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Pants Pants Pants


I don’t mean to say that having a kit list for open water swimming is a pants idea, but much more the case is that whatever kit you have, however experienced you are, from a personal point of view, never forget your pants; unless you like that sort of thing of course.  It’s really annoying when you want to get cosy after a swim and you came to the river in your swimmers and forgot to bring your pants (or knickers I would imagine - Ed).  Rough denim on cold skin is not that cosy.

But seriously folks, the first thing to say about an open water swimming kit list is that all you really need is yourself and the water. 

If you do decide to add to your kitbag and ever want any opinions, advice or recommendations on any items in this article just ask the HOWSC members via the Facebook page.  You will get a wide variety of helpful views from many kinds of swimmers. 

The almost bare essentials

On second thoughts, if you aren’t alone in the wilderness and channeling your inner Skandie then some trunks or a swimming cossie is probably wise.  These can take any form.  On any given day you will find us in a selection of budgie smugglers, shorty trunks, swim shorts, leisure swimsuits, race swimsuits, tri-suits, even the odd bikini in the summer; and various specialist items like jammers (long leg swimming trunks) and buoyancy shorts; same as jammers but wetsuit materiel; and of course a wide variety of wetsuits for suit swimmers. So never think you don’t have the right kit because you do.  Whatever you have is the right kit, just come and join in.

Swimming safely

Apart from that there are two basic safety considerations  - a bright coloured swim hat, and ideally a tow float if you’re swimming alone.  These items allow other river users to see you clearly, and an inflatable tow float which attaches by a strap to your waist lets you have a rest any time you need it mid-river, and doubles up as a dry bag for your car keys and some other small items.  These floats are bright orange or pink and highly visible.  Some of us have acquired through the club an ICE band, which is a wristband with your name and a phone number to contact In Case of Emergency (ICE).  This is not a reflection of particular risk from swimming as cyclists, ramblers etc. wear them too but they are useful in the unlikely event of needing to contact a relative for any reason.

Tow Float

No jacket required

All other items are optional and nobody should think that they can’t go swimming outdoors because they don’t have all the kit.  Open water or wild swimming is a wonderfully kit free experience open to anyone with a cossie and a curiosity.  You will, of course, begin to find a few more items becoming desirable once you swim more regularly, and when the water temperature tumbles you may want some additional items for warmth if you want to swim distances outside of summer, and you’re not an experienced cold-water swimmer.

Some basic add-ons

Basic add-ons to your cossie and curiosity, and your safety driven bright hat and tow float (you can swim happily in a group of others who have floats to begin with so don’t be put off coming to swim if you don’t yet have a float) include goggles if you need them, ear plugs if you need them and for some a nose clip.  All these items are personal preference and are partly dictated by the kind of swimming you would like to do.  If you do wear goggles then some people use an anti-fog spray, which you may want to consider; some people use saliva and a river water rinse, and some people just seem never to get steamy.  There are a few different types of goggles better suited to open water swimming.  They generally have bigger lenses for better all round vision as you don’t have a line to follow in the river as you do in the bottom of a pool.  There are a number of brands available but to get an idea of what they look like check out Aqua Sphere Vista or Zoggs Predators.  You will see they are bigger than pool goggles; handy for spotting boats, families of swans and where to get out.  Think about the lens tint or colour.  Whilst mean and moody mirrored lenses work in a neon lit pool, one of the absolute joys of open water swimming is being in the river at dawn and dusk.  Too much tint will hinder your vision and certainly wont help you spot the wolves on our full moon swims.

At HOWSC we not only have a wonderful, supportive, friendly and diverse bunch of people who all have fun together whatever their swim style, but we also have all types of swimmers and therefore kit requirements.  If you would like to come to the river for a friendly heads up breast stroke swim and chat, and just enjoy being with like minded people in a beautiful place to lift the spirits, then you wont be putting your head in the water and so wont need goggles, ear plugs or a nose clip.  If you’re swimming a few km of freestyle then your personal preference might be for these items.


Getting dry

There are a couple of comfort-driven items that I would heartily recommend.  A towel is on the essential pedestal for me along with pants and should never be forgotten, as drip drying is best suited to delicate laundry items that can’t be spun and not for people who have just got out of the river - except in our current (July 2018) tropical conditions.  A big step up from a towel for getting yourself dry and cosy, and the item of choice for many regular swimmers is something called a Dry Robe.  This is a long baggy cape with wide sleeves made from wind proof material on the outside and absorbent toweling on the inside.  So instead of drying off with a towel in the open air you get a warm hug and an instant drying- off from the robe which then acts as your personal beach hut to change in as the sleeves are wide and you pull your arms inside it so you can dress and undress, and hopefully put on the most important item to remember – your pants! 

