If you can’t get on the water get in it! Here's what to wear for year-round cold water swimming in the sea or lakes
There’s no better way to lift the spirits than a bracing dip! I’ve been cold water swimming in Dorset for many years, come rain or shine, snow or sun. Autumn is my favourite time of year to swim – where the beaches are quiet, and the air and sea temperature are roughly the same, meaning you don’t get a shock when you get in or out.
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.
Here are some of my top tips.
Is it warm enough?
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 May in a swimsuit.
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Unless you’re accustomed to cold-water swimming, I’d recommend starting with a wetsuit, and be aware of the dangers of cold water shock. 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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O’Neill Women’s Epic 5/4mm Full Wetsuit
I swim in a winter wetsuit from November right through to April. I have friends who go cold water 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’Neill 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.
I’ve recently been trialling a Lomo Selene wetsuit, which at £69 I think is a good price for a thick, entry-level suit. It’s a bit stiff out of the water – I wouldn’t wear it for dinghy sailing – but once you’re submerged and it’s fully wet it’s fine and very warm. Plus, it will soften over time. I have a medium (size 12) and, being 160cm, I thought it might be too long in the arms and legs (suggested height: 165-170cm) but actually it’s a great fit. I like the extra bit of length in the wrists and ankles, especially in the height of winter.
Glasgow-based company Lomo have a whole range of affordable products designed for sea-swimming, so it’s well worth looking at their online store.
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.
Osprey Women’s Nylon Long Full Length Triathlon Wetsuit
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 cold water 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.
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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.
Two Bare Feet Thermal Rash Vest
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.
Gul Power 5mm Wetsuit Gloves
Gloves and boots are essential for cold water 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.
Check out Yachting World’s guide to the best cold water swimming gloves
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.
Check out Yachting World’s guide to the best cold water swimming shoes
I’ve recently bought a pair of Olaian bodyboarding and surfing socks. They’re too thin to walk across anything but sand or grass but fit nicely and have been good so far in temperatures down to 10 degrees. I suspect they will be too cold come February/ March time.
Gill Waterproof Boot Socks
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 cold water swimming and provide a good layer of insulation. Just make sure you wear them under boots or you’ll lose them.
Fine Saratoga Ladies Red Swimming Hat
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.
Soul cap for voluminous hair
For big hair, try the Soul Cap. I first heard of this swim cap this summer, when it was rejected by FINA, the Olympic federation for watersports. Its dismissal caused a backlash, forcing FINA to apologise – and rightly so. This looks like a brilliant cap – with extra room for all types of voluminous hair, including braids, extensions, thick and curly afros and waist-length dreadlocks.
Check out Yachting World’s guide to the best cold water swimming caps
Hearprotek Silicone Swimming Earplugs
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.
Another option – which you can wear with or without earplugs and swim cap – is a neoprene headband, which helps to keep water out of your ears.
Speedo Futura Biofuse Flexiseal Swimming Goggles
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.
AquaPulse Pro Mirror Goggles – good for sunshine
For anti-glare and UV protection, I’d recommend Speedo’s new AquaPulse Pro Mirror goggles. Personally I find them a little bit more fiddly than the Futura ones. I find I need to adjust the straps until they’re just right, otherwise they leak (the Futura seem more forgiving in this respect). However, once you’ve got the perfect fit, they’re great, and I’ve found them especially good in bright sunlight – like swimming with sunglasses on.
I like Arena’s goggles too. I’ve had these for over a year now and they’re still going strong.
Lomo swim goggles
Right now, I’m trying out three new pairs of goggles from Lomo. These are the Vanguard wide format mask, which is a tad on the bulky side for me, but still very comfortable, Verve swimming goggles, which if anything, are the opposite – they sit quite tightly around the eye socket, and – my favourite – the Vista swim goggles, which seem just right, and with a UV tint have been excellent for swimming in bright sunlight. I was in the Caribbean recently covering the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, and when I went for a swim, the Vista goggles were great – just like wearing sunglasses under the water!
