Your essential swimming kit guide – by Sara Barnes

April 24, 2024 12 min read

Your essential swimming kit guide – by Sara Barnes

My watery adventures, which, bearing in mind I live in the Lake District, rarely involve parking up in a car park and sauntering down to the lake along a friendly path. I usually need to walk at least fifteen minutes to get my plunge, so I have adapted what clothes and kit I take with me accordingly. I swim or dip every single day, year round, whatever the weather. Occasionally, the weather is absolutely glorious and I can literally go from car to swim spot in the clothes I stand up in: shorts, t-shirt, trainers. The bare minimum for a cooling dip!

Let’s unwrap this from the outside in by running through my coat/outer layer options.

Robie Robes Dry Series: this is a high quality, but well priced, technical piece of gear. I can confirm that it is waterproof and windproof even against the most stormy, vile conditions the Lake District has thrown at it. It has also protected me from 8-foot snowdrifts in Norway and temperatures down to -20C. I have survived a night on the floor at Manchester airport under it after a Ryanair flight was cancelled. Admittedly the cosy fleece lining is not as teddy-bear soft as other brands, but I’d trade that happily for the usability and durability of this fantastic coat. Mine was given to me by Robie Robes to help me survive tough Norwegian weather during the research stage of writing The Cold Fix.



If I am planning to walk a reasonable distance across uneven ground, such as up to a mountain tarn or tracking a gill up a ravine, I need to see where I place my feet, so a shorter coat is safer. In this scenario it makes more sense to me to opt for one or both the Fourth Element Storm Poncho or the Buffalo Mountain Shirt.

On a mid-November day with a forecast indicating rain or possible sleet I started my walk up to Scales Tarn (a cirque tarn 2,000 feet up and lying just below Sharp Edge and Blencathra in the North Lakes) wearing the Buffalo Mountain Shirt (mine is at last twenty-five years old and still in perfect condition) next to my skin. Given that we’ve always been advised to ‘layer up’, it might sound odd just to rely on one layer, but Buffalo Clothing Systems recommend doing this for maximum efficiency. There are top and bottom ventilation zips on both sides. So, on the climb up the mountain you can ventilate well and not overheat, but coming back down I always close the zippers back up and seal in the warmth. I find the fleece inner and Pertex outer are a perfect combination in most conditions and on this occasion it was enough to get me back down the mountain, even though the sleet was fast becoming more like actual snow!

If I’m going out into the mountains and the forecast is variable I often take my Fourth Element Storm Poncho, which I roll up and fasten on top of my rucksack. Being shorter than a swim cloak, but with the practicality of being able to change under it because it’s voluminous, you really don’t need to take a towel with you either, or any other coat. I often take it on some of my longer walks because it is lighter weight than my Robie Robes and a bit of a security blanket in case the weather really turns nasty while I’m out and I feel the Buffalo is not quite enough. Unlike a swim cloak it has no front zip, or any zipper at all actually. As I slip it over my head and pulled it down to mid-thigh I instantly feel protected against any wind or cold air. Another positive is that my rucksack straps fit easily over it and I can also do up the chest and waist straps to ensure maximum comfort and stability on any slightly slippery and tricky sections of path. Once back down on the lower section of a walk if I start to heat up I pull off the poncho and either roll up back up into the rucksack, or secure it under the top flap and I’m good to go.

Warmer weather dips take a little less preparation, I find, in terms of what outer layer to wear or to have in my bag, just in case. If the weather is warm, but wet and windy I might still use my lighter weight Fourth Element, or at least take it in my rucksack, but often I’ll revert to my Buffalo, knowing I can have the vents wide open top and bottom, or close them if I am chilly post-swim.


Next layer down – let’s start with bottoms

Apres Plunge dungarees: these are made of a soft, cosy, but wind and water-resistant fleece material and come in a range of beautiful colours. They are made by hand in Sheffield and are rather exclusive as the designer and maker only makes a few in each batch. The design is aimed at wild swimmers who want something practical, but stylish and a great alternative to baggy joggers. I am happy to wear mine to the supermarket or coffee shop post-swim, teamed with a cosy thermal top underneath and jacket over the top. The beauty is in the detail: floral fabric lining two side pockets, a useful carabiner on a belt loop, adjustable straps, soft cuffs and there has also been a special range with Pertex lining on the bum, perfect for sitting on damp rocks and grass.

I wear these all times of the year and on a warm day even if I walk into a dip in shorts, I keep a pair in my rucksack in case the weather changes, or my legs feel cold afterwards.

I often pair my dungarees with the Buffalo Mountain Shirt, even in the winter. This combo makes for quick and easy dipping in a river pool for example, just pull them both off, skinny dip, and pull them back on. I often don’t even take a microfibre towel, the fleece of both the dungarees and the Buffalo do a really good job of drying and rewarming my damp body.  

On more than one occasion in the spring and summer I have popped a drink, a snack and my tripod into my bag, pulled on my dungarees over knickers and t-shirt, grabbed a pair of socks and trainers and gone off in search of a secret swim spot. I call this no faff dipping at its finest.

