After 20 years of surfing in cold, cold water, I’ve learned that wetsuits from the big surf companies are sort of like domestic, macrobeer preferences. They’re all basically the same, they just come in different packages. You ever see that Simpsons episode where they tour the Duff Beer plant and Duff Regular, Duff Lite, and Duff Dry all come from the same tanks? The majority of wetsuits are sorta like that. Sheico, a giant company in Taiwan, makes wetsuits for most of the companies you’ve heard of, all at the same facility, just with slightly different (mostly useless) doodads like fuzzy liners and articulated knee joints, and thermo-nuclear-bio-spandoflex gobbledeegook that up the price but not the longevity or warmth of the suits. I’ll go through phases that last for years during which I’m an Xcel man, then a Rip Curl man, back to Xcel, then to O’Neill, and around and around I go. Brand loyal til I get bored, then I move on.

But in the last few years, boutique wetsuit makers, for lack of a better term, have been popping up more than ever and the qualities of their suits often rivals the big boys. For the past six months or so I’ve been testing a variety of offerings from Feral Wetsuits, a two-man company based out of San Francisco, California. They’re strictly direct-to-consumer wetsuits, not found in stores, so they cut out the retail middleman, purporting to offer a better wetsuit at a serious discount.

So how do they compare to mainstream wetsuit makers? Let’s put it this way: I’ll probably not go back to traditional wetsuits, at least as long as these guys are around.

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The suit I wear most often in chilly San Francisco is a 4/3mm, with a chest zip and…not much else ($385). These suits are stripped down to the bare essentials, relying only on the quality of the neoprene rubber and the cut of the suit to provide warmth. Feral uses Yamamoto rubber, a limestone-based neoprene that’s 99.7 percent water impermeable. It’s a far higher grade neoprene than most of the big-time wetsuit makers use, typically a neoprene made from compressed foam rubber pellets. Point is, Feral suits don’t have the cushy, shag-carpet like liners that dominate in the wetsuit game today, nor do they have the thick “smoothie” materials you’ll find on the chest and back of most wetsuits. They quality of the rubber, in theory, keeps water out and warmth in.

In my experience, they do this splendidly.

After a pretty cold winter, I’ve gotten by just fine with Feral’s regular 4/3 and the hooded 4/3 ($395). The fit is pretty standard. I’m 6’2″, 160 pounds and the medium-tall fits great. The suits are very lightweight and afford plenty of easy range of motion. You can feel the difference in the rubber—they aren’t as mind-blowingly stretchy as some other suits on the market—but the weight and lack of seams make the suits comfortable and easy to wear. I’ve experienced a bit more flushing than I’m used to from other suit brands, but nothing excessive.

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Most importantly, my garage is stocked full of nearly new wetsuits from mainstream brands that I haven’t really touched since I got my hands on the Ferals. Plus, after more than six months of near-daily use, there’s no unraveling of any seams, no tape sections missing, no pinhole leaks. The suits look and feel exactly the same as when they were brand new.

The big wetsuit makers have had a stranglehold on the industry for such a long time, it’s refreshing to try suits from a smaller wetsuit maker that has the bandwidth to be sure the little details are taken care of. Every suit ordered from Feral gets boxed and and mailed by one of the company’s two founders. Any emails sent, they answer. Complaints, they handle. When was the last time you had that sort of customer service from a faceless mega surf bro brand?

$375-395 • BUY

MORE NON-MAINSTREAM WETSUITS WE LIKE

Patagonia wetsuits are made from Yulex, a plant-based rubber that’s sustainably grown. They aren’t as stretchy as neoprene suits, but the quality is off the charts.

Isurus Wetsuits, another Northern California-based company, is a big hit with coldwater surfers. They’re compression-based to keep blood flow where it’s needed to preserve warmth.

Matuse uses super high-end rubber to make wetsuits that are pricey, but absolutely adored by their legions of fans.

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