Understanding Tow Floats

Photo: The Wild Swimming Brothers

Tow floats can be a great safety device for open water swimmers by improving visibility to others and buoyant support should swimmers need to rest or require assistance. We look at where this inflatable, brightly coloured, equipment can assist or hinder the wild swimmer.


Tow floats are capable of carrying personal belongings. On point to point swims, or in an area where a swimmer does not want to leave their possessions ashore, being able to keep your things safe and dry while you swim is undoubtedly useful.

A roll top dry bag attached to a surf leash also met the brief for transporting kit. However, should you be packing for a wild swim?

© Steve Ashworth


The safety claims of manufacturers and distributors focus on visibility as the primary safety benefit. A tow float is much larger than a swimmer’s head and that, coupled with the bright colour, makes a swimmer more visible to either a spotter, or any boat traffic in the area. Emergency services have confirmed that locating a casualty is easier.

Does a brightly coloured device spoil the enjoyment of the natural environment they want to swim in?

There is a belief that tow floats as a visual aid relies on boaters being familiar with them, and not mistaking them for buoys, or being induced to come closer, curious about what is in the water.  The other point to consider is a spotter could focus on the tow float rather than the actual swimmer and could result in missed signs of struggle.

Tow float manufacturers highlight the fact that they are sold as bags, not bouyancy aids, and have not gone through any safety tests.

Those who value tow floats, however, clearly see some benefits to the buoyant nature of the float. Swimmers have used them if they experience pain or need to rest they can use them as a support.

The concern with using a tow float in these cases is that they can hinder swimmers and accelerate the onset of hypothermia due to the decreasing body temperature from the inactivity.

In a sea survival situation floating on your back is recommended as this also helps to minimise heat loss to the water, holding onto a towfloat can result in the swimmer being in a vertical position.



Some organised events require all swimmers to wear a tow float. Safety teams have commented that if a swimmer sinks the chances of drowning are increased as a recovery takes longer to effect.

Wetsuits keep an unconscious swimmer afloat, which aids prompt recovery without a tow float, however non-wetsuit swimmers do not have this advantage.

There are few situations where it can be confirmed that using a tow float has proven to be a positive outcome and as said previously they are not tested or sold as safety devices.


Many swimmers who value tow floats report that the device increases their confidence when they swim in open water whereas many fear that this could cause swimmers to have misplaced judgement and get into difficulties.

In conclusion, swimming is an individual pastime which should be enjoyed and feel comfortable in their environment. The responsibility to ensure that they acquire the knowledge and experience as well assessing risks is solely down to the swimmer and if they feel a tow float is beneficial for them.

Steve Ashworth