Continuing outdoor training during winter? Whether you swim as nature intended, or kitted up for a long session, the OSS Team share their new and favourite items to help keep the chill at bay.
As the sun’s rays start to cool, the trees thin out and the summer’s warmth fades from the water an increasing number of people carry on swimming – and start thinking about what kit they need to help them make it through winter.
If you go to any winter swimming spot you will notice a variety of different configurations as, over time, people find what works best for them. Here is some of the kit and equipment, old and new, that the OSS team like to use when the water gets colder.
NEOPRENE BOOTS & GLOVES
Even the hardiest winter swimmer often sports neoprene boots and gloves, which take the bite out of below 10 degree water and can extend swimming time as a result (it is also easier to get dressed with non-frozen fingers). Boots and gloves are a boon for those suffering with circulation issues or Raynaud’s Syndrome. 2019 Swim Champ Coordinator Karen Smith says: “I wear gloves and boots through the winter and I even have different gloves for different temperatures…. And the good news is that over the years my Raynaud’s has improved”. Karen wears Zone3 in the Autumn, moving to thicker Lomo options for deep winter. Our in-house medical expert, Mark Harper, also swears by the sturdy Lomo gloves.
Neoprene socks provide extra warmth (frosty ground can otherwise sap all heat from your feet before you get in), and provide extra security wading into unknown waters.
NEOPRENE BONNETS & EARPLUGS
Face pain can be reduced by a neoprene cap, usually with a swimming cap on top for visibility and/or to reduce flow or for extra warmth. Available in many styles and shapes, some of our favourites include Lomo, Head and Orca. ‘Some ice swimming groups only allow the use of small goggles, as larger frames are considered ‘cheating’,’ says Kate, ‘but I have rosacea (which inflames in the cold) so personally I try and cover as much of my face as possible – for example, wearing an Aquasphere Seal Mask and an Orca headband (as well as cap). I’ve recently invested in a neoprene apnea mask too, for snorkelling.’ The OSS Cold Water Cap is designed to sit well over neoprene for extra warmth (£10, OSS Shop).
Cold water in the ears can make people dizzy. There’s nothing I like less than the spear of cold water into my ears so I use ear plugs year round. Happy Ears are simple and reasonably priced.
For those choosing a head up stately swim, you may want to wear a beanie hat or something warm. Even though the high percentage of heat loss from the head has been disputed (the original study claiming 40+% body heat lost through the head was a 1950s US military experiment) there’s still around 7-10%. If nothing else, a hat gives you the sensation of warmth around your ears.
LONG SLEEVED COSTUME
Long sleeved costumes are popular for taking some of the sting out of winter water and increasing endurance. ‘The ALPKIT Dulsie has a thermal panel down the front, and on a recent trip to Scotland I fared much better in heavy hail (shortly after this picture was taken) than my swim buddy, as my arms were covered. It’s made a real difference to my winter swimming.’ The Dulsie also scores points for being an Econyl costume that comes in under £100 – £34.99 in fact.
WEATHERPROOF CHANGING ROBE – & WARM LAYERS
When it’s lashing down, the ubiquitous changing robe is the before and after choice for many, topped off with your winter wear of choice. See our full Weatherproof Changing Robe Kit Review for the low down on which suits you. Post swim, I recommend layers of wool that are easy to put on and keep you warm even if damp. Make sure everything is foolproof and does not involve fiddly buttons or zips that claw-cold hands won’t be able to grasp. Thick woollen socks and easy to pull on boots are great too!
Of course, over time, you may realise you need nothing. One swimmer here in Zurich has a tiny hand towel, no extra clothes and goes in naked every day. The Fourth Element Storm Poncho (pictured) is available in The OSS shop in Charcoal.
Top tip: Ambassador Calum has been known to use flask-warmed mint tea to warm his toes after a swim.
SMOCK TOPS & MOUNTAIN SHIRTS
‘In between numb hands, damp skin, wind blowing and rain falling dressing after winter swimming can be hard,’ says Kate. Step forward the outdoor smock top or mountain shirt, such as those made by Buffalo and now Alpkit. These items are designed to go on bare skin, and wick away any moisture, with a thick thermal inner and weatherproof outer. ‘Cold skin is hard to get dry, and it’s better to pat not rub when you’re really chilly,’ says Kate. ‘Stuck on a lakeshore naked but for a t shirt tied around my neck I’ve envied the men in my life with one of these items for 15 years. I’m so pleased there’s now an androgynous one on the market for me, in colour and shape. Alpkit Jura, £119.99.
