If you enjoy a bit of open water swimming and want to feel more safe in the water, a tow float is a useful piece of kit to consider.
Tow floats are also useful for storing dry gear and valuables, as well as offeing a float to rest and recover on during a swim set.
What is a tow float and what do they do?
A tow float is a floatation device that open water swimmers use to increase their visibility in the water. They are lightweight to keep drag to a minimum and are brightly coloured, normally florescent orange, pink or yellow, to stand out from the water. This should alert your presence to other water users, including boats, and help you attract attention in case of emergency.
Another use of a tow float is as an inflated aid to hold on to in the water, to either use in an emergency or grab hold of to take a much needed breather during a hard workout.
Many floats are now made with a ‘dual chamber’ which splits the inside of the float into sections: one side holds air to create buoyancy, and the other side acts as a handy dry bag for valuables, with extra layers to protect the insides in case of puncture.
Tow floats are often mandatory for ‘skins’ swimmers (those swimming without a buoyant wetsuit), beginners, and children, as they offer that bit more security and peace of mind to a nervous newbie.
Is a tow float the same as a swim buoy?
Tow floats are known as swim buoys and can also be called inflatable dry bags or tow buoys. Wording differs because not all tow floats include the same components.
Some will be your bog-standard floats with a waist rope to attach to the swimmer, and others will include more components like extra dry-bag compartments for stashing valuables as you swim, attachments to hook on straps and use as a backpack on dry land, and an attached safety whistle to attract the attention of those around you in an emergency.
How do you use a tow float?
Simply stuff your valuables in the ‘dry bag’ section of the float, if your float has this feature, and roll up the top to seal. Then attach the float around your waist like a belt, allowing the adjustable leash to trail behind you when swimming.
If the conditions are choppy, you may find that the float bumps against you when in motion, so try and arrange the float to flow away from you with the direction of the wind.
Take a break by wrapping your arms around the float and floating, or use as a kickboard if you don’t want to put your head beneath the water. Tow floats are especially handy for those susceptible to cramp, offering a safe means of rest until the cramp subsides.
Best tow floats for open-water swimming
Want to give tow floats a go? Below we pick some of the top tow floats. Picks are based on a combination of our gear testers’ experience, in-depth research, and analysis of user reviews.
WildPaces Tow Float
This tow float from WildPaces is made for sea, lake and river swimming. The bright orange colour aims to help visibility and the grab handles on each side should make holding on to the float more easy.
Inflate the float through the mouthpiece and a double inner chamber aims to both retain the air and offer waterproof storage for valuables in the 28L capacity, the bag’s closed via a roll-top with buckle that’s designed to be secure and waterproof.
The fabric aims to be waterproof and durable, the adjustible waist strap can also be detached for the bag to be used during other activities as a dry bag.
Lomo Swim Run Rucksack Tow Float
This Lomo tow float doubles up as both a rucksack and a tow float, which is ideal for swim run adventures. Detachable rucksack straps come with the bag, as well as a waist strap for puling the float behind you as you swim.
This set-up should prove ideal for carrying the float with you as you run, as well as transitioning into pulling the float behind you as you swim, with a inner dry-bag chamber for keeping valuables dry.
The rucksack straps are designed with in-built padding for comfort, as well as a chest strap connecting the two across the front.
Dimensions of this Lomo float when inflated are 54cm by 31cm, whcih means it should be plenty big enough to grab hold of for rests when swimming.
Zone3 Tow Float
This 28L tow float is designed with beginners in mind. It has no internal storage, with Zone3 instead focusing on creating a lightweight product that doesn’t get in your way while swimming.
Zone3 Donut Tow Float
Another pick from Zone3 is this donut tow float, which is designed with a handy accessible snack bag for on-the-go refuelling. This’d be a good pick for those doing long-distance swim events where refuelling and re-hydrating while in the water is a must.
The float can be attached to the waist via an adjustible belt and the central dry bag is double lined with the goal to prevent any water seeping in.
HUUB Tow Float
This 16l tow float is designed to increase your visibility and act as a buoyancy aid in case you get into trouble. It’s made from PVC, has an adjustable leash and also has space inside for valuables.
Developed in Ireland by a keen Ironman athlete, Tekra Pod aims to move the swim buoy concept to a higher level by offering more versatility and features.
One key point is that you wear this like a harness with the ‘inflatable’ on your back, out of the way. It’s then operated by a CO2 canister should you need it. Not only does this take away the ‘embarrassment factor’ (which some feel) of using a tow float, but it also means you don’t notice it when swimming, even in choppy water where a tow float would often be irritating or impede your stroke.
Once inflated, the pod releases a three-foot-long yellow float that you can hold onto, pass to someone in trouble, or wave in the air to attract attention. There’s also a whistle, which will undoubtedly help with that last point.
We initially wondered if the lack of every-swim visibility was a pitfall, but TekraSport points out that the benefit of a float only inflated in an emergency is that it’s immediately apparent you need support. The other key benefit is that the Tekra Pod is race legal.
Check out our essential open water swimming kit guide for more advice.
Top image from Unsplash/Susan Flynn