Aquafree Waterproof Dry Bag
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 the 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’re carrying valuables too, such as a laptop, keys and a phone, Red Original’s Waterproof Kit Bag is perfect as it has separate compartments for separating wet stuff from dry. I can actually fit my 16in Macbook in the side pocket (pictured above).
Lomo Roll Top Dry Bag
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 cold water swimming in a group.
Another handy feature is the buoyancy. A tow-float 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.
I wrote to Lomo recently, suggesting that it would be great if the bag had rucksack straps. I could then then go for a walk or run, put my clothes inside, and finish with a sea swim. They wrote back to tell me their latest model tow-float does now have straps! This one is orange, and I’ll be testing it out soon.
H&S Waterproof Pouch Bag
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).
Check out Yachting World’s guide to the best swim floats
Speedo long sleeved swimsuit
This Speedo long-sleeved swimsuit has been a hit with me this summer. I’m always conscious of UV damage but when swimming alone find it impossible to get suncream on my back. With this suit, that’s no problem at all – it covers most of your back apart from a small patch on the lower back, which is easy to reach.
The suit’s very soft and flexible in the shoulders, making it easy to do any stroke, and the front zipper is a nice addition too. I can see myself wearing this right through the autumn, enjoying the extra bit of warmth in the arms. Note – these are quite snug-fitting so I suggest you go up a dress size. In this photo I’m wearing a size 14.
Sporty bikinis for women
If I do have the luxury of someone to put cream on me, I love the feel of water on my bare skin, and the less I can wear in the sea the better! Ladies, I have recently discovered some bikinis that don’t fall off when you do a front crawl. Decathlon’s surf range of bikinis and tankinis is stylish, sporty and no-nonsense.
I especially love these shorty Vanina swimsuit bottoms with a handy drawstring and the matching Agatha surf bikini crop top which is available in a range of bra sizes.
For one-piece swimsuits, again, I love shorties or low-cut leg designs. The classic navy Nabaiji does the job and is good value at £9.99. For a splash of colour, get the stripy Nabaiji Heva Mexi at £12.99.
Go big on Decathlon sizing!
Word of advice, though, GO BIG. Decathlon is a French company, and I can only think French people must be tiny because the sizing is soul-destroyingly small. I’m a size 12 in UK clothing and I always go for large in Decathlon bottoms. In fact my one-piece Nabaiji is EU 44, which is a 16 UK.
If possible, go to the store in person and try stuff on, as it also depends on which piece of swimwear you’re trying. Some designs are tighter than others, but above all else, you want to be comfortable in the water. No wedgies, no loose straps, no runaway bottoms!
Alternatively, just find a nudist beach…
Do you need flippers?
Personally, unless I’m snorkelling, I don’t get on with flippers, and I don’t like waddling in and out of the water like a penguin. If I’m swimming by myself I don’t bother. However, they are pretty handy if you’re swimming in a group. If you’re slower than the others (which I often am) it’s a great way to keep pace and means no-one needs to get cold waiting for you to catch up.
Dryrobe Advance Long Sleeve Changing Robe
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.
Red Pro Change Jacket
Red Original Co also do a lovely Pro Changing Robe. It’s slightly less bulky than the dryrobe but just as warm and soft. The big pocket is in the chest, rather than at the hips, so I don’t find it quite so easy for storing phones and keys, etc. However, I do like the stylish charcoal-grey design and sometimes wear this one as a regular coat to watch the kids play football. My son has the Kids Short Sleeve Pro Changing Robe. He’s 10 years old and it covers his shins (see below).
There are a few other options too. Red Paddle Co do a whole range of changing robes and towels for all seasons.
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.
Casio F108WH Waterproof Watch
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 cold water 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!
12 top tips for cold water 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
- Take a minute to check the waves. They come in sets so be patient. Wait for a calm patch before entering and exiting the water. If a wave is about to break over you, dive underneath it
- 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 cold water 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 cold water 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 cold water 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!