Dry Robes

Happy feet

A pair of flip-flops or Crocs or similar is a good and important addition (OK, essential-ish really) as in some locations we have a short walk to the getting-in point of the river.  Another good comfort item you can get, but again not essential, is a changing mat.  It’s a tough flexible PVC circular mat you can stand on to change so you don’t get stones and grass all over your feet.  It just folds up or pulls closed with a drawstring and you take it home and hose it off – usually getting your stone and grass free feet soaked in the process. Or is that just me?

Suits or skins?

Suits Vs Skins Whether you need or want a wetsuit is personal preference and depends on the type of swimming you want to do, the time of year you want to do it, and the distance or time for which you want to swim.  Some swimmers are dedicated ‘skins’ swimmers (i.e. non-wetsuit swimmers) and usually swim for the utter joy of being immersed in the water in a beautiful place and being totally connected to the river.  Some skins swimmers will swim all year without a wetsuit, by gradually acclimatizing to the cooling water as the year grows long and the water temperature chills, and they will just reduce their time in the water in the winter months accordingly.  So they have no need of, or desire for, a wetsuit, as it isn’t the way they want to enjoy the river.  The river is above 22 degrees at the moment and most regular swimmers – including wetsuit swimmers - can swim for many kilometres at this temperature without a wetsuit.  Back in the winter and surrounded by snow, the river was less than 2 degrees and I don’t think anyone stayed in for much more than 15 minutes without a wetsuit, certainly I struggled to make 10 but it was my first winter swimming outdoors.  It was however beautiful and exhilarating.  This cold-water winter swimming is an amazing and different kind of swimming and is all about fun and the exhilaration of the extreme temperature and the reward of endorphins flooding you with such a sense of wellbeing after you warm up.  Club members have written eloquently about this on the HOWSC web site.  I would highly recommend cold-water swimming to anyone, once you are acclimatized.  Doing it with HOWSC enables you to experience a warm camaraderie and great sense of shared fun and achievement.  There are no rules about swimming in suits or skins.  I usually swim distance in a suit, enjoy the short bouts of chilly winter swimming in skins and try to build up my suit free distances in the warm water of the summer.

Warming up kit and the cosy HOWSC hoody

Flask In terms of kit; when the mercury drops and you leave the river you need to warm your body from the outside and the inside (again there are very knowledgeable items on this on the HOWSC website).  All you need are lots of warm layers of warm clothing; warm socks, warm gloves and a warm hat are items you should make sure you have as part of this.  Of course the most essential item in any cold-water wardrobe is the magnificent HOWSC Hoodie, which as we all know is a proper beauty and super-cosy too. 

A warm drink from a thermal flask helps re-heat your core.  Not just in winter but most of the year with our normal temperatures in play and especially if you like to stay in for a while or swim longer distances.  It really is worth buying one of the mug style drinking flasks for this purpose with a handle to hold it and a flip up lid to drink out of, rather than a traditional flask that you need to unscrew, and then pour into a cup.  This is especially helpful in the non-summer months when it is natural to experience some degree of initial coldness in the fingers, and therefore fiddly tasks are harder when you are first out of the water.  In winter months it is normal to shiver when you are warming up and whenever I try to use an old style ‘unscrew and pour’ flask I usually spill the drink in the boot of the car when pouring and then lose some more out of the cup when shivering and trying to drink.  It looks funny but isn’t very warming.  I very quickly bought a mug style drinking type flask.  Some tasty food treats are also physiologically and psychologically nice.

Hot weather

In temperatures like June/July 2018 and on normally warm and sunny days don’t forget waterproof sunscreen for exposed skin if you are swimming for a time or distance that will expose you for longer than met office published burn times.  Remember that water reflects UV rays so exposed skin will be exposed to UV from above and below.  Remember also that UV rays pass through water so you are not protected but rather doubly exposed.  Also have plenty of fluid for rehydrating afterwards.

Suits you

Wetsuit If you are a wetsuit swimmer you will need your wetsuit.  If you come to open water swimming from triathlon you will probably have a wetsuit.  If you are new to outdoor swimming and want to swim more comfortably for more months of the year, or want to be able to be in the water long enough to achieve your target distances if you have a training aim, then you might want to consider getting one.

