Having the latest bit of gear is all well and good, but swimming in the natural world requires thinking twice about whether we really need new things. So what has been by your side for the last 12 months? What items have started to become like your swim/adventure companions? Could any of them even be called vintage? That’s what we’ve looked for in this ‘slow kit’ review. Here, members of the OSS Team share the things that they reach for time and time again, and the ones that have lasted, with each picking items in 3 categories:
Watershed Animas Drybag/Rucksack 40L, $159 from Watershed: I’ve been using this for just over a year and it looks the same as the day it arrived. Beautifully tough with the simple rugged appeal of a Tonka toy. Its tactile, almost friendly, appearance belies its use by some of Watershed’s most robust customers – the British and American Special Forces. One feature I liked, in the days where instructions say ‘Carefully do this’ and ‘Lightly do that’ was the test of air-tightness: “Once sealed, squeeze the bag as hard as you can”. Made by hand in Asheville, North Carolina, it holds 40 litres closed which lasts me a carefully-packed 3-day swim-hike trip, in all seasons. To tow, simply take the straps off (although you don’t need to) attach a leash (I keep mine on) and off you swim. You don’t even know it’s there. In addition, the straps are very comfortable when simply used as a rucksack and I’ll often choose it even if I’m not expecting immersion. So far it’s gone with me in three seas, tens of lakes, a few rivers, three continents, and six countries!
Lomo tow float, £19.99 from Lomo: For a quick dip, but when I want to take valuables with me, this is my float of choice. Now in its third year of use. I love Lomo for their range of competitively priced, but comprehensive watersports gear. It’s a good balance of cost versus quality. Not built to get thrashed, but perfect for day-to-day swimming. Used it this morning!
Danner Boots, Various prices, Danner: I have an emotional connection with my first pair of Danner boots, a model no longer in production. Twenty-seven years ago, after visiting the US Naval Academy, my uncle took my father and I to a military outfitters where I could get some Army boots. Proudly he used his service discount to get us a better price. All these years later, come winter, I still get them out if I need something durable, warm and grippy. On moving to Switzerland, and living in the mountains, I bought another pair (my ‘new’ pair, now 11 years old) that I could wear day-to-day without looking too militaristic. Made in Portland, Oregon since 1932. They’re in the ‘posh shoe’ price range, but divide that price by the number of years and they’re a bargain. I am confident they will be passed on to the next generation (albeit maybe resoled). Worn both pairs many times this year. The black for winter swimming (easy to throw on and off with frozen hands) and the brown for swim-hikes.
Alpkit Gourdon Drybag Rucksack, 30L, £39 from ALPKIT: I love the simplicity of these rucksacks – it makes them ultra-adaptable and multi-purpose. I use mine for everything (shopping, the school run, family trips to the beach), not just swim adventures. I feel forced to try and wheel out a proper civilian handbag from time to time, but really I’d go everywhere with this perfectly balanced on my shoulders and then sit it at my feet in the finest places if it was allowed. There are two mesh pockets on the side- I use one for a Thermos Cup of coffee, Camelback water bottle on the other, and then fill the middle with wetsuit, towel, etc, topped off with a small dry bag into which goes phone/ keys/ money/ notebook. They can carry a surprising amount and I often do – multiple school bags, lunch boxes, groceries, footballs/ beach regalia – but they’re light in themselves and when they’re empty don’t take up any space. handy on trips to the beach) but if you’re travelling light, they deflate.
Thermos King Travel Tumbler 16oz, From £19.99; widely available: Buy cheap, buy twice? I really try not to. I was given this in Christmas 2016 and it still keeps drinks warm for hours. Some of my best friends manage to have jumpers that basically become them for a few years. I don’t manage to grow into my clothes that way, but me and this copper-coloured cup, we’re inseparable on adventures together….
RAB Down Jacket, Modern equivalent – probably the Positron Pro: I was given this in 2009 when writing a feature on a swim-hike for Trail magazine and it’s still going strong 12 years later – it’s so light you almost float in it, and it’s really really warm. It’s suffered a series of injuries fixed with gaffer tape. It’s a bit grubby but when you’ve had a coat this long, it’s got stories of it’s own.
