It’s December. The air temperature is 6°C and the water is about 10°C. I’m swimming in the sea under a clear blue sky, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face. Although the cold water stings my legs and arms, being in the sea is bliss. It’s invigorating and afterwards, I grin from ear to ear, feeling serene and a sense of achievement. However, as winter progresses the sea temperature will drop further, being at its coldest in March at around 7°C. Having the right things to wear cold water swimming, both during and after your dip, makes all the difference. Here are my tips on what to wear open water swimming in winter and how to dry and dress quickly after your chilly dip.
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The photos above and below were taken by Jaqueline Rackham and are from the Felpham Dippers’ calendar sold in aid of St Wilfrid’s Hospice. You can read more about it including details on how to buy a copy here, Saucy Sea Swimming Calendar.
What to wear cold water swimming
You are unique, from your experience of swimming in cold water to your body shape and size. You need to find what combination of cold water swimming gear works for you. Please also keep in mind that how the cold affects you can vary greatly from one day to another. Many things, from lack of sleep to feeling under the weather, can all make a difference to how your body reacts to the cold. Read more about the benefits and risks of cold water swimming here and on the OutdoorSwimming Society’s website.
Whatever you wear, at this time of year, never stay in for long, especially if you are new to cold water swimming. I’ve gradually got used to the temperature dropping, swimming 3 or 4 times a week since May. Currently, I only stay in for 5 to 10 minutes. And I never rush to get in.
1. Wetsuit versus swimsuit
Personally, I prefer not to wear a wetsuit and many of my fellow sea swimmers agree. They take a considerable time to take on and off and when it’s chilly the faster you can get warm and dry after your swim, the better. While you may not be able to spend as long in the water, I still prefer getting dressed quickly over spending longer in the sea. Of course, I’ve not as yet swum throughout the winter so I reserve the right to change my mind but having talked it over with many ladies who have swum all year round, most, but by no means all, prefer NOT to wear a wetsuit. My advice though is to see what suits YOU best and go with that.
2. Neoprene or Woolly Hat
You lose more heat through your head than any other part of your body so keeping your head warm makes a huge difference.
I wear a 3 mm neoprene swimming hat in all but the warmest weather here in the UK. I’ve just started wearing a woolly hat over the top of it for extra warmth. Of course, if you are swimming seriously, you’ll be getting your head wet so you might want to try a thicker neoprene hat.
Zone 3 Neoprene hats come in black or orange. Mine’s black but the orange one does make you easier to spot, both by other sea users such as windsurfers or the coast guard should you get into difficulty.
I suffer from Raynauds which mean the blood vessels in my hands (and feet) overreact to any sudden change in temperature so it’s even more important for me to keep my hands warm. I wear 3mm gloves by Rip Curl with a special lining called Flashbomb. They’re not cheap but I found a less expensive pair that I bought, just didn’t do the job. I love them so much, I’m going to get a second pair of slightly thicker ones for the colder weather. Plus I swim so often that they don’t always have the chance to dry out before my next swim.
4. Swimming socks or shoes
I wear swimming shoes all year round, mainly because most of the beaches near me are pebbly and wearing something on my feet is a game-changer.
I have found that swimming shoes are oversized so I buy a size smaller than I normally take. However, at this time of year, I also wear dive socks, with a swimming shoe over the top. A pair of swimming shoes one size larger than I normally wear slips over the socks nicely.
5. Thermal rash vest
While I find a wetsuit is too cumbersome to take on and off quickly a rash vest is easily whipped on and off. I recently found this thermal rash vest from Two Bare Feet. I love it so much I’ve just bought a second one, as a spare for when the other is still drying or to put on after my swim.
6. Swimming leggings
I hate my legs so I started wearing swimming leggings earlier in the year but I’m really feeling the benefit of them now it’s colder. While they only offer a little extra warmth, unlike a wetsuit, they are very quick to take on and off.
7. A tow float
Ideally, a tow float should be worn any time of year. If you are not familiar with them, they are a brightly coloured floating device that helps you to be seen by other sea users or the coastguard. Some also come with a dry bag for storing anything from your keys to all your clothes depending on the size. Ones with a light and a whistle are better still. Please note these are not intended to be used as buoyancy aids.
8. A winter changing robe
I wear a waterproof changing robe with a fleece lining down to the beach to make sure I’m nice and warm before I get into the water. More importantly, though, I really couldn’t manage without it for when I get out.
Some people prefer one with a full zip but I like this one from Gorilla Robes which I pull over my head so I don’t have to worry about faffing around with the zip with cold hands. Importantly, It’s waterproof and windproof and fleece-lined so it feels lovely and cosy. Remarkably, even after I’ve put it on over my wet swimming things and used it to rub myself dry, the fleece lining never feels wet. Not all robes can claim this.
Above: Me in my Gorilla changing robe and Holly waterproof boots. I’m only five foot one so the large size robe is quite long on me but it gives me plenty of room for changing under the robe. I actually like the long length to keep my legs warm and I simply turn the cuffs up on the sleeves.
How to get warm after cold water swimming
The first thing I do when I get out of the water is whip off my rash vest and pop my changing robe on. At this time of year, you want to lay all your things out ready before you go into the water so that you can get warm and dry as quickly as possible after you get out.
I also find a lightweight camping chair speeds things up. At my age, getting up and down off the floor takes too long! Being able to easily sit down and stand up again while changing out of your wet things makes a huge difference. This one has handy carrying handles and I’ve found it very stable on pebbly beaches.
I’m sure you’ll develop your own routine but here’s a summary of mine:
- Remove wetsuit or rash vest
- Put on a waterproof and windproof changing robe
- Take off swimming gloves (see also below)
- Take off swimming hat and immediately replace it with a dry thick woolly hat
- Take off swimsuit from under robe
- Take off swimming shoes/socks
- Wrap a towel warmed around a hot water bottle around feet (it also gives you something to stand on so that your feet aren’t touching the cold pebbles etc)
- Dry feet and pop thick socks on
- Dry body
- Pull on loose trousers
- Put on a vest top (a vest is easy to step into and pull up when you are still wearing your robe)
- Put on easy to slip on warm boots (I love my waterproof boots by Holly)
- Take off your changing robe and put on a warm top/s
- Put your changing robe back on
- Drink a hot drink
Having something to eat afterwards always goes down well. We sometimes cook breakfast on the beach on a camping stove. Hot dogs work well too! It’s worth noting that propane gas canisters work better than butane gas in colder weather.
Warming your hands up after coldwater swimming
When it’s really cold, I also replace my swimming gloves with thin gloves while I’m drying and then replace these with warmer gloves once all my wet things are off. For Christmas, I treated myself to this electric hot water bottle which has a pouch you can pop your hands into. Bliss!
Avoiding after drop
You carry on losing heat for at least 30 minutes after you get out of the water. If you don’t get dry quickly and then wear plenty of warm layers to help your core temperature return to normal you can suffer from after drop. This is when your core carries on cooling down and it’s very hard to get warm again for hours. Always take more layers to put on than you think you’ll need. And don’t stay in the water for too long. Just a few minutes in the water when you start cold water swimming is plenty long enough.
You can read more about the risks of cold water swimming here.
Join your local cold water swimming group
The top tip I can think of to give any of you thinking about trying sea or lake swimming this winter is to join your local swimming group. I swim with the Bluetits of Bognor and there are groups of Blueuetit Chill Swimmers all over the UK and beyond. In our group it’s more about getting in the water and chatting than actually swimming but there aresome serious swimmers too. You’ll find a list of wild swimming groups in the UK here. Find your tribe and you’ll never look back.
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