

Picture below: Viewer discretión advised!

 One arm to go


By the second time I wore the suit I had watched the videos and it went much faster. I also bought a pair of wetsuit Lycra socks $25 that allows your foot to perfectly slide through the wetsuit legs. I also purchased a full body super lightweight Lycra suit $40 that allows the entire R4 to slide on and off with ease.

I think I’ve got it down pretty well, but how will I feel with the air temp at 50 degrees and water 54? I’ll find out on Saturday when our first go out will be San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, then south to Santa Cruz.

Stay tuned