Cold Water Swim Gear – Your “Outer Game”

In order to swim comfortably in the bracing waters of Lake Michigan, I gear up in layers.

1) Tyr jammer swimsuit

2) ONeill 13 Ounce Thermo-X Short Sleeve Crew designed to keep my “core” warm

3) A full body wetsuit

The final cold water accessories are a neoprene swim cap, neoprene booties, and neoprene diving gloves.

This is the gear set up I use for swimming in 50F – 56F (10C – 13.3C) water. The only other items I add to this are my swim goggles as well as petroleum jelly to use on the exposed areas of my neck and face.

Once the water temperature exceeds 56F (13.3C), I “pare down” my equipment accordingly:

57F – 62F (13.9C – 16.6C) – Eliminate the gloves, booties, and neoprene cap (use latex swim cap)
63F – 68F (17.2C – 20.0C) – Eliminate the thermo shirt and consider switching to a “farmer john” or “shortie” wetsuit
69F+ (20.5C+) – Eliminate the wetsuit

Let me emphasize that these are guidelines that I formulated based upon my personal experience with cold water swimming. Other people might have different temperature thresholds, and they might very well be comfortable swimming without a wetsuit at much lower temperatures. Indeed, there are multiple factors that influence one’s cold water tolerance such as age, gender, body fat%, and overall physical conditioning. However, this is a good benchmark if you’re just starting out. You can always adjust upwards or downwards once you get more exposure to varying water situations.

13 Comments

  1. Maris
    March 5, 2011

    Thanks for sharing.
    I have something similar temperature, a little colder.

    Need help to choose, what kind of suit I need.

    I swim. I do NOT dive or do scuba!
    Only swim for 1km or 2 km in temperature 7-16 C. Normally I always get cold after minute swimming in spring! But I do want to swim as long as there is no ice! 🙂

    I would like to have some kind of suit to keep warm. And other thing as much as possible good comfort during swimming in crawl and brass. I swim in North Europe, Latvian lakes to be exact. 🙂

    And for me it seems that I need to take your equipment as starter! 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and personal experience! 🙂
    Cheers from Europe!

  2. Mihai
    April 25, 2010

    Hi Steve, thank you for the prompt reply and the helpful comments. You’ve done an excellent job setting up this site, and congrats for your resolve to swim so often in the lake.
    I wish there were more people interested in open water swimming in Vancouver. There is an open water association but they only start their swims in June. Maybe I should set up a site like yours, and get more people out of the chlorinated pools into the ocean. If I find myself in Chicago I’ll be sure to join you for a swim! The same goes for you, if you happen to come this way.

    As far as the hoods go, I’ll get a beanie for starters. I also went to a dive store this weekend and tried on a 7mm/3mm diving hood – while it didn’t seem to restrict my neck movements, the chin band felt quite tight, making it difficult to open my mouth. Did you experience any jaw muscle fatigue with your diving hood?

    Many thanks,
    Mihai

  3. Mihai
    April 23, 2010

    Hi, I like the challenge of cold water swimming too, and I usually swim for 5-10 min wearing trunks and a latex cap. I’ve done this in various lakes and oceans, the coldest I’ve been was 6 Celsius. Recently I started to swim for 45min-1h in the ocean in Vancouver, British Columbia wearing a 3mm O’Neill Reactor wetsuit. The water is now 9-10 Celsius. My body feels on the cold side but ok, but my head is really cold with only a latex cap. So I’m looking for a good neoprene hood, and I’m considering the Body Glove 3mm Beanie that you show in the photo vs. a diving hood, like the O’Neill 7mm/3mm Bib Hood.
    You mentioned you tried a 3mm diving hood – what brand did you get, and how did it work out for you compared to the beanie?

    Thank you,
    Mihai

    • srhernan
      April 24, 2010

      Hi Mihai. Right now the lake temperature here is around 9.4C, and that’s warm enough not to need a diving hood (for me at least). In colder temperatures I use a Deep See 7mm/3mm hood that works great but somewhat restricts my shoulder movement. Candidly, I prefer the beanie because of overall comfort and range of motion. To compensate for the lack of neck cover, I use some petroleum jelly on my neck to help insulate it during the swim.

  4. Ellen O
    October 29, 2009

    I’m gearing up for winter swimming in my unheated pool. Can you tell me where to get weights, (perhaps for my waist?) as my wetsuit is too buoyant ? And where can thermo shirts be bought when it is not so cold that I need the wet suit? Do you have any favorite stores in the SF Bay area or web sites?
    Thank you so much.

    • srhernan
      October 29, 2009

      Hi Ellen. I’m not sure about where to get weights. Is your wetsuit designed just for swimming, or is it a windsurfing or scuba suit? I have a windsurfing suit for below-40F swimming, and it is much more buoyant. But that’s never interfered with my swimming.

      As far as the thermo shirt, I bought mine here:

      http://www.scuba.com/scuba-gear-289/010162/ONeill-13-Ounce-Thermo-X-Short-Sleeve-Crew.html

      I’m not too familiar with the SF Bay area sports stores, unfortunately. But I do recommend Macaroni Scuie Scuie for great Italian food (seriously – check it out!).

  5. srhernan
    October 21, 2008

    Hey, great comment! I just purchased a neoprene diving hood (3mm) that I’m going to try out over the next few weeks. Unlike the one pictured above, this covers the neck. I suspect this is going to make a HUGE difference…

  6. Sam Day
    October 21, 2008

    I was in chicago on business last march, and it was a beautiful day, so I took a dip at that beautiful beach by the park thats at the mouth of the river. all I had brought was my speedo. I think I had goggles. Water was in the mid 40s. I took little 50 yard sprints, got out, dried off, did it again.
    I swim real distances in Puget Sound (55 degrees in summer) in a 2 mil wetsuit. I think the most important thing to wear is a swim cap. Otherwise, I get a headache.

  7. Jason G
    June 28, 2008

    Thanks for the info! If I don’t see you tomorrow, I hope to see you soon. It’s great you’ve got a group for this, I’m very excited about taking the plunge.

    Cheers,

    Jason

  8. srhernan
    June 26, 2008

    Hi Jason! I’d give it a shot. I’ve seen guys do the Alcatraz swim in just a set of jammers, and that water is about 55F. They just apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly on their exposed skin, and they’re fine.

    Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any places you can get the O’Neill here in the city. I ordered mine from a surf shop out in California (www.brucejones.com). People don’t really use them for swimming, but I think they work great.

  9. Jason G
    June 26, 2008

    I’m a bit in the same boat as Sarah–I’d like to jump in this Sunday, but am not sure I’ll be able to gear up before then. Would it be insane to go just in my jammers and swim cap at this time of year? If so, could you recommend a place in the city where I could pick up a short-sleeve thermal top like your O’Neill?

    Thanks!

    Jason

  10. srhernan
    June 19, 2008

    Hi Sarah! I wear a full body wetsuit until the temperature gets in the high 60’s. At that point, I’ll brave the water in just my swim jammers.

    If you can, try to get a triathlon-specific wetsuit. They’re designed for better swimming range-of-motion. And don’t go by higher price as an indicator of a better wetsuit – go by fit. Different brands can vary substantially in how well (or how poorly) they fit you. Mine was actually one of the “cheaper” ones when I bought it. But it fit like a glove when I put it on, and I’ve had it since 2004.

  11. Sarah Higdon
    June 19, 2008

    What type of wetsuit should I be swimming in this time of year? This is all new to me. I am not acclimated to super cold water. 68 degrees is about the coldest I have swam in. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks!

    Sarah


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