Winter open water swimming: 9 essential pieces of kit for chilly temperatures

If you want to stay swimming into winter, a collection of thermal products is essential. But which are best? Matt Baird and Helen Webster test a selection

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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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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!

BLUESEVENTY THERMAL 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 95%

Buy from www.wiggle.co.uk

ORCA SWIMMING GLOVES

£35

Yes, £35 seems a high price for gloves, but you get what you pay for and, compared to Dhb’s swim glove offering on the facing page, these Orca gloves scream quality. The extra panel on the thumb gives a surprising amount of added dexterity, while the neoprene quality – although also 3mm like Dhb –  and 3D cut just feels more supple and pliable during the swim. The major difference to standard swim gloves is the extended cuff length – also seen on gloves from Blueseventy and Zone3 – which produces more neoprene coverage on the body, and also further limits water escaping up the sleeve. The fully glued and taped seams also enhance protection from the cold, and add durability to an already impressive package. MB www.orca.com

Verdict: a winning creation of warmth and flexibility 84%

Buy from www.milletsports.co.uk

  

ORCA WETSUIT  BASELAYER

£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. MB 

Verdict: Comfy and warm, and good for use on its own 85%

Buy from www.swimoutlet.com

BLUESEVENTY THERMAL SWIM 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. MB

Verdict: Plush and warm. The best swim socks around 92%

Buy from www.cyclesurgery.com

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DHB SWIM CAP

£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. MB 

Verdict: Cheap and durable, but there are techier options 76%

Buy from www.wiggle.co.uk/

ZONE3 NEOPRENE WARMTH 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. MB 

Verdict: Ultra tight but a formidable cold-water option 87%

Buy from www.wiggle.co.uk

HUUB VARME THERMAL BALACLAVA

£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. MB 

Verdict: Cutting-edge design makes this a warm winner 

Buy from www.tredz.co.uk

ZONE3 POLAR FLEECE JACKET

£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. MB racezone.co.uk

Verdict: Not the original but plenty to recommend it 85%

Buy from www.milletsports.co.uk

DHB SWIM 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. MB

Verdict: Warm but just too bulky for cold-water swims 57%

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Buy from www.wiggle.co.uk