Our Essential Kit for Winter Open Water Swimming

We swim in Loch Sunart pretty much every week so we're starting to learn what equipment we need to stay warm.

We're still relatively new to regular open water swimming and haven't done a full winter.

So I've taken advice from more experienced people like triathlete Sean McFarlane and Dan Bullock of SwimForTri, whose open water swim camp we went to in (balmy) Lanzarote.

I've combined their advice with our own experience for this short article.

Wetsuit - Purists don't use them.  They're mad.  And I haven't seen any purists in Loch Sunart recently.  My old BlueSeventy Reaction wetsuit is the warmest in their range with 4mm neoprene chest panels.  [it was old-there are newer, warmer ones, especially the Thermal Reaction Suit].

It can be tricky to work out which triathlon swimming wetsuit is warmest because warmth is not a key marketing point.  

Suits are sold on flexibility and strategically placed buoyancy sections.  Liz recently bought a new wetsuit and emailed ten different companies asking which was their warmest swim wetsuit.  

Dan Bullock's advice was not to buy any wetsuit older than 2014, even on special offer, because material and design improved dramatically from 2014 onwards.

Neoprene shorts - On Sean McFarlane's advice, I put a pair of Zone3 neoprene buoyancy shorts under my wetsuit.  These are designed to help cure 'sinking legs' in training and can be used in the pool, but they also offer tremendous warmth in the nether regions where blood flows close to the surface.  BlueSeventy also make something similar.  Liz doesn't use them but, of course, her anatomy is different.  These are a cheaper alternative but possibly less versatile.

[Edit - 2019 I now don't wear the 'floaty shorts' under a wetsuit.  I discovered I was colder with them because they allowed more water to flush.  I only needed them because my old wetsuit was too large.  Now I have an excellent BlueSeventy Thermal Reaction suit, and most importantly, it's tight, then I get less cold]. 

Neoprene vest - Zone3 do a very good neoprene warmth vest.  It is a little pricey and, like the shorts, there's an alternative made by Glasgow company Lomo (who we like - Mark and Bruce started their business around the corner from our old flat).  We both use the Lomo 3mm neoprene vests, although Liz had to cut the armholes of the women's version to stop chafing.

[Edit - 2019 we invested in the Zone 3 version and the anatomical cut makes it much tighter and better than the Lomo version.  But as with the 'floaty pants' we no longer need them because we have warm BlueSeventy Thermal Reaction wetsuits].

Rash vest - we use a rash vest as base layer, partly for warmth and partly because the high neck eliminates chafing.  We tried a few and settled on the Gul Evotherm.   [Edit - again, ditched these with the new wetsuits]

Gloves - I've tried several different pairs of swimming gloves and, for cold water, nothing beats the Lomo Swimming and Triathlon Gloves.  These are not always in stock, so if you see them, buy a pair.  At £17 you will not regret it.  

Earplugs - I didn't believe how much of a difference these could make to my warmth until Liz convinced me to try.  You'll find earplugs pretty much anywhere, but while you're ordering the gloves from Lomo, you might try these (I use a different type).

Head cover - hardy types survive with just a silicon cap.  Liz prefers a Barracuda Hot Head.  I have recently started using an Aqua Sphere Mens Aqua Skin Thermal Hood.  It's not a neoprene diver's hood but is made from a soft stretchy fabric which grips the face.  If like me you find the cold water catches your throat or cheeks, this does help.  I put a BlueSeventy cap on top but would probably be better with the BlueSeventy Thermal Cap.  As you'll see in the photo at the bottom, I'm a wimp.  

Feet - the warmest thing we've found, that don't drag the legs down, are the ORCA Hydro Booties.  

I wear short wellies to the water's edge with the Orca booties underneath.

The wellies are useful again when I get out.  While driving home they catch all the water that drains from my wetsuit and I don't end up with a soaking car floor.  

And yes, there are covers on the seats.

Safety float / dry bag - there are several designs of these floats around.  Basic ones are simply a tow-float that help you be seen.  It's the only way Liz and I know where the other is swimming, because when you're doing front crawl, your head is underwater or pointing slightly backwards to breath.  

More advanced versions have two float chambers and can double as a dry-bag soon theory you cold keep your car keys with you, along with a mobile phone for emergencies.  They're also useful to hang onto and stay afloat should something go wrong, like getting a cramp.  

We have one Zone3 swimming dry bag (2 chambers) and one single chamber Lomo Tow Float (as in picture) which rolls up smaller.  Lomo also make a 2 chamber dry bag version as do ChillSwim.

Will we keep swimming through winter?  We'll certainly try, although high winds have made it difficult recently.  Heavy rain flows down mountain streams and rivers putting a very cold layer of fresh water on top of the salt water loch.  We've recently found two new points of entry where there are fewer rivers and the sea is noticeably warmer.  Oh and a thermometer will shortly be added to our kit.

What's more, we have the encouragement of Jeff Forrester, who lives nearby and who started Highland Open Water Swim to raise money for children with cancer.  We've swum with Jeff a few times but have yet to make it to one of the 'organised' swim events.

I'll let you know how we get on.


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Benton said...

Whoa. Winter Swimming? You guys are super brave. I am a big chicken when it comes to cold water, even if I did have a neoprene suit. It's interesting that ear plugs play a big role in keeping warm, but I always feel blasted by the frigid water at my neck. Enjoy the Waves!

Benton @ Pool Solar & Spa