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Open water swimming gear – the must-have essentials to start swimming in open water

Find out what gear you need to start open water swimming, with our gear guide from top level Masters swimmer, Helen Gorman.

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Helen Gorman

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Swimming in open water is a great way to spend time in nature, improve your swimming fitness and boost your overall wellbeing. But if you want to start building up your time in open water – and do so safely – you’ll need a bit more kit than you would for your regular indoor pool sessions.

If you’re just getting started, knowing what you need for the changeable conditions you’ll face in open water might feel a little overwhelming. In our essential open water swimming gear guide, top level Masters swimmer Helen Gorman talks you through what you need, and why you need it, so you can dive into open water swimming with confidence.

+ Open water swimming wetsuits
+ Changing robes and warm clothing
+ Swimming caps and hats
+ Open water swimming goggles
+ Tow float/swimming buoy
+ Cold water swimming accessories
+ Waterproof swimming watch
+ Waterproof sunscreen

Buoyancy and warmth

Open water swimming wetsuits

Key considerations
+ Keeps you warmer
+ Improves buoyancy
+ Flexible to swim in
+ Can improve swim speed

As well as keeping you warmer in the water, wetsuits for triathlon and open water swimming are designed to improve body position, enhance buoyancy, and potentially increase your swimming efficiency. They are very different to surfing or other sports specific wetsuits in terms of materials and construction using different thicknesses of neoprene to promote flexibility in key areas like the shoulders and they have smooth coatings to help you glide better.

It is possible to swim in open water without a wetsuit – particularly if you only plan to swim during the summer months when the water is warm. But they do provide buoyancy as well as insulation, which help to extend your time in the water. If you’re new to open water swimming, it’s recommended to wear a wetsuit for added confidence. Read our wetsuit buying guide for some help choosing the best wetsuit for your swim style.

Triathlon and open water swimming wetsuits
From entry-level to race day ready wetsuits - enhance your open water experience.

Wild swimming means getting changed on the go!

Changing robes and warm clothing

Key considerations
+ Get changed anywhere
+ Keeps you warm pre- and post-swim
+ Useful for other outdoor adventures

Not every open water swimming venue will come equipped with hot showers and a nice warm changing room for you to use after your swim. And even in the summer months, you’ll cool down in the water and there might be a bit of wind chill once you’re back on dry land. It’s easy to get cold fairly quickly after swimming.

Warm clothes that are loose fitting so you can put them on quickly are an open water swimming kit bag essential. It’s also a good idea to get a changing robe. Not only will it keep you warm, this will also double up as your own personal, mobile changing room to protect your dignity if you’re swimming somewhere without facilities! While dryrobe is one of the more popular brands, there are also plenty of other great dryrobe alternatives for every budget.

Get ready for the après swim!
Keep warm, get changed and stay dry on all your swimming and other outdoor adventures.

A must-have for visibility in open water

Swimming caps and hats

Key considerations
+ Makes you easy to spot in the water for safety
+ Keeps your hair out of the way
+ Offers some insulation

A brightly coloured silicone swim cap will make you more visible to others in open water – essential for safety, particularly if you’re swimming in bodies of water shared with boats, SUPs and kayaks. A swim cap will also provide some insulation and keep your hair out of your face. Earlier in the season, wearing two silicone caps helps keep you warmer, or you can wear a neoprene swim cap under your silicone one. Of course, if you’re dipping rather than swimming, a silicone swim cap isn’t necessary, but a thick, brightly coloured bobble hat will help to keep your head warm and still keep you visible out in the water. You might also want a bobble hat when you get out of the water to keep warm.

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Designed to offer a wider field of vision in open water

Open water swimming goggles

Key considerations
+ Offer a wider field of vision than traditional pool goggles
+ Tinted or mirrored lenses help to reduce glare in sunny conditions

There are open water swimming specific goggles available, which typically offer a wider field of vision to help you sight in open water. But if you have pool goggles that are comfortable and you are used to wearing them, they can also work in open water as long as they are not scratched and prone to fogging.

Good vision is essential, but comfort is just as important as you may need to wear them tighter than you usually do if you’re in rough water. If you’re swimming in bright light, including early morning sunrises, then use darker tinted or mirrored goggles.

Need a recommendation? Check out our review of the TRI-FIT RAPID-X open water swimming goggles.

Focus on your swim training
Open water swimming goggles, made to perform

Enhanced safety and visibility

Tow float/swimming buoy

Key considerations
+ Keeps you visible
+ Can include storage for essentials
+ Not a buoyancy aid, but can be used to take a rest if required

A fluorescent coloured swim buoy (or tow float) will make you much more visible from land and to other water users. Some of them also include a dry bag inside where you can store your keys, or any swim nutrition you might need if you’re doing longer distances.

The buoy is attached via a belt around your waist and trails behind you. It takes very little time to get used to swimming with a buoy and your safety is enhanced by using one.

It’s important to note though that while they can work as a flotation device, particularly larger versions, if you need to take a short rest. They’re not designed as buoyancy aids and shouldn’t be regarded as such.

Thermal gear for swimming all year round

Cold water swimming accessories

Key considerations

If you struggle with the cold, you can buy thermal swimming accessories such as neoprene gloves, booties, and hats to increase warmth in open water. Neoprene hats are legal for racing, whereas gloves and boots generally aren’t.

These accessories are made from the same materials as wetsuits with the primary purpose of keeping you warm. They don’t particularly aid or assist in swimming. In fact, in the case of gloves and boots, they may make it more difficult as they add weight and reduce your ability to ‘feel’ the water. But they do have their place when the water is very cold. Read our cold water swimming guide for more advice on swimming in open water all year round.

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Keep track of your time in the water

Waterproof swimming watch

Key considerations
+ Track your time in the water
+ Measure improvements in your swim fitness
+ Some GPS watches have an SOS feature for safety

Wear a watch for the basic purpose of knowing how long you have been in the water. You should always set your own level and accurately determine your capability, so knowing how long you have been swimming is important.

Many GPS watches have an SOS feature, so if you get into difficulty, it will send an alert to your designated contact. GPS watches are also useful for tracking and navigation, but don’t always have a brilliant connection to the outside world if you’re swimming remotely.

There are open swimming specific watches available, which generally track and map your swim quite well, although technology still seems like it has some catching up to do to be fully accurate. Different watches can measure the exact same swim differently!

Don't forget the skincare

Waterproof sunscreen

Key considerations
+ UV damage can still occur in the water
+ Waterproof, reef-safe options protect you - and the environment

Skincare is something we all need to be thinking about when we’re training and racing outdoors. That goes for in the water too! Even if you’re wearing a wetsuit, yours hands, face, neck and feet will still be exposed to the sun’s UV rays.

Add a waterproof sunscreen to your kit bag to prevent sunburn while you’re enjoying the water. Try to look for reef-safe options, as these will have less of an impact on the environment you’re swimming in.

The right gear makes a world of difference when it comes to staying safe and enjoying yourself while swimming in open water. Gear sorted? Check out our open water swimming section to find tips and advice to help you level up your swimming!

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