Heavy Rubber :: The Great Lakes Surfing Wetsuit Guide

By Ryan Gerard | TCSS Owner

When I started surfing the Great Lakes in 1998 the first thing I learned from the tribal elders I was sliding waves with on the South End of Lake Michigan was simple but crucial: “Get a nice wetsuit.” They knew that if you were serious about surfing here that you couldn’t skimp on the rubber. If you did, you’d have a miserable experience and wouldn’t last long. They were right, and they still are.

Wetsuit technology has drastically changed since the first dive suits were tested by surfers as a way to stay warmer on the central coast of California in the 1960s. Even in the 20 years I’ve been at it, the changes have been very noticeable as wetsuit companies continue to find ways to make the neoprene warmer, lighter, and stretchier. It’s the holy grail of surfing wetsuits: to get the most warmth, stretch, and fast-drying suit to be as light as possible and to last as long as possible. They keep getting closer.

For us surfers, we want to find the best wetsuit we can for the price range we are in. Considering that our water temperatures in the Great Lakes vary from the freezing point (32 F degrees) in winter to 80 F in the warmest summers, there is a lot to consider here. Just remember: invest in a good wetsuit (or for many of us, wetsuits) or risk regretting that you didn’t when you’re freezing out there and the waves are firing. Here are some thoughts to consider…

Where are you surfing, and what time of the year are you surfing?
If you only plan to go out on our far southern shores (Lakes Erie and Ontario, and the southern half of Lakes Michigan and Huron) in July and August you may only need a 3/2mm fullsuit, a shorty/spring suit (usually 2mm), or a wetsuit jacket/top. Or if you’re a real lightweight (and understand that you won’t get out to surf here much in only a swimsuit), no wetsuit at all. But if you surf anywhere on Lake Superior or want to surf in fall, winter, and spring on any of the Great Lakes, you’ll need more than that.

Even if only wanting to surf in summer, keep in mind that it’s often a cool wind making the waves. The water may be warm, but the air maybe not so much. There is also a phenomenon called “upwelling” that often happens; when warmer surface water moves offshore and colder, deeper water “upwells” near shore. This typically occurs when the wind blows offshore – from land to sea – or on a certain swell direction, and can happen year-round.

Wetsuit thickness is measured in millimeters, so that’s what the mm stands for. When you see a hooded winter suit that says 6/5/4mm, it typically means that there are 6mm in the chest and torso, 5mm in the arms and legs, and 4mm in the hood. This can vary a bit by manufacturer but it’s a pretty safe bet to keep in mind.

So which wetsuit is right for you?
Let us try to help by breaking one year down into four Great Lakes surfing seasons and using the two general parts of the Great Lakes region referenced above; north and south. We’ll do this because water (and air) temps can vary a lot across the region at any one time, especially Lake Superior vs. the rest of the Lakes. So keep in mind that this is a generalization, but a pretty trusty one.

Northern Great Lakes (Lake Superior and northern Lakes Michigan & Huron)
Note: water temps are in F degrees

Summer (June – September)
Lake Superior: water temps ranging from the 40s to 70 at the warmest
Northern Lakes Michigan and Huron: water temps ranging from 50s to 70s

Fall: (October – November)
Lake Superior: water temps ranging from the 40s to 50s at the warmest
Northern Lakes Michigan and Huron: water temps ranging from 40s to 60s

Winter: (December – March)
Lake Superior: water temps ranging from the 30s to 40s at the warmest
Northern Lakes Michigan and Huron: water temps ranging from 30s to 40s

Spring: (April – May)
Lake Superior: water temps ranging from the 30s to 40s at the warmest
Northern Lakes Michigan and Huron: water temps ranging from 40s to 50s

Southern Great Lakes (Lakes Erie & Ontario and southern Lakes Michigan & Huron)

Note: water temps are in F degrees

Summer (June – September)
Water temps ranging from the 50s to 80

Fall: (October – November)
Water temps ranging from the 40s to 60s

Winter: (December – March)
Water temps ranging from the 30s to 40s

Spring: (April – May)
Water temps ranging from the 40s to 60s

Okay, cool. What does this mean, then? Here’s a general breakdown of which wetsuit types and thicknesses are typically appropriate for the different water temps. Obviously, the thicker suits pair better with the water on the colder side of the spectrum, and thinner suits for the warmer side of the spectrum. Keep in mind that this can vary depending on various factors like body type, tolerance for cold, etc., but this is a pretty good bet.

Wetsuit & Water Temp Guide
Note: water temps are in F degrees

Water: 30s – 40s
Wetsuit Type: Hooded 6/5/4mm or hooded 5/4mm
Booties: 7mm or 8mm
Gloves/Mittens: 7mm mittens or 5mm gloves

Water: 50s – 60s
Wetsuit Type: Hooded or Non-hooded 5/4mm or 4/3mm
Booties: 5mm or 3mm or none
Gloves/Mittens: 3mm gloves or none


Water: 60s – 70s
Wetsuit Type: 3/2mm or 2mm shorty/spring suit or jacket
Booties: 3mm or none
Gloves/Mittens: none

Here’s a handy graphic from our friends at Xcel that can help break it down even further. We’ve been selling Xcel wetsuits since we first opened our doors in 2005…these guys know their stuff.

There are a few other wetsuit accessories worth mentioning because they can be handy options for some people, as they can help extend the “season” that you can get out of any wetsuit. Here’s a list:

- Cap or hood. There are various types and thicknesses, so it just depends on what you want to get out of it
- Hooded or Non-hooded polypropylene shirts. These can add the equivalent of an extra 1mm of warmth under a wetsuit
- Wetsox thermal footwear (for warmth under booties)

As an example, say you aren’t too interested in surfing when it’s really cold but want to get out in the summer and early fall. One option might be to go with a 3/2mm or 4/3mm suit, then add boots, gloves, and a hood (or hooded polypro) for early and late season.  For a lot of people, this type of setup could get you into October; and maybe even November.

And when the bug really bites and you surf year-round, you might end up with a full quiver of wetsuits. Mine ranges from a 1mm vest to a hooded 6/5/4mm. Here’s my current full range -- you can find similar items at TCSS:

- Xcel 1mm vest
- Vissla 2mm jacket
- Oneill 2mm spring suit
- Vissla 3/2mm Chest Zip
- Xcel 4/3mm Chest Zip
- Vissla North Seas Hooded 5/4mm
- Xcel Drylock Hooded 6/5mm
- Plus the boots, mitts, and gloves

Last but not least, let’s talk about what we sell at TCSS and why we sell it. We’ve worked with and sold wetsuits from a variety of companies over the years, always looking for the best blend of quality and price. Being a small shop in a unique surfing market (the Great Lakes), we aim to have a highly curated selection of wetsuits and wetsuit accessories that do exactly that: find the right mix of high quality at fair and reasonable prices. They’re the wetsuits we wear, and we’re stoked to offer them to you.

Our current stable of wetsuits are from Oneill, Xcel, Quiksilver, Vissla, and Hyperflex. The first two have been making and selling surfing wetsuits for decades, with Vissla and Hyperflex being newer to the scene but producing incredible stuff at very reasonable prices. Check out what we currently have in stock -- wetsuits and accessories sell quickly, but more are arriving daily. As always, reach out to us any time for some guidance on what might be best for you! Call us at 269-932-4575 or email us at info@thirdcoastsurfshop.com.