If you can’t get on the water get in it! Here's what to wear for year-round wild swimming in the sea or lakes
Ice on the beach at Bournemouth on New Year’s Day!
If, like me, you’re missing your sailing club and are desperate to be on the water, why not try wild swimming instead? Is there a lake or beach nearby? If so, all you need is the right gear. And if you’re a dinghy sailor, you’re half-way there already.
Leaving home to exercise is permitted throughout lockdown, and there’s no better way to lift the spirits than a bracing dip! I’ve been wild swimming in Dorset for many years, come rain or shine, snow or sun. Here are some of my top tips.
Isn’t it too cold?
With the right gear you can swim comfortably throughout the winter. It just takes a bit of getting used to. Swimming in January in a wetsuit can actually feel a lot warmer than early summer in a swimsuit. My favourite time of the year is autumn when the sea and air temperature are roughly the same, and you don’t feel the shock of getting in or out.
Unless you’re accustomed to cold-water swimming, I’d recommend starting with a wetsuit. Get your head under straight away (fill that wetsuit), and float for a minute until you get used to the sensation. As you start to swim, just dunk your face every few strokes in a breaststroke. After five minutes you’ll be able to keep your face in and switch to a crawl if you want to. The key is not to get out. Your body will get used to it.
What do I need to go sea swimming?
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I swim in a winter wetsuit from November right through to April. I have friends who go wild swimming all year-round without one, though they’ve trained their bodies to do so – and it can take an awfully long time to warm up afterwards! Though I have a shortie wetsuit I rarely wear it. If the water’s cold enough for a wetsuit, I prefer a 5/4 mm one (5mm neoprene on the body and 4mm on the arms). My O’Neil wetsuit has lasted me over a decade now and though some of the tape is coming away from the seams it’s still going strong. There’s a men’s version too.
My kids wear their Decathlon winter wetsuits from spring to autumn for dinghy sailing and swimming, though note that Decathlon’s sizing is a tad on the small size, so I’d suggest going up an age-group or clothing size. Children get cold quickly so choose the thickest wetsuit you can afford.
In the summer (and occasionally in the winter) I go in ‘skins’ (swimsuit) or – if I’m doing any distance – a triathlon wetsuit, which is a lot thinner, lighter and more flexible than a standard wetsuit. Always start with the warmest gear you have (thickest wetsuit), and only drop down once you’ve become accustomed to wild swimming.
There’s plenty of technical advice out there on wetsuits, but in a nutshell, they work by trapping the water close to your skin. The water then warms up and stops you losing too much heat.
Go for a snug fit – long enough in the legs and arms so that with a pair of boots and gloves you’ll comfortably cover the bare bits – but not saggy. You don’t want ANY flesh showing on your body (believe me, just an inch on your ankle or wrist and you’ll have a freezing cold spot for your whole swim). A new wetsuit might feel horribly stiff and uncomfortable straight from the packet, but once in the water, and over time, it will soften up.
As all dinghy sailors and surfers will know, a rash vest is an essential piece of kit to wear under your wetsuit – not necessarily for warmth (though it does help a bit) but comfort. There’s nothing worse than the burn you get from a wetsuit collar chafing your neck or a rash on your chest afterwards from sand and salt.
Gloves and boots are essential for wild swimming. My 3mm neoprene Olaian gloves from Decathlon are basic but do the job most of the year round. It’s only in the winter – when the water drops to 6 degrees – that my hands get a bit cold. Next year I’ll be investing in a 5mm pair like these from Gul.
Top tip! If you don’t have wetsuit gloves, wear a pair of woolly gloves. They’re better than nothing. Another trick for extra warmth is to wear a pair of rubber gloves (ie. washing-up gloves) under your wetsuit gloves. It makes quite a difference and is also something I do when winter dinghy sailing.
Be sure to buy wetsuit boots rather than shoes (which I’ve found too cold, regardless of neoprene thickness). Have them fit snugly and go all the way up to your shins. My Olaian surf boots have proved excellent for three seasons of dinghy sailing and swimming, but have now ripped on the heel, probably from being yanked on and off too many times with cold hands!
It’s also worth considering how you plan to get to the beach. If you’re walking over pavements or a stony beach, make sure the soles are thick enough not to wear through or make you wince at every stone.
In winter I wear a pair of woolly socks under my wetsuit boots (any old hiking pair will do). I also love Gill’s waterproof boot socks. Technically, these are waterproof, and designed to be worn under wellies, rather than submerged. However, they’re excellent for wild swimming and provide a good layer of insulation. Just make sure you wear them under boots or you’ll lose them.
Oh what fun you can have with swim caps! I love the vintage style, and couldn’t resist buying this floral beauty a few months ago. It’s a bit on the large side, but maybe because of the texture it’s a lot warmer than my other (less ostentatious) caps. I wear it when it’s not too choppy, and I’m not likely to lose it in a tumble.
Bright colours are a good idea because, like oilskins, you want to wear something that can be seen from the shore. Even in the middle of summer I wear a swim hat in the sea as it keeps the warmth in. I especially like the ones that cover your ears, like this one from arteesol, which is especially good if you have long or thick hair.
Recently my doctor told me I’d developed surfer’s ear, or exostosis, in one ear. It’s a bony growth caused by exposure to cold water and wind. It doesn’t hurt, but makes me more susceptible to ear infections.
Now I always wear ear-plugs – something I wish I’d done five years ago! Not only do they protect my ears, but they help keep my head warm and prevent me from getting dizzy. I especially like Decathlon’s ear-plugs (pictured), which come in a selection of sizes and a handy box.
Over the years I’ve tried many brands of goggles, and my favourite are the Futura ones by Speedo. They don’t fog easily or leak and are soft on the delicate area around the eye-sockets.
