Here's what to wear for year-round cold water swimming in the sea or lakes, plus top tips on getting started and staying warm
There’s no better way to lift the spirits than an outdoor swim. Whether you’re a dipper or a swimmer, the experience leaves you tingling all day.
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. In fact, the sea is warmest in September – around 16 degrees.
Is there a lake or beach nearby? If so, all you need is the right gear. And if you’re a dinghy sailor, or do other watersports, you’re half-way there already. You don’t need expensive kit to enjoy outdoor swimming.
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, as long as your feet and hands are protected too.
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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. Stay shallow but get your head under straight away (fill that wetsuit), and float for a minute until you get used to the sensation. You’ll probably feel a bit breathless. 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 straight away. Scream, shout, wail, whoop – do whatever you like, but don’t 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. My friend bought one at the same time and is still wearing hers. A wetsuit might be an expensive outlay, but it can last for years. There’s a men’s version of this O’Neill wetsuit 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. Their tow floats are particularly popular (more on that below), so it’s well worth looking at their swimming and triathlon 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.
Triathlon or tri suits
In the summer (and occasionally in the winter) I go in ‘skins’ (swimsuit). However, in spring and late autumn I often wear my tri suit – sometimes called a ‘triathlon’ or ‘open water swimming’ wetsuit. I’ve had the excellent Nabaiji Open Water Swimming wetsuit for a couple of years now and it’s still in good condition.
A tri suit is a lot thinner, lighter and more flexible than a standard wetsuit. It’s certainly cooler, but the pay-off is the movement you get. It’s wonderfully stretchy, and at 2mm it’s thick enough to stop you getting the chills when you get out. Plus, it’s small to carry around. You can roll it up and pop it into a gym bag for a lunchtime swim. At £100 I think Decathlon’s Nabaiji suit is a good price, but beware, the neoprene is thin, so be careful not to go hauling yourself up over rocks and barnacles!
Orca is also a popular brand of triathlon suit. My friend Helena, who does artistic swimming, flotation therapy and other cold water swimming classes, is a big fan of her Orca tri wetsuit, which she wears year-round.
If you’re a keen pool swimmer a triathlon wetsuit might be a good choice. However, if you’re a beginner, or not a serious swimmer, my advice is to start with the warmest gear you get (thickest wetsuit), and only drop down to thinner, more sporty, options once you’ve become accustomed to cold water swimming.
How wetsuits work
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 a useful 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. Over time you may find you no longer need a rash vest, as your wetsuit softens, but definitely start out with one if you can.
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 – and prone to falling off). 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!
With the prices of everything going up this year I also added to my collection a thinner, less expensive, pair of boots – or ‘wetsuit surf sock boots’ as Decathlon calls them. These cost £22.99 and certainly do the trick – even through winter – but they do have very thin soles.
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.
For hike/ swim/ snorkel combinations, check out Yachting World’s guide to the best cold water swimming shoes.
Sealskinz and Gill 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. I’m also a big fan of the original Sealskinz socks, which I wear for winter dinghy sailing, but again, you’ll need to wear these under boots.
Fine Saratoga Ladies Red Swimming Hat
I wear a swim cap all year round – even in summer. It’s surprising, the difference a cap can make to retain body heat. Sometimes, I’ll only wear a swimsuit, but team it with a cap, gloves and boots, and that will keep me going right through till November.
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 you want to be seen from the shore. In cold weather, I especially like swim caps that cover your ears, like this silicone swim cap from Decathlon. A lot don’t, so it’s worth trying a few styles.
Soul cap for voluminous hair
For big hair, try the Soul Cap. I first heard of this swim cap 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.
Note, if you do find your goggles misting up, just tip then gently to flush them with water, and they’ll clear. Most people know to spit in their goggles and dunk before wearing. If you don’t want to do that you can make your own ‘anti-fog’ spray by mixing a bit of baby shampoo in fresh water using a 100ml spray bottle.
I’m 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 especially good in bright sunlight – like swimming with sunglasses on.
I like Arena’s goggles too. I’ve had these for a couple of years now and though they’re a bit UV degraded, they’re still going strong. Goggles don’t last forever, though. Expect to replace them after a year or two of regular swimming.
Lomo swim goggles
I’ve been trialling some swimming goggles by Lomo. The Vanguard wide format mask is a tad on the bulky side for me, but still very comfortable, Verve swimming goggles, are the opposite – they sit quite tightly around the eye socket, and I just can’t get used to them!
My favourite are the Vista swim goggles, which seem just right, and with a UV tint have been excellent for swimming in bright sunlight. I took them to the Caribbean whilst covering the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, and when I went for a swim, the Vista goggles were perfect – 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 local beach cafe whilst enjoying a warm-up hot chocolate, I realised I needed something more substantial.
I love the 20L drybag from aquafree as it comes with 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 below).
