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.
As the sun’s rays start to cool, the trees thin out and the summer 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.
For me, I just want to be able to keep swimming as if it’s summer. I don’t especially want to go to a gym, or a pool. I want to stay involved with open water. Neoprene gives me options and allows me to do multiple kilometer swims, even in deepest winter. So it’s versatility that I want in my gear. Different layers and thicknesses of neoprene for different conditions, trying to find that balance between ease of movement and effective warmth around your body.
Here is some of the kit and equipment, old and new, that the OSS team like to use when the water gets colder.
‘It might seem counterintuitive but many swimmers stop using wetsuits in winter, and move to togs-only swimming,’ says OSS Founder Kate Rew. ‘Because you need bare skin to ‘enjoy’ the circulation-jogging effect of cold water – in a suit, there’s no burning sensation as your circulation fights back, just a gradual ebbing away of body temperature, a long chilling. Plus, when the air temperature drops, and wind chill rises, it’s possible to get colder on the banks struggling in and out of wetsuits than you got in the water. For me the move from training swims to head up breaststroke comes definitively when we move into single digits, at which point I lose the ability or will to put my face in. How I admire those who do! I do have new kit for extending the face-putting-in season, which is in the second section.’
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).
Long arm gloves and long socks are designed to be tucked into wetsuit arms and legs. If you are wearing them just with togs you need to look out for a good seal on the wrist. Shorter gloves and socks (neoprene boots, even) may be easier to dry between swims – winter swimmers invent all sorts of ways to try and get these items dry.
Team members with Raynaud’s Syndrome use these, and dedicated swimmers even have different thicknesses for different seasons.
Frosty ground can sap all heat from your feet before you get in, and taking something to stand on when you change is highly recommended. Used by the team: changing mats, squares of carpet, and wooden bath trays (very useful on muddy grass, as raises you above the ground).
Neoprene caps with chin straps, worn under swim hats for extra warmth, are popular in colder water, as are neoprene head bands to reduce icecream headache. The OSS Cold Water Caps go well over neoprene caps as they don’t suck them off like silicone.
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.
Also new in for 2021 are swim beanies – neoprene beanies which make a sporty alternative to wool and alpaca beanies for winter. ‘These look like normal beanies, so keep your hair out of the water and your head a bit warmer if you are doing head up breaststroke,’ says Kate, ‘but they don’t rule out doing a duck dive. If you don’t feel like you have had a swim till you put your head in, then they’re ideal.’
‘Last year I adopted the Alpkit dulsie long-sleeved costumes to take some of the sting out of winter and increase endurance,’ says Kate, ‘this year I’ve been completely liberated by a 2mm Yulex Long Sleeve Top and big pants. I like having my legs out, am doing much more sight-seeing breaststroke than I used to (as I can stay in longer), and the combination is really no-fuss to put on and drive around in wearing a changing robe.
Yulex is a natural rubber alternative to neoprene, and the Yulex two piece is available from Finisterre (top, £95, and pants, £50). The ALPKIT Dulsie has a thermal panel down the front and also scores points for being an Econyl costume that comes in under £100 – £34.99 in fact.
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, and also 100% Wool Swimmer Blankets.
Top tip: Ambassador Calum Maclean has been known to use flask-warmed mint tea to warm his toes after a swim.
‘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 lake-shore 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.
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.
With the global shortage of neoprene in 2021, it’s worth considering any of these options sooner, rather than later, if you are looking for new winter gear this season.
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). My most used winter suit came from Southern Californian surf brand, Matuse, as it’s thick (4.5mm), made of geoprene (‘ethical’ neoprene), and has been tested in the cold Pacific. It isn’t, however, a fleece-lined, deep winter offering.
Zone 3, Blue Seventy, Huub, Roka, DeBoer and Orca have all brought out winter wetsuits in the last few years. In Winter 2020 Kate tested the Zone3 Thermal Aspire: ‘This is a bit like testing high street jeans with high end ones: I am not wanting for anything in my more economical Silvertip, it’s everything I need’ says Kate, ‘but having tried this £425 top of the range suit (or so I thought till Swimsta found one for over £1000!) I can say it’s an absolutely lovely suit, goes on super easily, snug as a bug, excellent buoyancy and movement. I love swimming in it.’
I was really eager to try out the new gold standard of winter wetsuits from race industry veterans, DeBoer. The Ocean 1.0 arrived in the late Spring, by which point Swiss lakes were already heating up. So, I took it up to the mountains and tried it out in the glacial waters around Zermatt, in view of the Matterhorn.
First off, this is a VERY expensive wetsuit, at over £1000, so my expectations were high. Simply put, it’s excellent. The first wetsuit I’ve tried with no flushing and no sensation of leaks anywhere. Initially hard to put on, and the smooth, speed-orientated neoprene looks like it could damage easily, this is a suit I’d imagine used for serious winter training, especially for the likes of the XTri series (Swissman, Celtman etc) which are typically in colder waters. I would estimate the mountain lake in Zermatt was around 8-10 degrees. My body was perfectly warm with only my hands and feet registering the cold.
The yellow ‘Ocellus’ patches are very visible from a distance. The sensation in the water was amazing as it felt very light and easy to move, yet warm. My only complaint is the collar was quite high at the back and so rubbed noticeably on my neck. It could probably easily be trimmed down carefully at home. If it’s within your budget, this is the supercar of wetsuits.
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 only 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. In early 2021 I discovered, after a 5km swim in February, that you can wear two pairs of gloves, or socks, so long as you’re happy with the expected limitations of movement and heavier hands.
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.
‘Inland swimmer water temperatures spend a long time under 8 degrees (a more common coastal temperature) and I can’t front crawl in that, but I have extended my athletic outdoor season since last year since last year by covering up more of my face,’ says Kate. ‘With the pools shut and the OSS Swim Couch to 5k running last spring I bought a Mares Dive Hood, Mares Dive Mask and Aquasphere snorkel. This leaves just a tiny sliver of my face exposed, and means I can front crawl. I know this is cheating for many people – some ice swimming groups only allow the use of small goggles as larger frames are considered cheating, but I have rosacea and go bright reddy purple for the rest of the day if not for life, so really don’t mind looking a bit over the top on the way in. I added the snorkel so that I didn’t need to turn to breath, which I figured would just be much harder with my neck covered in a hood.’
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. The recent rise in popularity of swimming might need to usher in some new night swimming etiquette: ‘there were so many people in the river on the last full moon we were passing like cars,’ says Kate. ‘People with exposed caving head torches on were burning out other people’s retinas.’ Shining lights around will cut out your night vision, so if you want to be seen without doing that, popping a head torch in a tow float to create a floating lantern is the answer – I used a Black Diamond Headtorch, while Kate chooses the Adventure Light in an OSS Eco Tow Float. ‘It’s important we all find environmentally friendly version of single use glow sticks,’ says Kate. Adventure Light, £14.95, OSS Shop.
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!)