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Cold water swim gear: 8 essential to keep you warm and safe

Winter open-water swimming has a wealth of physical and mental benefits, but what kit will keep you warm? Matt Baird tests the latest much-needed kit for chilly waters



  • £750

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

Score: 85%

Thermal wetsuits: 2 of the best for triathlon reviewed


  • £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%



  • £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%



  • £50

We’ve worn the Orca Wetsuit Base Layer under conventional tri wetsuits and also by itself as a single layer with a pair of shorts for warmer sea swims. With 0.5mm underarm panels combined with top-notch Yamamoto 39-cell SCS-coated neoprene, the top is flexible and comfortable on the skin.

Studies on the benefits of a base layer or vest for cold-water are few and far between, but anecdotally the jersey lining gave us the impression of added warmth and the long length and effective gripper on the waist hem keep cold-water intrusion to a minimum.

For truly cold swims, we’d opt for the thicker and tighter Zone3 Neoprene Warmth Vest (£42.50), but this has more versatility and is easier to remove. And it’s certainly a good start before forking out on a thermal wetsuit.

Verdict: Versatile, comfy and a more affordable intro into the world of cold-water kit

Score: 82%



  • £29.99

Huub’s £35 Varme thermal neoprene balaclava is possibly our favourite winter swim (and, yes, fancy dress) product of all time, preventing water ingress around the neck in a straightforward yet innovative way.

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%


  • £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%


  • 34.99

Okay, it doubles as an executioner’s mask, but the innovative Varme Thermal Balaclava is the real deal for swimming in truly cold water. Unlike the trad neoprene swim hat (see Dhb), the Varme sits under a wetsuit to offer full head and neck coverage, preventing any wince-inducing water intrusion down the neck.

Our big concern before swimming was any lack of movement, but these worries proved unfounded and we’ve since experienced plenty of unrestricted, comfortable and chafe-free swimming in the Varme. The quality neoprene adds to the warm package. 

Verdict: Cutting-edge design makes this a warm winner 

Dryrobe Advance Long Sleeve

  • £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%

How to warm your cold body up after open-water swimming