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Southern California is known for its consistently warm weather, beautiful beaches, tan bodies and of course, surfing. From rippable beach breaks like Blacks to the reefs of Seaside and San Elijo, you can almost always find a wave to surf any time of the year. One thing that is not very consistent, however, is the water temperature. Although the summer time south swells do bring warm water, and the norths in winter make it cold, a number of factors such as wind and air temperature can cause the ocean to do some funny things. With this in mind, what thickness wetsuit do you need for San Diego waters?
The south swells of summer usually start rolling in around June and can continue as late as October if there are late season storms in the Southern hemisphere. Depending on the strength, it typically takes about two south swells to get the water out of full suit temperature. Most people will graduate from a full suit to a short arm full or a long arm/short leg when the water temp hits around 65-67. The majority of these suits are 2mm thick and will keep you warm for a solid 2 hour session if the sun is shining. By mid July to August, the water can climb well into the 70s, which calls for a spring suit or a jacket / vest and boardshorts or a swimsuit. Most spring suits are 2mm, while jackets range from 1-2mm. If the sun is out and the wind chill factor is mellow, boardshorts or a swimsuit might be all you’ll need!
A word of caution: with just one day of strong north wind, the ocean can experience an upwelling: a phenomenon where the colder water below the surface gets turned up to the surface. The result of this is a winter-like ocean in the middle of summer. Water temps can drop more than 10 degrees overnight and completely catch you off guard. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to keep the short arm full, or even a 3/2 fullsuit in the car for an emergency situation!
When the North Pacific starts to wake up, usually around September, you’ll have around two swells where it stays warm enough for a short arm full. After a few solid norths, however, it’s back to the full suit. In Southern California, a new 3/2mm fullsuit will keep a most people warm all the way through fall while preserving mobility when paddling and riding waves. Towards the tail end of the season, the crisp mornings might warrant the use of booties, but you should be just fine in a new 3/2 fullsuit all the way through December.
Once the cool arctic storms start blowing down the coast and the air temperature takes a nosedive, the ocean temp typically follows. When January and February creep up on us, it’s time to bust out the 4/3mm fullsuit. There’s nothing worse than getting a brain freeze when you jump into 50 degree water and never warming up! The early morning dawn patrol sessions can see air temps dipping into the low 40s - upper 30s, so booties are usually a good call. If you get cold easily, you can add a hood to your arsenal and keep the ears protected from the crisp offshore wind too. Fortunately for us in Southern California, 4/3s aren’t necessary much past March, so make sure you take good care of your 3/2!
After a couple months of cold but pumping waves, the warmth of a San Diego summer is on the horizon by April! Hopefully you kept your 3/2 on a hanger and in good shape because it’s time to pull it back out. With water temps creeping back up and the days getting longer, it’s only a matter of time before the San Diego beaches are full of people. Some early season south swells might be sneaking their way up the coast, but for the most part, the water is comparable to fall temperatures. Very rarely will you need booties in spring as the toe numbing mornings of winter are a thing of the past. You can expect to be in a 3/2 till around May/early June, sometimes even later.
While we all wish the ocean was 75 degrees year round, the reality is that Southern California’s water temperature can change overnight. The flip side is that while yes, the water may have gotten cold, we probably have waves to ride! Whether it be a longboard session at Cardiff Reef or packing canyon set toobs at Blacks, you’ll find a wave somewhere in San Diego.
P.S. Looking for the right board to ensure you’re catching the most waves and having the best time in the line up? Check out our Surfboard Stock List, or better yet, stop in the shop and feel the boards yourself! See ya in the water!