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Cold water swimming gear: essential kit to keep you warm and safe

If you’re feeling brave enough, a dip outdoors can provide myriad performance benefits. But first, you need the right kit to keep you warm, safe and buoyant…

best-cold-water-swim-kit

We’ll happily admit that Lewis Pugh, the man who swims around Antarctica wearing just Speedos, is a tougher character than us. For as soon as October starts, we demand an open-water swim outfit that will keep us warm and prevent chilly water intrusion. 

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Thankfully, from thermal wetsuits to base layers and balaclavas, there’s now a huge range of accessories to keep swimming as pleasurable as possible into the winter and beyond.

Because, frankly, from the sea to reclaimed quarries and mountainside lakes, cold-water swimming provides an exhilarating surge of adrenaline, and much-needed variation to your training once the UK triathlon season has wrapped up. You’ll also emerge a stronger and mentally tougher open-water swimmer by the time the new season starts.

Best swim kit for cold water 

As always, safety is a key consideration when it comes to open-water swimming, especially in the winter where visibility and staying warm are crucial. So take someone with you, don’t overdo it and ensure you kit out properly, both during the swim and afterwards.

For us, fit is key to limit water intrusion and for comfort, so aim to try before you buy or exhaustively analyse the sizing charts. As it’s not used for extended periods of time, our cold-water kit has lasted multiple seasons so try not to skimp on spending a quid or two here and there.

Look to cover all of your extremities but aim to find kit that keeps you as flexible as possible. And don’t care if the kit makes you look like a nutter; you’ll get some odd looks swimming in the British sea in November anyway, so embrace it!

Here we’ve got all you need to keep toasty and safe during your cold water swimming jaunts, including thermal wetsuits, baselayers, gloves, hats and extra layers. Here’s our top picks…

Best thermal wetsuits for cold water swimming 

Blueseventy Thermal Reaction Wetsuit 

b70 thermal
  • £519

We’ve had a thermal version of the iconic Helix for a few winters now, but this year saw the launch of the Reaction model into the winter market. Featuring a fuzzy orange zirconium thermal layer inside, the suit definitely felt warmer than our normal race wetsuit after a sudden drop in water temperature to 13°C during our test period.

The suit retains a lot of its flexibility and fit was superb, with no water ingress. It did feel a little ‘heavier’ overall, but the 4-5-4 buoyancy profile kept us high in the water and our swim times stayed much the same as usual.

Verdict: Might be a considered spend, but adds real warmth!

Score: 90% 

Blueseventy Thermal Helix Wetsuit

b70 helix
  • £545

Every so often, a piece of kit comes along that makes a genuine difference to our training or racing. For us, over the last year, it’s been the thermal version of Blueseventy’s popular Helix suit.

Thanks to poor circulation, we struggle badly with the cold. Adding neoprene gloves and boots helps, but the Thermal Helix has been a godsend and has meant we could swim in colder waters – and for longer – than in previous years. The zirconium lining adds warmth and limits cold water getting in, but not at the expense of flexibility, which is still superb.

The wetsuit has performed well and is showing no signs of wear and for £50 more than the ‘normal’ Helix, isn’t badly priced for the amount of extra swim time it bought us. HW

Verdict: A genuine must-have for chilly swims and colder triathlon training into the off-season

Score: 95%

Roka Maverick Pro Thermal Wetsuit

roka wetauit
  • From £350

Thermal tri-specific wetsuits are growing in number, with the key models so far coming from Blueseventy (the £600 Helix and £495 Reaction) and Huub, with their Aegis II (£299). The Maverick Pro is noticeably different as internally it looks like a conventional wetsuit, lacking the thermo liners made of fuzzy zirconium or polyester of those options.

So where’s the warmth coming from? An increased neoprene thickness in the chest and arms. So, why not just buy a cheaper, thicker wetsuit if you want added thickness? Because Roka have increased the neoprene wall thickness of the suit, yet while somehow retaining the upper-body flexibility.

The U.S. brand pitch it for temp ranges around 5°C lower than a regular wetsuit, with anything under 18°C in that temp range. We’ve tested it during 2019, starting with 3°C Avon Channel ventures in February to the bracing Loch Ness and Loch Morlich of the Aviemore Tri this summer.

As sinky-leg swimmers, we enjoyed the added (yet even) buoyancy, but it’s something top-draw natural swimmers may find overkill. What all swimmers will appreciate is Roka’s patented ‘Arms-Up’ tech, which has some of the best upper-body flexibility of all the one-piece wetsuits on the market, and the impressive lack of water ingress. Our core, fundamental for temp regulation, remained warm despite that lack of psych-boosting zirconium displayed in the Blueseventy.

