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What to wear open water swimming: your essential kit guide

Find out the seven most important pieces of kit for a safe and successful open water swimming trip, and what you should be aware of when you're out on the open water.

What to wear open water swimming Getty Images

Open water swimming has rocketed in popularity over the past year, largely due to lockdowns, which have meant we’ve had to explore our own back yards more than ever. Though a great excuse to get your adventure thrills in, open water exploration comes with a caveat. If it’s not done properly it can be very dangerous. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of essential kit to help keep you safe while having fun in the water.

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What should I wear for open water swimming?

1. Tri suit or swimming costume 

Firstly, you’ll want a hydrophobic base layer to wear under your wetsuit. You can choose between a swimming costume, jammers, or a tri suit if you’re planing to jump on the bike to warm up afterwards. Make sure this layer is comfortable and is easy to take off quickly with numb, post-dip fingers.

  • We like the look of this Maru women’s swimsuit from Amazon, from £31.85
  • Check out these dhb Blok Jammers from Wiggle, for £11.25
  • Try out the Sundried Pro Aero tri suit from Amazon for just £84.00
  • We also like compressive qualities and overall feel of the 2XU Compression Full Zip Sleeved Trisuit, available from Sports Shoes for £135.99

For more tri suit reviews and tips, check out our gear section.

2. Wetsuit

If you’re swimming in waters below 16°C, then you’ll want to invest in a decent wetsuit to keep you toasty and in the water for longer (British Triathlon recommend wetsuit use for temperatures up to 22°C). Look for suits with a minimum thickness of 3mm neoprene.

Some suits have thicker panels on areas like the core and legs, which are designed to lift up the legs and help save energy during a triathlon. Meanwhile, thinner material around the shoulders and arms allow for full range of movement during your arm stroke.

Newcomers to the sport are often surprised by the price of triathlon wetsuits, which tend to range from £100-£1,000, but we do recommend you invest in a good quality suit – you’ll thank yourself later when it comes to winter training!

  • Try out the Aqua Sphere Phantom V3 from Wiggle  with its core power system and panels to aid with swim posture and buoyancy, for £618.50
  • For a mid-range option, we like the Sailfish Ignite from Wiggle (we recommend you size down as this runs large), for £270
  • For an entry-level option, dhb has a range of suits including the Hydron 2.0 from Wiggle for £120 (read our Hydron 2.0 review)

For more of our wetsuit reviews and tips, check out our gear section.

3. Cold water gloves, socks and neoprene hat

These items can be complete game changers in your open water swimming journey, allowing you to stay in the water for longer and (hopefully) maintain feeling in your extremities. Most important of the three is the neoprene hat, or hood, which helps to prevent heat loss from the head and, importantly, from the forehead.

  • We like this dhb Hydron Swim Cap 2.0 for good head coverage, which you can get from Wiggle from £25.00
  • Take a look at the HUUB Varne Thermal for an innovative swim balaclava from HUUB, also available from Wiggle for £34.99

Neoprene socks or booties and gloves are also a huge help in preventing painful, numb fingers, and for keeping you going in the water for longer. A must for anyone planning to swim longer than a short paddle.

  • Check out the HUUB thermal gloves from Wiggle, for £29.99
  • Try out the Zone 3 Neoprene Heat-Tech socks from Wiggle, for £38.99

For more budget options, check out our socks, hats, and gloves suggestions

4. Goggles

Getting the right pair of goggles can be a rigmarole, but there are a few top functions to look out for are that make up a reliable pair. Firstly, look for a pair that don’t mist up while swimming (anti-fog properties), as you need to be able to sight a buoy and aim for the finish line. It’s also important that they have the capacity to be tightened and adjusted according to your head size. Along with a stabilising nose bridge and reliable suction on the gaskets, this should prevent water leaking in mid-swim.

UV tinted lenses, polarised lenses, or photochromatic lenses will protect your corneas and help aid your sighting abilities. A curved lens will widen your field of vision, so look out for this common feature in open water-specific goggles.

  • Try out the Aqua Sphere Kayenne goggles from Wiggle, for £36.99
  • We like the look of the mirrored lens in the HUUB Vision goggles, available from Sports Shoes for £31.49 
  • Another option is the Zone 3 Vapour with polarised Revo lens from Sports Shoes, currently for £31.49
  • Here’s our review of the 10 best open water swimming goggles 

For more goggles reviews and tips, check out our gear section.

5. Multisport watch

A good GPS watch can be handy when open water swim training as, without lanes and laps to count your distance, you’ll struggle to stick to a training plan or distance goal. There are a lot of options on the market, but a good multisport watch will provide GPS, heart rate and even swim stroke analysis data. Though some are happy to swim without tracking distance, we recommend you get yourself a watch to aid your training and keep you moving towards your goals.

  • We like the look of the Coros Pace 2, which is claimed to have a decent battery life and all the features you need for a neat £179.99 from Amazon
  • Try out the Wahoo Elemnt Rival with touchless transition tracking from Wiggle for £349.99
  • The Polar Vantage V2 also looks like a good option, with the key metrics and a range of functional fitness testing. Get it from RunnerInn for £373.99. Alternatively, check out the newer Vantage M2 at Wiggle for £269.00
  • You can’t go wrong with the Garmin Forerunner 945, a firm favourite of ours, and the most complete tri watch we’ve used to date (read our review here). It’s a solid investment and is available from Wiggle for £325.00

For more multisport watch reviews and tips, check out our gear section.

6. Tow float

Ever spotted other swimmers bobbing along with a florescent float and wondered what the deal was? Tow floats are a huge help in increasing visibility of a swimmer and in alerting their presence to other water users like boats. They can also provide respite for a tired swimmer, or those in danger, as you can hold onto it and it will keep you afloat.

If swimming alone in the open water (which we don’t recommend), then it’s essential you have a device such as this to help you in an emergency. Often, tow floats will double up as dry bags, so you can stuff your valuables in it to keep them safe, you can also get tow floats with built-in hydration and snack pockets.

  • This HUUB tow float doubles up as a dry bag and will keep you visible, from Sports Shoes for £26.99
  • Check out this Zone 3 tow float from Wiggle for £25.00
  • We like the look of this WildPaces tow float, which has attachable straps so it can be worn as a backpack if desired, from Amazon for £26.99
  • This donut-shaped Zone 3 tow float is designed to provide accessibility to snacks and water while swimming, from Wiggle for £29.50

7. Dry robe

For ultimate convenience and comfort, and if you’re planning on doing a lot of outside swimming, a dry robe is a useful piece of kit that keeps you both dry and warm while you get changed. Simply zip up this knee-length coat and let the soft inner lining start drying you while you use the generous space inside (they’re made to be roomy) to modestly change out of your wet kit. Dry robes have soared in popularity in recent times and the waterproof outer material makes them handy as general cold weather coats, as well as swim changing aids.

  • Newly released, we like the feel of the Robierobes Dry-Series Recycled Long Sleeve Changing Robe, get yours for £129.99
  • We like the Red Original robe, check out our review to learn why
  • Here’s a list of four of the best dry robes that we’ve tried and tested for you
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Top image from Getty Images