When I’m not wearing my Apres Plunge, my favourite bottoms are a pair of Rab Torque Pants. Rab Equipment describe them as being ‘built for active mountain use in warm climates, the flexible, slim-fit Women’s Alpine Torque Pant is an uncompromising technical climbing garment that provides the freedom you need to perform at your best’. I bought them because they have an elasticated waist, which is so much easier to deal with when your hands are cold than the zip and buckle found on so many other brands of ‘outdoor’ or ‘trekking’ pants, the lightweight fabric has a bit of stretch, which is great for the type of exploration I often end up doing when in search of waterfalls and river pools and they are long enough in the leg and crotch. I am tall (5'10) with a 34in inside leg and have found it almost impossible in the past to buy any type of trouser, including jeans. So, to find these has been a dream come true. The leg length is perfect for me, and the added bonus is the ankle zip, which means I can pull these pants on over my swim socks or booties and deal with my cold feet once I’m fully dressed. This really is an important detail worth bearing in mind when choosing trousers. Finally, my Rab pants are a beautiful, happy red colour with black, reinforced patches on the knees, such a wonderful change to the usual black and grey trousers seen everywhere. Having travelled to Norway and seen everyone sporting bright colours: orange, red, blue, green, yellow … my eyes were drawn instantly to these Rab pants, colour does matter! I now note that they do the same pants in canary yellow! How beautiful is that?!



A key factor for me when choosing what top to wear is how easy it will be to pull onto my cold, damp body post-dip. The arms can be closely fitting so long as the fabric doesn’t stick to my skin, making it hard work to slide on. It’s far easier to have no zip or buttons on this first layer, so a simple thermal top or t-shirt is great, but one of my preferred options has been a vest top which I can step into and then pull up over my body. I have one from Bamboo clothing, which is warm, soft and can be worn over and over again without washing after every wear. Primarily designed for yoga and running their line of clothing is superb and I have quite a few pieces, which I use on a regular basis. As the first layer to pull on they are hard to beat. One of their t-shirts is a staple for when I’m travelling in my campervan because the fabric makes it both warm and cool. It was part of their campaign Dare to Wear More Than Once, which they ran a couple of years ago to raise awareness for sustainability and the need to limit our water consumption. I wore it for five days in a row during the summer and it did not become smelly in the slightest.

That extra layer you just wish you had …

The gilet or body warmer. This has to be one of those items of clothing that is always worth taking with you in your rucksack or swim bag. Mine is from SelkieSwim (now exclusively available from Outdoor Swimmer Shop) and is a lightweight, polyester filled garment that can survive a light rain shower, but will keep you warm even when it is wet. I often take mine with me as a ‘just in case’ and it fits over a light fleece, t-shirt, Apres Plunge dungarees combo.

Next to the skin, or just skinny dip?

Which swimsuit I wear depends on the location of swim spot too – if I’m going to be walking a reasonable distance I prefer to wear a bikini to make it easier to have a wild wee! There is little difference in warmth between a swimsuit and bikini. Favourite brands include Pour Moi and DavyJ. Speedo tend to be cut in a flattering way and suit a longer body like mine, but I have costumes from Next, Debenhams, Batoko and a Danish company who help you design your own swimsuit from one of your own photographs, Dinbaderagt. I once did a personal challenge around swimsuits: it was February and I set myself the task of swimming ‘with’ a different swimsuit or bikini every day. It gave me an opportunity to revisit old swimsuits and tell a story about why and when each one came into my possession, and what it meant to me. Although my social media posts clearly showed the swimsuit, it was never actually on me. I skinny dipped every day in February and my point was that it doesn’t ever matter what you wear so long as you’re happy in your own skin, stay safe and have a good experience.  

Protect your extremities


For winter warmth I wear neoprene gloves or mitts: C-Skins' wired gloves are first class for warmth and dexterity, while Danish company NORDBAEK make some fabulous mitts with Velcro fastenings to keep them tight around your wrist. On my feet I use C-Skins Legends if I’m dipping somewhere with easy access, but if I know I’m going to be scrambling around on rocks and rough ground I prefer to use my Osprey zipped ankle booties, which have a firmer and grippier sole. I protect my hands and feet religiously because if my hands get too cold I won’t be able to dress myself, if my feet get cut or too cold I won’t be able to walk back down the mountain. Safety and self awareness are paramount for me as I am often out on my own in the wild, often with very little or no mobile reception. I need to be able to get dressed and get back down to the car on my own.

Hats or headwear are important to me, before, during and after my swim. Even in summer I take some kind of beanie or bobble hat. I have a lightweight, merino wool beanie from Norwegian company Kari Traa, it keeps me warm even when wet and packs away small – perfect to keep in a coat pocket at all times or for travelling. Wild Moose do some British-made wool bobble hats in many different colours and they are a fabulous fit and have a fleece inner around the brim to prevent any itching.