Buffalo Sleeping Bag /children’s “dry robe”: Back in the 90s, my husband bought a four-season Buffalo sleeping bag – their classic insulating system, of Pertex shell and thick fleece lining. A quarter of a century later, with ice climbing and tiny tents not such a big part of his life, he didn’t need a bag so warm, so my mother-in-law made it into two “dry robes” for small people. They’ve had a good four years of this second life now, improving the lives of both infants and adults in a series of ‘I got too cold, I can’t bear it, I’m hyper-dramatically going to implode’ incidents, and are making their way down the child-chain to save other people (and their children).
OSS events hot tub/tree house: Back in 2008, when encouraging people to swim was still a project that required powers of persuasion, Michael Worthington, then a director of The Outdoor Swimming Society, decided to buy the OSS a hot tub. He strapped it to the roof of his car and drove around the country to various events: Derwent Water, Port Eliot, full moon swims on the Thames. It lives on, 11 years later. Eventually the wind-drying got too much and the old tub started to leak, so now it’s a tree house come crow’s nest in my garden. Ultimately, it’s going full circle, and will be fed to the other hot tubs as firewood in a form of arboreal cannibalism.
It has, sadly, now died, but my school cricket hat was my expedition sunhat for 20 years! It went right round the world, across India and the Empty Quarter, and up to Greenland.
My bright yellow Wyatt & Jack rucksack made from recycled inflatables. It’s got a strap to clip round my front, which alleviates the weight, a big inside pocket and a reflective strip running down the front. I found it really useful whilst cycling and swimming around Britain. I could chuck my swimsuit in the inside pocket, not worry about anything else getting wet, hop on my bike and pedal to my next swimming destination. And – it even attracts dogs to kiss your face.
My army desert boots that have clocked up more than 1000 miles walking Australia’s Rabbit Proof Fence. At first, I was scared they’d rub and feel uncomfortable, but I bounced around the floor when I first tried them on and they felt like slippers. They molded to my feet during my journey and very much became apart of me. They’re a little worn now but still going. I’ll forever keep them and bounce around my lounge whenever I want to think about my time in the Australian desert.
Items struggle to stay longer than 10 years with me. I either lose them or they accidentally break and as I move around so much I’m a minimalist and don’t like having too much stuff. I struggled to think what I’ve had for more than 10 years, and then something became glaringly obvious, although not particularly exciting- my trusty pair of non-branded thermal leggings. I first wore them on my ski season 14 years ago, I wore them at night when I cycled through Africa; again when I walked across Australia; and when I cycled around Britain connecting with swimmers they were always there, neatly laid-out ready to cling to my legs when I shivered out of the water.
Vibram Fivefingers: I am often asked what I wear on my feet. Most of the time I wear nothing, loving the feel of squishy mud, sand between toes or smooth pebbles. But, on rocky adventure swims and when I am swimming in the River Thames I wear Vibram Fivefingers. I have tried proper swim socks and shoes, nothing compares. These are not designed for swimming. They were originally designed for barefoot running, this pair for yoga. They go on like gloves for your feet with a rubber sole that is thin and light, which protects the soles of your feet and make them perfect for swimming. They don’t fill with water and because your toes are separated they don’t impact on swim style and kick. This pair I got in April this year, but are only my third pair in more than 10 years of outdoor adventure swims.
Aquapac Rucksack: This was a Christmas gift about five years ago. I wanted a backpack that was suitable for wet gear and dry gear to hang out together in the same chamber, this bag enabled that. At times I have wished I got the bigger version, having to pack lighter than I want and leave things behind. In winter you have to have clever warm layers, rather than big chunky ones. It has hardly worn. All fasteners, zips and clips all still work. If you put all your kit inside when it is raining it keeps it dry while you swim. It is really reliable, I only wish it was bigger sometimes.