Those who struggle in the cold could feasibly use this suit year-round, but the remainder of you will need to assess whether it warrants the significant outlay in addition to your summer wetsuit.

Verdict: A sky-high price, but this has become our thermal wetsuit off-season pick

Best neoprene gloves for cold water swimming 

Orca Swim Gloves

orca gloves
(Credit: Orca)
  • £39

While many other gloves on the market are made of 3mm neoprene, these are 2mm thick. That may sacrifice a little bit of warmth but it helps with dexterity. In practice, it was easy to use our Garmin, adjust our goggles, or pull on our swim cap, and the warmth on offer was more than adequate in our off-season test swims.

Meanwhile, the long cuff length adds extra warmth, and the liquid seams did a fine job of stopping water ingress. If we had a slight criticism, it’s that the cuffs can fold over on themselves, but this never led to any extra flushing of water.

Verdict: Warm gloves with impressive dexterity

Score: 90% 

DHB Swim Gloves

dhb gloves
  • £16

We’re usually big fans of Dhb’s unfussy approach to producing functional and affordable multisport kit, but we became really unstuck with the Swim Gloves from Wiggle’s in-house brand.
While the Orca gloves here were nimble due to an extra thumb panel in the construction, the 3mm Dhb’s remained cumbersome throughout and we were all too conscious of having what felt like paddles on our hands for the entirety of our open-water swims.

Which is a shame, as there are plenty of neat additions here to go with the welcome £16 price tag, including non-slip palm prints for climbing onto pontoons or jetties, hi-visibility spots and a tab for easy removal. And you could never accuse them of not being warm.

Verdict: Warm but just too bulky for cold-water swims

Score: 57%

Zone3 Heat-Tech Warmth Gloves 

z3 gloves
  • £35

Neoprene gloves can be hit and miss, with overly thin versions (see Blueseventy’s Thermal Swim Gloves), bulky and cumbersome creations (hello, the Dhb Swim Gloves) and some just brilliant (the Orca Swim Gloves).

Thankfully, the Heat-Tech mitts from Zone3 land in the latter hit category, proving some of the warmest we’ve worn and yet, crucially, still retaining a semblance of dexterity in the water. Highland water ingress was minimal, thanks to the Velcro closure system and a ‘liquid seal’ finish that beads liquid on the surface.

Further heat-enhancing properties include an internal titanium lining and a 3.5mm thickness that, although thicker than standard gloves, still felt stretchy during both the catch and pull.

Verdict: Some of the warmest neoprene swim gloves around, and impressively supple too

Score: 91%

Best neoprene socks for cold water swimming 

Zone3 Neoprene Socks 

(Credit: Zone3)
(Credit: Zone3)
  • £29

With the temperature dropping, hands and feet are starting to feel it the most, so covering them will definitely improve thermal comfort and help you enjoy your swim more. These socks with a longer length, close fit and Velcro strap aim to fit closely and avoid filling with water.

During our test swims they definitely did that and we liked the fit around the foot which was snug yet flexible. The tightness of the socks on the calf was another matter, though, as even without the Velcro strap they were uncomfortably tight. So unless you’re very slim of leg, these may not be the best option out there.

Verdict: Warm and snug, but far too tight on the calf muscles 

Score: 70% 

Blueseventy Thermal Swim Socks 

b70 socks
  • £30

The Thermal Swim Socks from Blueseventy use the same soft, water-preventing zirconium liner as their winning Thermal Helix wetsuit, and these socks are also hard to fault for warmth and comfort.

They include ankle grippers instead of a Velcro strap to stay in place (we’d prefer the latter), but the textured feet are a masterstroke for running on pebbles or rocks (or to transition if they’re legal in your race) and the multiple panels ensure they don’t feel cumbersome or bulky. The longer ankle length is successful in preventing water intrusion, while the flat-locked internal seams prevented any rubbing.

Verdict: Plush and warm. The best swim socks around

Score: 92%

Huub Neoprene Swim Socks

huub socks
  • £29.99

These neoprene swim socks from Huub keep the innovations coming with a split-toe design to keep the socks in place and prevent them rolling around the foot. While they achieve that, we just found the fitting odd and uncomfortable around/between the toes, and we were always conscious that we were wearing the boots (trying before you buy is key).

Elsewhere, the construction is top quality, the 3mm non-slip soles gave plenty of protection from the rocks on the shores of Loch Ness and the Velcro closures produce a secure fit.