I’ve been enjoying the warmth and Corona-busting-Ninja look of the Vollebak Planet Earth Hoodie this winter. Really soft next to your skin, but also good on top of another layer. Between the built-in mask, hood and thumb loops you definitely feel a sense of all around comfort.
For those of us who want to keep swimming distances year round in open water, and not limit it to shorter swims (or ice mile attempts) there are many ways to increase your means of insulation.
THERMAL/ WINTER WETSUIT
For longer distances, first off is the basics: the wetsuit. Open water swimming is still dominated by Triathlon wetsuits. Many of these are built for speed and have thinner/lighter panels of neoprene and very few will push to the maximum allowed thickness of 5mm.
Once deep winter hits, a lot of the OSS team move into the Alpkit Silvertip which has a fleece lining for extra warmth (£199.99). I chose a suit from Southern Californian surf brand, Matuse, for my winter suit as it’s thick (4.5mm), made of geoprene (‘ethical’ neoprene), and has been tested in the cold Pacific.
Zone 3, Blue Seventy, Huub, Roka and Orca have all brought out winter wetsuits for A/W 2020.2021. The Orca suit is out in January 2021, you can win one in the OSS Christmas Raffle. Kate has been testing the Zone3 Thermal Aspire. ‘At £425 it’s an investment piece. For me this is like comparing my normal H&M jeans with some really high end ones – the more economical version is everything I need and want in jeans, I wear them every day…. but put me in a pair of top of the range ones, and yes, I can appreciate that the fit and feel is that bit more glorious. It’s a cracking suit to swim in.’
NEOPRENE VESTS (WITH HOODS)
But fear not if you don’t have the budget or inclination to buy a new suit. You can beef up your torso with a neoprene vest and get the thickness of neoprene that way (e.g. Orca Heatseeker as worn by Kate, or C-Skins with integrated hood which is my choice). Even a thin polypropylene rash vest will help, and is common amongst divers and surfers (see North Face baselayer in the flatlay). Equally a merino top will add warmth too and is cheaper than opting for a lined wetsuit.
One of our winter swimming group here in Zurich simply wears two wetsuits, one on top of the other. Of course mobility will be restricted but he’s very buoyant, and can enjoy the water for a good 40-60 minutes, even around 5 degrees.
Bear in mind though, you’re as warm as your weakest link. The first thing I will notice is hands and then feet. I have found I need gloves and socks with elastic (like Zone3) to cope with faster crawl swimming and stay on.
This last season I tried those ‘Lobster claw’ style gloves with a separate index finger but actually, the cold seemed to focus on that one isolated finger! This year I want to try full neoprene mittens.
I never need an excuse to wear fins as I love the feeling but find that extra pump of your legs also helps to keep you warm when winter swimming. Most major swim brands make them but my favourites are from DMC.
Small but important: lights may be an additional requirement simply to get around but also to be seen by others. Kate chooses the Nitize LED Glowstick (£7.99 for two in The OSS shop) to clip on her goggle strap. My choice is a Black Diamond head-torch in my tow float. ‘I started using Nitize as an environmentally friendly version of glow sticks,’ says Kate, ‘and have stuck with them for their features. My kids wave them around like light sabres as we walk along dark (possibly spooky) paths, and they issue the same protective force around me attached to my costume or wetsuit zip for visibility’. Pop one in a tow float to create a floating lantern.
Whilst a watch isn’t necessarily season specific, knowing how long you have been in the water becomes increasingly important as the temperature drops. Naturally, you should listen to your body, but having a rough idea of your known limits is also good. For time in the water, most basic waterproof watches will do. Newer sport and smart watches include GPS, storm warnings, temperature and more.
There are many groups of people who spend time in the cold water. Look sideways to some of our aquatic brethren and maybe get some tips from them. Surfing in the cold is nothing new. Diving in the cold is nothing new. Is it any coincidence that the wetsuits Ross Edgley wore for most of his swim around the UK were actually from surf brands? If you have another wetsuit and it’s comfortable, give it a shot, even as a second layer. Between the ‘Farmer John’ style bottoms and thick top, a winter spearfisher could have around 10mm neoprene over their torso.
P.S. If you have any Krypton going spare: One US study from MIT found that a wetsuit treated overnight in an inert heavy gas (e.g. Xenon or Krypton) can greatly increase safe/comfortable time in the water (if any reader has access to this I would love to try it!)