All the kit you need to start wild swimming
Swimming outdoors is uplifting, exhilarating and great for your mental health. Want to try it? Here’s the kit to make it safe and pleasurable…
Wild swimming is having its moment – the perfect physical and mental tonic to tough times. Whether it be in a lake, river, pond or the sea, immersing yourself in nature and cool water gives you an incredible sense of wellbeing.
Furthermore, wild or cold water swimming may protect the brain from degenerative diseases like dementia, researchers from Cambridge University have discovered. In a world first, a "cold-shock" protein has been found in the blood of regular winter swimmers at London's Parliament Hill Lido. The protein has been shown to slow the onset of dementia and even repair some of the damage it causes.
Wild swimming is a joy, but it also comes with its risks. The kit below will help to make it a safer and more pleasurable experience. Not everything has to be bought before you start, nor will everyone need all of it - it depends on where you swim, where you get changed and what time of year you start - but if you’re going to swim outdoors regularly, a few investments are worthwhile. The more expensive pieces will last a long time (probably a lifetime).
Be warned, wild swimming is addictive and once you’ve started, there’s no going back!
An obvious essential (unless you want to skinny dip!) and you can, of course, swim in anything you have in your drawer. However, if you’re going to invest in a swimsuit for outdoor swimming, opt for one that’s designed with an active fit specifically for swimming and make sure it’s durable - fashion suits/bikinis tend to degrade quickly, making them a poor choice for the planet.
A tow float is a small, inflatable, high-visibility buoy that attaches around your waist and trails behind you on a tether as you swim. It alerts other water users to your presence and it’s a great piece of equipment if you swim in open expanses of water such as the sea or a lake, where you might be sharing the space with boats, kayaks etc. It’s also useful if anyone is watching you from the shore so you can be easily seen.
You will see people taking a rest by holding on to their tow float and they can come in handy for that, but it’s worth noting that this is not what they’re designed for and shouldn’t be relied on for it. Only swim as far out as your fitness and ability allows. It’s not advisable to swim alone and ensure that you’re aware of tides, where you can get out and any other potential hazards in and around the water.
If you want to swim with your head in, goggles that have a wider range of vision than regular swimming goggles will serve you well in open water, as it’s easier to see when you lift your head to orientate yourself.
A good changing robe will make the difference between sitting in the car gazing out at the grey, drizzly sky and deciding against a swim, and hopping out in the confidence that you can stay warm until you’re in the water and get warm again the moment you’re out. Also, with no changing rooms outdoors, it can be difficult to protect your modesty, which is where a changing robe comes into its own.
Get dry and warm quickly after swimming outdoors, especially if it was cold water. Pull a top on first, preferably a couple of layers, and then your bottom half. A flask of coffee, tea or hot chocolate helps the warming up process along!
Outdoor swimming is not like pool swimming because it’s often less about fitness and more about enjoying the surroundings and submersion. At Kenwood Ladies’ Pond in London, for example, most of the women swim with their head out of the water, looking at the trees, ducks and sky. In autumn/winter, many will also be sporting a woolly hat to stop heat escaping.
If you’d like to put your head in, though, a swimming cap helps ward off an ice-cream headache and a bubble cap is a good choice – it’s a swimming cap that’s covered in air-filled bubbles to provide extra insulation.
Wetsuits are optional. Many outdoor swimmers prefer the more natural feeling of just being in a swimsuit, even in cooler temperatures, but if you prefer the idea of some insulation or you’re planning to do longer swims in cool water, a wetsuit will help your body to retain warmth. It will also increase your buoyancy, making swimming a little easier.
Don’t let a wetsuit give you a false sense of security though - it will allow you to stay in for longer than a swimsuit alone, but you can get still start to get hypothermic. Wetsuit or not, always exit the water while you still feel good, not when you start to feel cold. If the water is cold, don't warm up with a hot shower. Cooled blood from your extremities starts to circulate back to your core after being in cold water – having a hot shower speeds up this process and can make you feel unwell.
Earplugs & headbands
Earplugs or headbands are helpful for avoiding ear infections but can also help if you submerge your head in cooler temperatures as it can make you feel quite odd when cold water gets into your ears. Having your hearing reduced takes some getting used to though, so ease in with them.
So now you're all kitted up and ready to go wild swimming! Have fun out there but be sure to stay safe.