Read Yachting Monthly’s group test of the best dry bags.
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, 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 love the sturdy comfortable straps.
With tow-floats, be sure to tie them securely around your waist. I went for a swim the other week and lost my tow-float. I didn’t notice until I was at the other end of the beach. Fortunately it was a cross-shore wind, rather than offshore, and I was able to jog back, jump in and retrieve it.
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
Swimwear for cold-water swimming
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. 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 bikini for women
Decathlon’s range of swimwear is sporty, stylish and no-nonsense. I’ve been hugely impressed with Decathlon’s Vega Women’s bikini top, which I team either with the boy-cut Vega Women’s shorties, which have a drawstring, and the longer style Reva Women’s surf shorts.
In fact, the Reva shorts are long enough, you can jog in them as standalone shorts. They’re very comfy. On hot summer days I’ll do a beach run wearing only the bikini top and shorts, and jumped straight in the sea afterwards. For me, the bikini top is firm enough to double as a sports bra, which is an added bonus.
Swimwear you can run in
In September, I’ll typically jog in Decathlon’s bikini combo, but with a t-shirt and shorts over the top, so that when I go for a swim at the end I can take these off and put them back on again (over wet swimmers) to jog home. I find that a cold dip after a run really loosens my muscles and makes it easy to stretch-down. I don’t ache so much afterwards either.
As the weather gets colder, I’ll switch to running in Decathlon’s Kalenji lycra running leggings, which I’ll also swim in (paired with a gym top or rash vest). They’re not designed to be worn in the sea, but they’re surprisingly warm, and will keep me warm enough to swim and get home … at which point a hot shower is definitely in order!
I should point out here that spending too much time in wet clothes isn’t advisable. I only do this as I live near the beach or have the car nearby, so I can warm up quickly afterwards.
For one-piece swimsuits, again, I love shorties or low-cut leg designs. I love the stripy Nabaiji Heva Mexi. It has recently gone up in price from £12.99 to £19.99, but the new version has a padded bust and more support, so I’m happy to pay a bit extra. I bought a couple of these swimsuits because they do eventually wear thin over time (all suits do). Take a look at the full range of Decathlon swimwear here.
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 stripy 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.
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).
Garmin Swim 2 Smart Watch
Another option for swimmers who want to get more serious is a smart watch. You can do all sorts of things with these – run, cycle, measure distance, elevation and heart-rate, for example – and for swimmers there’s something called a ‘swolf’ measure. This records the number of strokes you do in a given length and adds this to the time to create a score. So, for example, if a length takes you 30 seconds and your watch records 15 strokes (when your wrist hits the water), you get a swolf score of 45. As with golf, a lower score is better.
Before buying a smart watch for open water swimming, check that it uses GPS signal in the water. You’ll find that many watches don’t because this can get lost when the watch is dunked, and take time to reconnect.
Instead, swim apps typically use lap data, which depends on you entering a pre-determined distance into your watch. If you already have a smart watch, you could cheat it by measuring your intended distance first on a ‘Walk app’ (by walking parallel with the shore, for example), and enter this figure.
If that sounds complicated, I’ve written a beginner’s guide to using a Garmin Smart Watch – where I explain how to do this. However, if you’re just after a smart watch for cold water swimming, try the Garmin’s Swim 2. This has a dedicated open-water swim mode which uses built-in GPS for lakes, oceans or rivers. It records distance, pace, stroke count, swolf, stroke rate and stroke distance.
Warming up after cold water swimming
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).
Red recently launched a stash bag for their changing robe, which is a great idea, because this packs it nice and tight, and you can then carry it until you need it.
There are a few other options too. Red Paddle Co do a whole range of changing robes and towels for all seasons.
Luxurious Vivida Puffer Robe
For complete luxury, Vivida’s Puffer Robe ticks all the boxes. It’s stylish, super warm, stretchy and can double as a coat. This is my go-to coat for long evenings on the beach when the sun’s gone down and it’s a tad chilly but you just don’t want to go home! You can read a full review of the Vivida robe here.
Lightweight changing robes
On a hot day, or if I need a lighter, more portable robe, 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.
Although I’ve tried thick towelling robes, I don’t recommend them. They get heavy and soggy quickly and lose all their warmth. Plus, they take forever to dry. If you want to stay warm and dry, get a ‘coat-like’ changing robe like Red Original’s Pro Change robe. If you simply want something to get changed in, go for a thin, lightweight one, such as this compact, hoodless Decathlon poncho.
Decathlon now have a range of adult ponchos in funky prints, which I’m sure they’ll update each season. I have a couple of these and have found them very useful for holidays, and for packing down after summer kayaking adventures.
Read Yachting World’s guide to the best changing robes on the market.
How to warm up after cold water swimming
Make sure you 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. Take a changing robe, too (see above).
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 float 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!