If you’re new to open water swimming you might already have a wetsuit that you used in Devon or Cornwall for surfing and body boarding or just playing in the sea in our usual temperatures.  There is nothing wrong with having a try at open water swimming with this suit.  It will work fine.  If it’s a winter thickness it might not be very flexible but to give it a try it is fine.  I had one of these before I had a swimming wetsuit and I swam 1500 metres in the sea in it with joy.  However, if you decide to become a regular open water swimmer you will probably want to get a specific swimming wetsuit.  These are a bit thinner and more flexible so you don’t lose so much energy wrestling your limbs around in a suit that is too thick or inflexible.  They also have a shinier coating to slip through the water more easily and this is fragile so don’t get a swim wetsuit and use it on a board or you will shred it.  A wetsuit also gives you buoyancy so you can’t sink in a wetsuit and it holds you higher on the water so you create less drag than you otherwise would, which means less proficient swimmers can propel themselves more easily through the water.  So a wetsuit is a confidence booster.  If you are a less proficient freestyler you will find entry level swim wetsuits offer more buoyancy from thicker materiel in key locations like the hips and thighs which benefit from a higher position in the water.  Once you become faster and more proficient you will eventually move up to a more advanced wetsuit, which means less thick materiel, because with a better swim stroke you don’t need buoyancy assistance. You also get more expensive and flexible material for more energy efficiency.  An expensive top of the range wetsuit will hinder you though if you are a developing swimmer so take advice and make the right choice not the glory suit.  Glory suits are also very expensive.
Wetsuit additions for winter swimming include neoprene gloves and booties, which as well as looking highly amusing if worn without a wetsuit really do enable you to stay comfortable for longer, and in very cold conditions a neoprene swim cap is warmer than a traditional latex or silicon one.  If like me you have become immune to ridicule it is also possible to get one of these with a chinstrap so it keeps your ears toasty too.  If you are new to wetsuit swimming it is good to know that a good wetsuit lube on the sides and back of your neck will stop you from getting your skin rubbed painfully raw when swimming longer distances, or not being used to the suit. 

Wet kit

For everyone, wet suit swimmers or skins, it is useful to have somewhere to store your wet swimming things afterwards, whether that is just a cossie and towel or a wetsuit etc as well.  I use a triathlon bag as it has lots of useful pockets and compartments with waterproof storage.  Some people use a plastic box in the boot of the car and of course a carrier bag is just as good as anything.


Watch Your phone will take epic pictures of your riverbank adventures; beautiful riverscapes, dawn and dusk river swim entries and exits, crazy friends - and yourself - swimming the icy river between snow-covered banks, or basking in the summer sun; sunrises and sunsets over water, the changing light as it plays on the water and charts the passing seasons and our impromptu mid-winter night swim barbeques.  A waterproof camera however is a step up in fun as you swim with it, and record your waterborne story.  By no means essential but lots of fun.  Swim computers and GPS wrist thingies are available from the quite expensive to the very pricey but if you are sport or performance swimming or training, or just interested in recording your route, time, distance and swim strokes you can happily sink in data.


So, as you can see there is little prescriptive about an outdoor swimming kit list, and you should always remember that you can just come to the river with a cossie and some curiosity.  You can be safe and well equipped with just a cossie and a bright cap if you want to swim in a group in the summer, or you can spend a little more time time acclimatising to longer times and swims with a few more kit items to keep you safe and self sufficient.  However you would like to swim or to enjoy the river, doing it with friendly like-minded people at HOWSC will make it a happy and easy experience.


And if you wear your swimmers to go the river, just remember your pants.

Open Water Swimming Kit Checklist

Basic kit

Any swimming costume
Bright coloured swim cap
Flip flops or Crocs or similar

Basic add-ons

Nose clip
Anti-fog goggle spray

Safety add-ons (not necessary to join a group swim)

Inflatable tow float
ICE band

Comfort add-ons

Dry Robe
Changing mat

Essential after swim warming up kit (Use more when it’s cold, less when it’s warm)

Lots of warm clothes including gloves, socks and hats
NB. Nothing is as cool, cosy and stylish as a pink and blue toasty HOWSC hoody!
Thermos mug-style drinking flask with hot drink
Some food treats

Hot weather

Waterproof sunscreen
Fluids for rehydrating afterwards

Suit swimming

Swim wetsuit
Wetsuit lube

Optional cold water add-ons

Wetsuit booties
Wetsuit gloves
Wetsuit cap (add chinstrap version for comedy look and toasty ears)

Wet kit-wrestling choices – one of…

Triathlon bag
Or dry bag,
Or plastic box
Or carrier bag

Technology add-ons

Don’t forget your phone camera for the riverbank
Waterproof camera if you have one
Swim computer GPS if you can’t live without tracking yourself

Most essential item

Don’t forget your pants! 

Robbie McIntosh, July 2018

AS YOU'RE HERE: The HOWSC website is maintained and run by HOWSC members and relies on voluntary contribtutions.  Do you have something you'd like to share?  Maybe reflections on a recent swim, tales of adventures in far flung places, an account of your watery accomplishments? Photographs, videos, poetry, prose, art and more will all be gratefully received and published on the website for all to admire.  Contact Mark Reed to discuss or submit your contribution.  We look forward to hearing from you.
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