To experience open water swimming, you could just throw on your swimmers, throw off your inhibitions and charge into your local lake. But it’s a lot safer and more comfortable if you first invest in a few open water swimming accessories first.
From a buoyant wetsuit and a handy tow float, to neoprene hats and tinted goggles, we’ve picked out the best and most important equipment you need to get started on your open-water journey.
And it's a journey worth taking, as open water swimming is a great cross-training activity for runners. It's low-impact, works the aerobic system and, according to a recent study, may even ward off dementia.
A note on wetsuits before we begin. These are mandatory in most open water swimming centres when the water is below 16 degrees. The sizing can be complicated, with the fit often differing between brands. Remember, wetsuit sizes are usually determined by your weight, rather than your height, so make sure you know how much you weigh before. Check the brand’s sizing guide and remember that while even a well-fitted wetsuit is quite restrictive on land, it will feel like a second skin when you’re in the water.
It’s best to roll your suit up your body, rather than tug it on like a pair of jeans. To protect the material – which is prone to snagging – try wearing a pair of socks and gloves. Once you’re zipped in, you should be able to do 10 arm windmills without too much trouble.
Many brands offer a hiring service, from a month to an entire season, although if you take up swimming long term, it’s more cost-effective to invest in your own.
Orca Openwater RS1, £309
The new Openwater SW wetsuit is a top-of-the-range item for those who are ready to make a serious commitment to their open water swimming.
It features Emerid, a universal identification system using NFC/Contactless technology that instantly provides the athlete's information in the event of an accident or emergency.
In addition, the wetsuit features a Restube Ready connector so you can attach the Restube buoy without a belt, which is designed to keep it stable, preventing wear to your wetsuit.
The high-visibility colourway is designed to make the wearer more visible to other swimmers and boats, while there's a welcome flexibility in the arms and shoulders.
2XU P:1 Propel Wetsuit, £215
From Australian brand 2XU, the P:1 Propel is a durable, comfortable and buoyant suit that is at home in the sea as it is in a reservoir. Its 3:5 buoyancy mix (3mm on the chest, 5mm on the legs) and soft, flexible panelled neoprene help you glide through the water at speed. It’s available in size XS-XL, and it comes with a two-year warranty. Helpfully, the suit comes with a pair of gloves, which prevent nails damaging the fabric.
Dryrobe Advance Long Sleeve, £130-£140
Yes, you will look like a football manager in a giant’s coat, but you won’t care when you’re standing on the shore, toasty and cosseted. Dryrobes have become ubiquitous at triathlon and open water swimming events and for good reason: these quick-drying, waterproof and windproof coats are lined with lambswool, meaning you can stand in howling winds after a swim and still feel warm. The zipped pockets are deep, fleece-lined and waterproof, and the whole thing only weighs 1.3kg and can be packed down into a small bag. There are several colours, plus a short-sleeve version.
Orca Swim Hat, £29
Many OWS centres will give you a brightly coloured hat to help staff spot you in the water, but it’s worth applying that same safety measure to yourself wherever you swim. During warmer months, a standard swimming cap in a neon shade will be enough, but for cold weather, you should invest in Orca’s 2.5mm 100 per cent neoprene swim hat. The hat is fitted with a handy velcro strap, which offers a comfy, adjustable fit. The curved edges drop down to cover your ears while giving enough clearance on the neck to stop it catching on your wetsuit.
Speedo Ear Plugs, £5.99
If you’re prone to ear infections, or just hate the feeling of water in your ears, then a pair of ear plugs could help. Speedo’s ear plugs are comfortable and fit snugly while also allowing sound to transmit. They also come with a two-year guarantee. Alternatively, Swim Seal, a tea tree-oil solution, will help create a waterproof barrier in the ear canal.
Huub Altair Swimming Goggles, £45
Three goggles in one! Huub has solved the lens conundrum by supplying three interchangeable mirrored lenses – yellow for lowlight, silver for pool or early morning swims, black for strong sunlight and bright days. Prescription lenses are also available. Supplied with three nose bridges for a perfect fit. Initially a little bit fiddly to get the bridges and lenses in, but the soft silicone seal is very comfy once you have the goggles on. Comes in a hard case for protection and so you don’t misplace the lenses.
Zone 3 Neoprene Gloves, £21.99
When you’re cracking the ice on a December morning, gloves will come in useful. Zone3 is highly regarded for its OWS kit (top tip: its wetsuits are available to hire for a season). Its 2mm Neoprene long-sleeve gloves come in five sizes and have velcro straps that give a tight fit and prevent water getting in.
Zone3 Neoprene Socks, £23
Complementing the gloves above, Zone3’s Neoprene socks have a similar design: long on the ankles, a velcro strap and a snug fit that is watertight but also surprisingly easy to remove. We prefer to put these on first and then the wetsuit for an extra water seal.
Nabaiji 100 Swim Buoy, £19.99
A tow float, or swim buoy as it’s also known, is essential if you’re sharing your open water with boats, kayakers and jet-skiers. The light, bright floats tie to your waist and trail behind you, allowing others to spot you easily and, if necessary, you can use it to float while you rest. This one, from Nabaiji, is excellent value. It comes with an outer pocket, a whistle and a two-year guarantee.
Garmin Forerunner 945, £439
Taking your swimming seriously? Then you will want to invest in a watch to track your training and performance. Garmin has a range of multi-sport watches but for a reliable, all-rounder you can’t beat its Forerunner 945. Made with triathletes in mind, it has activity profiles for running, cycling and swimming, open water swimming, stair stepper and many, many more. It also boasts 10 hours of battery life in GPS mode, which should cover all your open-water needs, unless you're planning to swim the English Channel.
Speedo Tech Hand Paddle, £19
Hand paddles are a great way of giving your upper-body and even harder workout as they will increase the amount of water you can pull each stroke. The upside is you'll go faster; the downside is your shoulders will soon get tired if you're new to this. Either way, they're a great training aid, and these ones from Speedo are a fine place to start.
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