Winter Swimming Guide – Chapter 3: Gear Selection

Chapter 3: Gear Selection – What to Wear During Winter Swim Conditions

When the lake temperature dips below 55F, a strange thing happens – namely, most people decide that it’s too cold to continue enjoying the fun and adventure that accompanies outdoor swimming. And that’s a shame, really, since it doesn’t have to be that way.

The truth is that – with the right equipment and preparation – you can comfortably swim and train in the lake year-round.

In this chapter, we’re going to look at what type of equipment you might need to accomplish this. I say “might” because everybody has his or her own level of tolerance to various temperatures. So while one person might be able to swim comfortably in 45F or below water temperatures in just a swimsuit, cap, and goggles, for others this is nothing short of a Herculean challenge.

So for now, I’m going to describe a gear setup that we’ve settled on after much experimentation. You may find the need to adjust up or down based upon your own physiology and tolerance to colder water. But we’ve found that this works for most people who’ve come out and braved the lake with us during the coldest months.

Jammers

The first layer is whatever you would normally wear when swimming. I use swim jammers since they fit well under a wetsuit.

gear_1

Wetsuit

Believe it or not, we all use regular triathlon fullsuits that are designed for swimming – not heavy duty scuba wetsuits or drysuits. These typically have 3mm neoprene on the arms and back with slightly thicker layers on the chest and legs to assist with buoyancy.

Once you get over the initial shock of the cold water entering the suit, the layer of water warms up pretty quickly and you can swim quite comfortably without needing to resort to a scuba wetsuit or drysuit.

gear_2

Neoprene boots

We all use neoprene dive boots to keep our feet warm. I currently use Bare 7mm Cold Water Tall Boots, and they work quite well:

gear_3

Neoprene gloves

This is the only area where we are still experimenting. I currently use the XS Dry Five 5mm gloves. They’re slip ons, but they do a pretty good job of keeping out the water if placed on properly. The problem is that it’s often ridiculously difficult to put these on with one hand already gloved.

I tried out other 5mm gloves with velcro wrist fasteners, but they just didn’t seem to work as well as the slip-ons. Bottom line, we still have yet to find a neoprene glove that keeps our fingertips warm for more than about 15 to 20 minutes in the water once it goes below 40F.

gloves

Silicone swim cap

I wear this underneath my neoprene cap to add an extra layer on my head and to keep the cold water out of my ears:

gear_5

Neoprene dive hood

I use a Cressi Castoro 5mm Hood. The other swimmers use similar scuba hoods, but they have bibs on theirs. I’ve never gotten comfortable swimming with a hood that has a bib, but everyone else seems to be fine with it.

One plus of having the bib is that it helps protect your neck from the cold water. With the Cressi hood, there’s a small part of the back of my neck that’s still exposed. It’s a bit of a cold shock (literally) at first, but it doesn’t bother me after a couple of minutes.

gear_6

Goggles

I use standard swim goggles. I used to use larger ones that covered more of my face, and these do make a difference in the cold water. But I now just put some petroleum jelly on the exposed parts of my face, and that works fine.

gear_7

That’s it! Now you should be all set when it comes to winter swim gear!

5 Comments

  1. Carina
    September 27, 2013

    Thanks for the tips! I just finished my first official swim class and have become more comfortable in the water. I am looking to take a Masters Swimming Class over the winter and was wondering if you have any suggestions for clothing gear for women in a non-heated outdoor pool. Classes are at 5am and temperature drop quite drastically during the winter season.

    • Steve
      September 30, 2013

      Hi Carina. Any idea how cold the water will be during the winter months? I’ve been able to tolerate temps as low as 42F with a wetsuit top and thermo cap. There are also thermo rash guards that make you more comfortable in the water – but they’re not design for distance swimming.

  2. Ryan
    March 5, 2013

    This is a fantastic article and tremendously helpful. Thank you! I’m new to the world of open water swimming and can’t wait to get in Lake Michigan this year.

    As a follow up to this post, could you perhaps talk about what you recommend wearing at various temperatures? For example, I own an Xterra Vortex; at what temps is that alone appropriate? When recommend shedding the gloves? The hood? The boots? This would provide great insight into the sport for a novice.

    Thanks again for all of your work. I really value this resource and online community. I also hope to join you at the lake soon!

    Be well,
    Ryan

    • Steve
      March 7, 2013

      Thanks Ryan! Glad you found this helpful. To answer your other questions, it’s really a matter of individual tolerance. I can swim with just a wetsuit and neoprene cap in temps as low as 42F – although my hands and feet will still be a bit uncomfortable. I’ve gone wetsuit-free in as low as 45F for up to a half mile. But your cold tolerance might be different – and it might even vary from day to day. So I would recommend that you bring your gear out and just experiment on site. There have been a number of times where I’ve opted to wear gloves and booties even though the water was warmer. For some reason, that morning I just felt the cold more!

  3. Diver Dave
    March 1, 2013

    My Quantana Roo ultra full has heald up very well for 5 years of winter swims


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