Verdict: Well-crafted and warm but we’re not sold on the split-toe design

Score: 75%

Best swim caps for cold water swimming 

HUUB Varme Thermal Balaclava

huub varme
  • £39.99

Yes, your swim buddies will laugh – that is until you have a much toastier swim than they do. The genius of the Huub thermal balaclava is that not only does it tuck under your wetsuit to stop icy trickles down your neck, but it also covers up the sensitive blood vessels and arteries in your neck that are extremely sensitive to the cold.

We added a brightly-coloured swim hat on top for visibility and found once we got used to it, the balaclava worked superbly. It does make your head a little more buoyant though, so keep an eye on your overall position in the water.

Verdict: Once you get over the look, this is great for cold swims

Score: 90% 

DHB Swim Cap

dhb hat
  • £15

Yes, you’ll be mocked by your non-triathlete friends whenever you wear the chinstrap swim cap, but it’s a vital kit addition for the UK’s open-water shoulder season of late April and May, October and early November (for anything colder we’ll definitely be using the Huub Balaclava).

Bar the logos, the Dhb is identical to the Blueseventy swim cap we’ve used for years… only it comes in a tenner cheaper. The 3mm neoprene kept our head warm and the silver print across the top is a smart touch for added visibility in the water.

We personally had no problems with the fit, but a chinstrap with a Velcro fastener (Orca, Zone3 and Huub do one) for just a few quid more will
ensure you find the best fit. 

Verdict: Cheap and durable, but there are techier options

Score: 76%

Zone3 Neoprene Swim Cap

z3 hat
  • £25

Zone3 have updated the classic chinstrap neoprene hat here with a Velcro strap to help find and secure the best possible fit – a simple but effective solution that reduces any tightness under the chin.

They’ve also added some hi-viz colour for more visibility, which was certainly welcome when we were sharing the southern tip of Loch Ness with a speedboat or two.

What the cap doesn’t do (and this is a criticism of 99% of neoprene hats, not just the Zone3 seen here) is warm the carotid arteries on the neck, which are a major source of heat loss when exposed to cold water.

That means we’ll be using this for early summer and autumn swimming, but sticking to our £35 Huub Varme balaclava (which covers the whole neck) for the truly- bracing stuff.

Verdict: Neat variation on the classic skull cap for autumn and spring swimming

Score: 83%

Best changing robes for cold water swimming

Sundried Changing Robe

(Credit: Sundried)
(Credit: Sundried)
  • £130

Though it sits at the more expensive end for a good quality changing robe, this pick from Sundried comes with many features. First off, the fleece-lined inner is soft and comfy but also dries incredibly well, while the outer shell protects against wind and light showers.

We also liked the useful zipped pockets, though must admit that the two-way zip wasn’t the easiest in use. For a swim-focussed product, we’d also like to see more eco materials used.

Verdict: Nice robe, but points lost for zip and eco credentials

Score: 85% 

Zone3 Polar Fleece Parka Jacket 

zone3robe
  • £70

Comfy, warm and practical, the original Dryrobe was launched in 2010 and quickly became an essential garment for open-water swimmers around the UK, including the Brownlee brothers. We’ve reviewed the Dryrobe glowingly in the past, so how does this similar product from Zone3 fare?

For a start, it’s £40 cheaper and, due to a thinner fleece lining, packs smaller than a Dryrobe (our only complaints of the original). Yet there are plenty of great features, with two internal pockets (one zipped and with a MP3-entry) and two outer for keeping the hands warm. We had a little trouble with the double zip with shivery hands but the five sizes (compared to Dryrobe’s three) is a massive plus and we love the long sleeves.

Verdict: Not the original but plenty to recommend it

Score: 85%

Dryrobe Advance Long Sleeve

dry robe
  • £140

Hoover, Play-Doh, Pot Noodle… Not just some of our fun weekend picks but brands which, like Dryrobe, dominate a sector so much they become a generic term for a product. And, as the much-imitated, never-bettered originator of the swim robe, Dryrobe deserve the honour.

The Advance LS comes in 11 colour variations, the light blue one of our last picks due to the chances of it showing mud or bike grease stains from the car boot. Features include three zippy pockets for valuables, headphone guides and the plush liner for keeping you dry and warm. And, of course, the ability to pull your hands inside to get changed.

Worth noting is that your core temp can continue to drop for 30-45mins after exiting cold water, so keep your Dryrobe on for a decent period after swimming.

