Might I encourage you into what we call 'The Big Pool' instead?
Here are seven tips to get you started, safely. Please add your own ideas in the comments, there are plenty more I could have mentioned.
We've been swimming year round in Loch Sunart for six years now. We've had great coaching from Dan at SwimForTri and we've picked up a few ideas ourselves (like the wellies).
We're almost always in wetsuits so these tips apply to wetsuit swimming. If you're a hardy skins swimmer then good on you. If you regularly swim over a kilometer in water under 6C as we do then read no further - I have nothing to teach you.
You can either read this here or watch the video below (or both!) I make Adventure Cycling and Adventure Swimming videos for my YouTube Channel, Always Another Adventure.
If you find this helpful or interesting, I'd hugely appreciate it if you'd subscribe to that channel, give me a thumbs up and hit the bell notifications please. The way YouTube works means those 'likes' will result in more people finding the channel. OK - seven tips for winter wild swimming.
1. TIGHT WETSUITThe warmest swimming wetsuit is the one which fits tightest all over. It has to trap a layer of water, and if it constantly flushes with cold water, you will get cold. I find the cut of the BlueSeventy Thermal Reaction suits my body shape but not my friend, so these are not for everyone. One advantage is that in addition to the usual 5mm neoprene, they have an orange extra warm layer that adds about 3C of comfort.
To find what fit best, we bought loads on a credit card from companies that offered free returns, then sent them back for refunds before the bills came due. And when you’re trying them on they must be tight - almost too tight at first, because they stretch with use.
If your wetsuit has stretched like this one, wear a neoprene vest underneath to trap water. If it’s baggy at the crotch, wear neoprene shorts.
2. SOFT GLOVESWhen you’re putting on a tight wetsuit, wear soft gloves to avoid ripping the wetsuit especially at the shoulders, which is very easily done. It often starts with tiny half moon tears in the neoprene that your nails will inevitably make. I still have a few that I’ve had to repair before they became bigger. Any old gloves will save a lot of grief and repairs.
3. FEET HANDS HEADWe’ve tried lots of different brands of gloves. When it’s not too cold I like the pre-bent shape of the Huub gloves. They promote a good catch. The Zone 3 are good too and have a nice wrist fitting system with velcro. However, in cold water below 10c the Lomo gloves are still the best we’ve found. Very tight with a great wrist gasket. Other people have found they fill with water, so I guess we are all different shapes.
Lomo also do warm socks. I wear two pair. The under socks don’t have a gasket and are cheaper. The outer socks are tight and help keep the water out. Key point - for both wrists and ankles, the wetsuit goes onto of the socks and gloves.
Without earplugs I feel sea sick in open water. Cold water messes with my inner ear.
There are lots of brands available, from a putty type to small things I’m frightened will get stuck. I like these with a cord on them so they’re easy to pull out.
I swim better with a warm head, so I wear three caps - which some folk will laugh at. A 2mm Lomo neoprene cap. A thermal BlueSeventy cap made of the same stuff as my wetsuit. And I put a tight cap on top to seal the edges. It’s a lot - too tight for Liz - but it works for me.
4. FOOLS RUSH INJumping in, sudden immersion, is not a great way to start. Your body might instinctively gasp at the cold shock. If you’re under the water at the time, that’s not good. So first warm up - an arm exercise is a great way to get the muscles working. Then go in gradually. Splash water on your face so your body knows what’s coming.
Get water inside your wetsuit, then get out again, squeeze it so the suit sticks to your body. A great idea I'd forgotten (Keith reminded me) is to bring a bottle of warm water from home and pour it down the neck of your wetsuit just before you start, then as before, press the suit to your body. If it’s tight to your skin it’s less likely to flush with cold water. Actually, this is more a race technique and might not be so great in cold water.
5. SAFETYThe official advice is to never swim alone and leave a person on shore, but that’s not always practical. So when solo I swim with a tow float bag in which I have my phone in a waterproof case, an emergency foil bivi bag, and a personal locator beacon, a PLB.
I made video all about these for wilderness cycling. In an emergency, I press a button and an SOS is sent to the UK coastguard - it’s like dialing 999. When the water temperature is below 6C as today, I keep a close eye on my watch and limit my time in the water.
In particularly high wind, the tow-float can become a nuisance. When running down-wind, it'll overtake you, getting tangled in your arms as you try to swim. If this happens, either lengthen the tether or, my personal preference, clip the float directly to the waist belt so it sticks out of your back like a buoy.
6. WARM UP SLOWLYWarm up slowly. Get warm clothing on. Robes designed to go over wetsuits are excellent. Don’t leave your head uncovered. A car heater is a good, gradual way to warm up.
One of the worst things you can do is jump in a hot bath or shower. The warm blood from your core should spread slowly to your periphery, because it cools as it circulates and it can drop up to 4 degrees in temperature. That cold blood would go back to your core too quickly if you jumped in a hot shower or bath. It can cause what’s called Afterdrop. That can make you feel faint and cause a drop in blood pressure.
A warm drink will help with the warming process. You can also take hot water bottles in thermal bag, the sort of thing you’d take shopping for frozen veg. Don’t put them on bare skin after swimming, but they’re fine to put on a wetsuit.
Because cooling blood is circulating back to your core you probably will start to shiver as you warm up - that’s normal. Feeling faint due to a drop in blood pressure is not.
7. KIT CAREIf you’re a fair distance from home (more than 10 mins), get out of the wetsuit because it’s now trapping cold water next to your skin. A gardening trug is the best way we’ve found to carry a pile of soggy neoprene.
If you're driving a short distance, then the water will run down the inside of your wetsuit and fill up the car's footwell. So pull on an old pair of cut-off Wellington boots, a size too big. The wellies will fill up, not your car.
Your kit will work better for longer if you dunk it in fresh water to get the salt off, then hang it to dry. If it's already in the trug, just bung it under the tap. These clip hangers we bought on Amazon are the best of many we’ve tried.