I’m also a fan of Speedo’s larger Rift Mask goggles. I’ve tried going larger still with other brands, but find if goggles cover too much of your face they interfere with the rim of the swim-cap and leak. Everyone’s face shape is different, though, so you may have to try a few brands until you find the one that works for you.
Where do you put all that dripping wet gear when you get out? I used to use an IKEA plastic bag for my wetsuit, but after I practically flooded my favourite beach cafe whilst enjoying a warm-up hot chocolate, I realised I needed something more substantial.
I love this 20L dry-bag from aquafree as it comes with straps. However, if I’m carrying the kids’ wetsuits too, then my favourite bag is my 40L Musto one, which has an air-release pressure valve and sturdy, comfortable shoulder straps.
If you need to keep your belongings dry and secure, a tow-float is the perfect solution. This pink tow-float from Lomo comfortably holds a water bottle, pair of sandals, phone and lightweight towel. I use it for long swims, not having to worry about returning to the spot I started at.
It pays to be seen, especially in any kind of swell. Recently, I came across a research vessel very close inshore and it stopped immediately when it saw my float. It’s also visible to other swimmers, so useful to have when wild swimming in a group.
Another handy feature is the buoyancy. A tow-bag isn’t a lifesaving device but it is very buoyant and handy for a quick rest if you’re getting tired. I especially like to have it when swimming with my children.
The Lomo bag has never once leaked, but for extra security I double-bag my house-keys and phone in this waterproof waist pouch from H&S. Sometimes, if I go for a run first and jump straight into the sea afterwards, I just take the pouch. Again, no leaks to date – it’s an excellent piece of kit (two for £4.99).
Without doubt, one of the most useful items I’ve tested in recent years is the dryrobe, which I ordered for a lifejacket test with Yachting Monthly. I spent a day in the unheated RNLI pool in Dorset (where the crew do sea survival trials) and it proved invaluable in between lengthy spells in cold water.
The dryrobe is essentially a shower-proof, fleece-lined zip-up towel with arms, which you can wear as a coat. It’s very roomy – so you can get changed underneath it – and very warm. However, I don’t usually bother getting changed on the beach. I cycle straight there in a dryrobe over a wetsuit/swimsuit and ride straight home again afterwards.
On a hot day, or if I need a lighter, more portable version, I use a microfibre changing robe which is great for maintaining modesty, and also keeps the wind off if you’re walking or cycling home.
It can be fun timing swims between jetties, buoys or groynes – not least, because you get an appreciation for the current and how the conditions affect your performance. Or maybe you just want to keep tabs on your parking. Whatever the reason, a waterproof watch comes in handy when wild swimming.
I’ve always loved Casio watches for their simplicity and durability. My most recent purchase is this vibrant blue Casio watch – a larger version of their iconic original – which has nice large digits for when you’re bobbing about on the waves. It’s got a lovely soft strap, too, and is water resistant to 50m (165ft).
Get changed quickly when you get out – especially if you’ve been in skins – then get moving. Hands and feet will get cold very quickly, even if they were ok in the water. I usually wear two pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves. If you’re staying on the beach, a pop-up tent always helps – especially in winter. I usually fill it with blankets for the kids. They love to sit inside sipping hot chocolate and eating hot-dogs kept warm in a food flask.
If you’re heading straight home and are still in your wetsuit, take a tepid shower, and only increase the temperature when your body’s ready for it. Don’t go too hot. Alternatively, if you’re already dressed, just walk around in your layers for a while and gradually take them off as you warm up. Swap your socks for a warmer pair from your drawer (or better still, the radiator). Treat yourself to a hot water bottle and a hot drink.
I had a swim on New Year’s Day in my swimsuit when the air temperature was -6 degrees centigrade. It felt great (and I looked like a tomato when I got out) but it did take me two hours to get back to feeling normal!
10 top tips for wild swimming
- If you’re feeling nervous take a partner or friend to watch you from the beach or lakeside and swim in a lifeguarded area where possible
- For visibility wear a brightly coloured swim cap and a tow bag so you can keep your belongings safe and be seen.
- When you enter the water, float whilst you wait for your body to get used to the cold. When the water first enters your wetsuit it’s quite a shock and you’ll breathe quickly at first but you’ll soon warm up and your breathing will moderate.
- While you’re floating note which way the current’s taking you. Swim against the current to begin with and parallel to the shore so you can get out at any time.
- Keep your head above the water and splash your face a bit to get used to the cold. You’ll get used to it eventually. Don’t push yourself the first time. Ten minutes is plenty for your first open-water swim. You’ll still get that buzz!
- Ear-plugs will stop you feeling dizzy in the water and protect you from developing surfer’s ear.
- If you plan to go wild swimming without a wetsuit, try wearing one for the first 10 minutes then return to the shore and take it off. See how you feel when you re-enter the water.
- Pay careful attention to your body when you’re first wild swimming without a wetsuit. After the initial shock you’ll adjust, but if you find the cold still keeps creeping in, err on the side of caution and get out. Next time, stay in a little bit longer.
- If you’ve been wearing a wetsuit you probably won’t be too cold when you get out. If just a swimsuit, however, you have about a 5-minute window when you feel perfectly normal before the shivers set-in! Don’t stand around talking, get changed quickly.
- Even on a baking hot day, if you’ve been wild swimming for some time without a wetsuit, you’ll need warm clothes when you get out. Take a hat, gloves, loose-fitting trousers and tops that are easy to pull on, warm socks, shoes (avoid laces if you can), a fleece and a coat or dryrobe. It might sound excessive but you’ll need them. A warm flask of coffee and a donut works wonders to restore warmth and energy! Or brunch at your favourite beach cafe… you’ve earned it!