Verdict: Not the cheapest, but still the best cold-water swimming robe around

Score: 88%

Best baselayers for cold water swimming

Lomo Neoprene Swim Vest 

(Credit: Lomo)
(Credit: Lomo)
  • £25

If you’re looking to add warmth to your wetsuit in the offseason, a neoprene base layer is a good option. At just £25, this swim vest from Lomo represents fantastic value. It’s made from a mix of 3mm neoprene (90%) and nylon (10%), offering a noticeable boost in warmth without being too restrictive.

The sleeveless cut helps ensure a good range of movement, but the seams around the shoulder cut in a little, causing some minor discomfort. Flatlock seams provided comfort elsewhere, though, and overall was a very cost-effective and safe way to extend your openwater season.

Orca Wetsuit Baselayer 

orca layer
  • £49

Of all of the garments on this spread, the Orca Wetsuit Baselayer is the one we’ve easily gotten the most use out of. We’re worn it under wetsuits and also by itself as a single layer with a pair of shorts or jammers for warmer sea swims. With 0.5mm underarm panels combined with top-notch Yamamoto 39 cell SCS-coated neoprene, the top is hugely flexible, comfortable and soft on the skin.

In terms of warmth, the jersey lining keeps things warm, and the long length and effective gripper on the waist hem keep water intrusion to a minimum. For truly cold swims, we’d opt for the thicker and tighter Zone3 Neoprene Warmth Vest, but this has more versatility and is a damn sight easier to remove.  

Verdict: Comfy and warm, and good for use on its own

Score: 85%

 

Zone3 Neoprene Warmth Vest

z3 vest
  • £42.50

Zone3 warned us that the Neoprene Warmth Vest was hard to get off, and they weren’t wrong: it took three people to wrestle this off us at the Long Course Weekend. Yet this is a fantastic contender for cold-water swims, sitting tight to the body (aim to try before you buy if possible) but staying warm and unrestrictive for extended swims.

The high neck helps prevent wetsuit zip rub and, for 40-quid plus, you’re getting a titanium-coating to help maintain the body’s warmth. Like the Orca, this doubles as a 2mm single layer for warmer swims and also adds some buoyancy for pool sets.  

Verdict: Ultra tight but a formidable cold-water option

Score: 87%

Best accessories for open water swimming

Restube Tow Float

(Credit: Restube)
(Credit: Restube)
  • £79.95

Working on a 16g C02 cartridge, the Restube works by inflating a long inner yellow tube after you pull the ‘trigger’. Working in mere seconds (handily!) it gives you a buoyancy aid to hold on to, pass to a friend in trouble or wave to attract attention.

Although you don’t get the constant visibility a traditional tow float offers, we liked how unobtrusive this was and, especially in winter, we can sometimes find that in windy or choppy water a tow float that floats behind you can bob around too much and impede your swim. Which type you choose is down to your personal preference, but if you want an inflate-if-you-needto option, then this is recommended. A whistle adds an extra safety feature in an emergency.

Verdict: Clever tow float for emergency use, if a little pricey 

Score: 85% 

Submerged Waterproof Wallet

submerged
 

  • £40

Finding a place to keep car keys, cash or a credit card while swimming outdoors isn’t always easy, but the Submerged Waterproof Wallet aims to change that. It’s made from a waterproof TPU, uses an airtight YKK zip and is said to be submersible to three metres.

We didn’t test it that far, but we had no issues using it while swimming or submersing it fully. The double Velcro strap was secure and the pouch offered plenty of space. A tow float with a dry bag compartment is a cheaper option, but if you don’t like using one then this is a great alternative.

Verdict: A brilliant product if you want to splash the cash

Score: 90%

Buy from submergewallets.com 

Swim Secure Tow Donut 

swim secure
  • £26

Okay, it doesn’t do a great job of keeping you warm and isn’t consigned just to winter swims. Yet the Donut from aquatic-accessory specialists Swim Secure has plenty of off-season high-visibility appeal for low-level light conditions.

The Donut takes the common tow float to another level by offering a small, integrated dry bag ideal for carrying valuables such as keys and a phone – perfect if you’re swimming on a beach or your local open-water venue has yet to install lockers. Swim Secure recommend their £5 Phone Bag for added waterproofing and, although we’ve experienced no leaks as yet, we’d go along with that, even if it’s just for peace of mind.

The Tow Donut secures around the waist via a leash and the overall lean weight ensures that it doesn’t obstruct your swim.

Verdict: Another neat variation on a standard swimming product

Score: 84%

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