In the last few months I’ve been taking every opportunity I can to plunge myself into cold bodies of water. I’ve swum in the River Usk, two spots on the River Wye and even in a sailing lake in the Cotswolds and I’m planning a few British sea swims later in the week. Although the whole point of wild swimming is that you don’t need a lot of kit – just a willingness to give it a go and an understanding of the basic safety issues associated with outdoor swimming – having the right bits and pieces can make the difference between a good swim and a great one. After a bit of trial and error here is my Ultimate Wild Swimming Kit List.
1. The wetsuit
Unless you’re hard as nails you’re going to need some sort of wetsuit for outdoor swimming. Of course sometimes it’s really, really fun to wade into cold water wearing nothing but a bikini (honestly!) but since I’ve started wearing a wetsuit I’ve been able to stay in the water for much longer. It’s a different experience altogether.
Surfers and swimmers tend to have different requirements for wetsuits. Surfing wetsuits have to have a tough exterior to cope with being knocked around in the waves, bashed by your board and scraped on pebbles; swimming ones, by contrast, are more about streamlining and (particularly in the case of less experienced swimmers) elevating your lower half so it doesn’t drag down in the water as you get tired.
I was recommended the Orca S7 as a great value, entry level wetsuit and I’m very pleased with it. It has good insulation and I can definitely feel it lifting my bum up in the water. At first I thought I didn’t need that but as I’ve extended my swims a little and got more fatigued I’ve been glad of this feature. It’s a really good idea, if you can, to go into a shop and try on your prospective wetsuit so you find one that is the right shape and style for you. We’re not all built the same, after all, so although I’d heartily recommend this wetsuit, I can’t promise it’ll be the right fit for someone else.
2. The goggles
Assuming you put your face in the water, you’re going to need goggles, otherwise you’ll miss out on all the cool stuff underwater. It’s really taken me until this year to make my peace with goggles. For years I insisted on not wearing any, even when swimming in the sea, the river or even in a really chlorinated pool. I’d just open my eyes underwater. I could never find goggles comfortable or functional enough to stick with them. That, though, was until I discovered AquaSphere , which I was recommended when writing an article about wild swimming for a magazine. They do some really cool mask-style ones that are great for visibility and more traditional goggle styles. When I got in touch with AquaSphere to get details, they kindly sent me a pair to try for myself, and I went overnight from goggle-refusenik to total goggle convert.
The ones I’ve been wearing are the Kayenne polarized lens goggles which are currently about £19 on Amazon and retail at around £25 elsewhere. So what’s the big deal about them? Well, for a start they’re really comfortable; they keep the water OUT completely without leaving me with big red welts on my face for the rest of the day – unlike any other pair I’ve tried to date. They have a curved lens that gives you much wider vision than flat-lenses – better for seeing overhanging and underwater objects. Being polarised, they are great for changing light conditions (which I’ve had pretty much every time I’ve been swimming lately). They’re also hypoallergenic and latex-free, in case that’s important for you.
3. The tow float
These are just the cleverest bit of kit I’ve come across in a long time as they perform several really important functions all at once. Most importantly, your tow float (aka safety buoy) gives you visibility. This is especially important if you share your river with other users who might come into contact with you. For me it’s rowers and kayakers; for others it’s sailors or boat users. As a rower, I’m always really worried about hitting swimmers, and you’d be amazed the difference a nice, high vis tow float makes.
Secondly, they give you something to hold on to if you’re getting a bit tired or if it’s really cold and you want to lift your arms out of the water, as I had to when I went river swimming in April this year and wasn’t used to the temperatures.
Finally, and cleverly, they double up as a dry bag so you can bring your car keys, phone and other essentials along for the ride. Brilliant! Mine is this one from dhb, which I bought from Wiggle, and I haven’t found any negatives to it.
4. The changing robe
I’ve already written about the magnificent dryrobe so won’t repeat myself endlessly about it, save to say that I’m still loving mine. I have bought a cheaper, lighter, towelling changing robe to take on holiday with me to protect my modesty and save myself from the indignities of the under-the-towel changing shuffle, but once I’m back home I’ll be back to my trusty dryrobe.
5. The water shoes
Is that what you call these? I’m not sure. Lots of people don’t bother with them, but I’m a bit neurotic about cutting my feet on unknown objects on the bottom of the river so always swim in them, whatever you call them. My are cheapo ones from Lidl and do the job very nicely. I usually have a pair of flip flops and some crocs in the car, too, for rowing purposes, and they’re quite handy for the before and after.
6. Other bits and bobs
The swimming cap: Always a good idea to wear a brightly coloured one, even if you’re using a tow float. The more bits of you that can be seen above the water, the better. In the winter, you can get neoprene ones with a strap to go under your chin.
The towel: Obviously any old towel will do, but those light microfibre towels are genuinely brilliant. They dry in no time and take up very little space in your bag. I have one that I’ve carted around with me to all sorts of occasions, sporting and otherwise, and wouldn’t be without it.
The whistle: It’s not a great idea to swim on your own, but if I did I’d bring a cheap plastic whistle (I usually have one with me when I’m out in my single just in case I capsize just at the moment when there’s nobody close enough to spot me).
The wetsuit cleaner: I have just bought the delightfully-named Piss Off for cleaning my wetsuit but haven’t tried it out yet. I’m assured it’s particularly good if you wee in your wetsuit.
These are all just suggestions. Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with swimming without any fancy kit at all (and I’ll confess I’m a fan of occasional, discreet skinny dipping), so use this as a guide, not a set of rules. Most of all, just get out there and enjoy. And if you’re after any safety tips, check out this month’s edition of Outdoor Fitness where you should find an article by me on that very subject. Happy swimming!