And what do I carry it all in?

This depends on the type of swim I’m packing for. I have a Wild Moose Caribou backpack, a NORDBAEK tote and a Vango 25-litre rucksack.

The Wild Moose Caribou is a fully waterproof backpack, with roll-top design which I find works well as it’s quick and easy to open up, find your kit and re-close – perfect if the weather is horrible! There’s an interesting feature that some people miss: the inner drybag unzips so that when you get home you can simply detach it and drop your wet gear into the sink. I usually pack my dry stuff into the bag first then let this drybag flop back down onto the top, so it’s easy to deal with. 

My Vango, 25-litre rucksack is at least twenty years old and still in good condition because it was great quality. I keep a smaller drybag in the outer pocket to put my wet kit in. I value comfort when out walking longer distances so I remember taking a long time trying on different rucksacks, with some advice from staff at George Fisher. I didn’t realise every rucksack will fit in a different way and it really does matter when you’re carrying twenty-five litres up hill or out on the fells all day. It fits my back and the weight is distributed across my shoulders and hips because of the excellent fit.

The NORDBAEK Swim tote is beautifully made and the perfect size for one of their hamman towels, a pair of swim mitts and shoes, a snack, a drink and a warm layer. I use it if I only have a short walk from home to swim spot, or have parked up close to the water. The internal zipped pocket is the perfect size for mobile, purse and car keys. If you’re looking for Nordic style and colours inspired by nature then their jumpsuits, robes, hammans and bags will steal your heart. And bear in mind the temperatures swimmers and dippers contend with in Denmark during the winter – when I was there at the end of February and swam in the Baltic and in the harbour in Copenhagen the water temperature varied between 1C and 3C, and the air temperature got to a heady 3C one day.

And, finally, what do I wear on my feet?

Contrary to popular advice I often wear rubber boots. When walking across wet, boggy ground within seconds my feet would be wet in ordinary walking boots or trainers. My rubber boots are from Lidl, fleece lined and have grippy soles. However, I also wear a pair of Remonte (Rieker) fleece lined, calf height boots most of the year round. These have laces up the front and a side zip, so are incredibly easy to get on and off. The soles are tough and grippy, with a secret weapon for ice: tiny spikes on a rubber base that can be flicked over and clicked into the sole as and when you need extra grip on icy ground. You will set off airport security alarms, so be warned! I have shovelled snow while wearing them in 8-foot snow drifts in Norway and because I regularly polish and spray them with a good protection spray, they are bombproof.

Other than these boots I wear Altra Lone Peak trail shoes on most of my adventures. They have excellent grip, have never given me blisters and will wash up well after a day of walking through bogs and streams.






And, of course, all this cold water exposure gives you an appetite

But, first, don’t forget the vital hot drink you need, even in summer. I have a small flask from Wild Moose and also a more substantial one from Camelbak, called the MultiBev Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel bottle 650ml with 480ml cup. Both are excellent, but I tend to take my Wild Moose thermos with me on shorter walks and adventures, whereas the Camelbak gives me the option of taking soup as you can pour it into the large cup and spoon it out. My drink of choice is Earl Grey without milk, or a sweet and spicy Norwegian, non-alchoholic Glugg. I always preheat my flask though because then whatever I take in it will stay hot for longer, especially on a cold winter’s day.

Snacks include homemade date and ginger cake from my own recipe (included below), which I make in batches and freeze in pre-cut squares ready to pop in a small food container as I head out – defrosted by the time I arrive at my swim spot. I also like to take mixed nuts for their saltiness, protein and energy giving benefits. A particular favourite at the moment is a mixed nut mix from Lidl, which has some olives in it, delicious. Apples, kiwi and grapes also often feature because they don’t get squashed as easily as bananas, peaches or tangerines, no peel to bring home with me (I eat kiwi whole, including the skin) and an apple core will quickly be disposed of by ants and small rodents, whereas banana skins take far longer than anyone realises to compost completely. In the summer I often take pre-cut watermelon or pineapple because I feel the need for juicy sweet fruit.

Recipe for date and ginger cake

Makes about twenty chunks.

Oven temp. 160C (fan)
Time to prepare: 10 mins

Cooking time: 30-40 mins depending on whether you want soft baked or firmer cake texture.

8oz butter
8oz soft brown sugar
8oz self raising flour
1tsp baking powder
4 medium sized eggs
Chopped Medjool dates 8 large ones
Crystallised ginger (8 pieces chopped)
2 tsps cinnamon

Cream butter with the sugar. Add beaten eggs. Mix and the fold in the sieved flour and baking powder. Add cinnamon and chopped dates and ginger. Mix in gently. Put the mixture into a lined baking tin, approximately 10 x 7 ins. Cook on middle shelf for approx. 30-40 mins. Test with a knife blade after 30 minutes and if it comes out clean the cake is cooked, but cook for a few more minutes if the mixture is sticking to the knife.

Cool on a wire cooling tray, then cut up into chunks. Freezes really well.