Towel Robe, Booicore: I really struggled to find a piece of kit I had ten years ago that I still use. I feel a bit ashamed about that. Some of the kit still exists and works, it has just found itself packed away in the garage. It isn’t that I have something different, it is just my swimming has changed over the years. 10 years ago, my biggest swims were at the most 2k and I didn’t use much more than hat, swimsuit and goggles. A lot of my training was in a pool, so used fins and floats. Now I hardly visit the pool and a lot of my kit is about being outdoors. But this towel robe must be about seven or eight years old. It was a gift, a brand I had never heard of at the time and didn’t pay much attention to until I wrote this piece. It was before all the big brand robes today, one of the first of its kind for adults. I don’t own any other robes, so this is used a lot. It has really worn well, apart from fading in colour I have no other complaints. It is a proper towel material so dries you properly and is warm. It has been with me on so many epic swims, sometimes I travel home in it from the river. It isn’t fancy or expensive, but I love it.
(Could come in the category of really old, as I keep re-buying them): Aqua Sphere Seal 2 Goggles: These are large goggles that don’t press into your eye sockets, seal so well that I am happy wearing contact lenses with them, have great peripheral vision, fit most people, and don’t get lost at the bottom of your swim bag. I am a swimming teacher and have my own swimming practice, and probably use them eight to ten times a week, They last about two years, if I don’t lose them or give them to other people. I have used them since 2003/4 and have been tempted by other cooler looking go-faster goggles, but have found nothing else I like as well.
My swim basket, which I agree sometimes makes me look like a day tripper at the sea side. But I have had many lovely hi-tech waterproof rucksacks and I keep returning to the basket. It is not made of plastic, and even if you leave wet kit in it for ages, the whole lot dries eventually and it’s not a breeding ground for dead dog sort of smells. When packing for a swim, it will accommodate large overflowing items: towels, wetsuits, dry robes et al. It has a wide open top and I can throw stuff into it from the other side of the room, so when I have allowed no time at all to pack for a swim trip and don’t want to limit my choice, I can put everything in it.
Hats are a very important feature in my kit for swimming: woolly hats for winter and for summer wear, I have a Norwegian hat I am very fond of (it is featured in Kate Rew’s classic swim book ‘Wild Swim’ and she published that in 2006; I think I bought it in Norway in the early nineties). Some people have favourite sun hats, but a woolly hat covered with a waterproof hood is often more useful in Britain. My other favourite is a neoprene bonnet by Orca, orange on one side, so does the job for visibility, or I wear it on the black side if I need to wear an event hat over the top. I suffer from cold, and having my ears cuddled tight in neoprene makes everything happier.
BlueSeventy Thermal Skull Cap: A game-changer for winter swimming..! I used to have a regular neoprene cap and was satisfied with it – I didn’t realise the difference until I upgraded. The hollowed wool liner keeps my head toasty in all conditions – swimming in snow, ice, etc. I pair it with a silicone cap on top, and the combination is pretty well waterproof. Especially if I’m doing a longer winter swim, I feel it’s like putting my armour on – I’m ready for any challenge once that strap sits under my chin.
Lomo tow float : A tow float, and also a bag. I’ve had some great adventures with this bag – often using it to carry snacks, a full lunch or a pair of shoes to allow me to complete return journeys on land. It’s fairly basic but does the job well, and has been battered in many water conditions. It’s starting to show it’s age and sags a little at the end of long swims (don’t we all..!) but is still watertight. Surprisingly roomy, a full change of clothes can be slotted in, if you plan ahead. The strap has been replaced one, a new handle may be needed soon…I feel it could become a bit like “Trigger’s Broom” of tow floats..!
GoPro selfie-stick: I had lost my selfie stick and wanted to film on my GoPro, and so found this lovely smooth branch. It makes for a brilliant selfie stick for filming – the handle is long, smooth and floats! Very nice to hold in my hand, it can also be used as a walking stick if need be, and a makeshift monopod in soft ground. After my first use I resolved to leave my attachment firmly strapped onto it with the duct tape I’d used. Very useful for filming, a highlight was swimming through an underwater tunnel. Not the easiest to lug about, seeing as it doesn’t fold down but it has that Heath Robinson-esque sentimental value.