‘What kit do I need for an outdoor swim?’ My answer to this question is usually: it depends! Just imagine the difference between running on busy city streets or a windswept rugged mountain; you’re still just running, but you will have completely different gear and a totally distinct plan. There can be big differences between soaking in a London lido, swimming in a wild river, or doing laps of a cold loch, and each one needs a separate plan.
One of the first things I always think about is where I’m going to be swimming – what is the location like? For example, if I’m going for a swim where other people use the water, and where I want to be seen, then I’ll take a tow-float. This bright inflatable bag means I can also carry my keys and phone and keep them dry. When I’m swimming on a bright sunny day, I’ll pack tinted or polarised-lens goggles to let me see better. If my swim is high in the hills, then it might be colder, so I’ll make sure I’ve got enough clothes to keep myself warm. If I’m going for a multi-day swim-hike journey, then a wetsuit and fins are always packed – to help tow my bag and give me the confidence of warmth on longer swims.
My usual swim bag (always packed and ready!) includes a swimsuit,a thin hammam towel,a swim-cap, earplugs and goggles. These items cover lots of situations and are very small and simple to carry in most bags, or even a big pocket. I swim all year, so my body is always used to the temperature – but that doesn’t mean I’m in the water for long in just a swimsuit! A hammam towel is thin and lightweight but absorbent too, and is also long enough to help with changing. They also dry well in the sun or a breeze. I often swim front-crawl, so earplugs prevent water coming into my ears, helping to avoid a “swimmer’s ear” infection or “surfer’s ear” condition. The cap helps hold the earplugs in and makes me visible in the water – this also doubles as a sort of waterproof bag to hold my wet swimsuit in after! I always wear goggles too so that I can see in the water and to stop my contact lenses coming out.
I can then either tweak my kit or swim to suit lots of situations. If the entry to the water is stony or awkward, I can use sandals, water shoes or neoprene socks. If I’m swimming at night, I’ll carry a head-torch or LED glow-sticks. If I’m planning to jump, then I might even take a dive-mask to have a proper look around underwater first. If there are lots of watercraft and I don’t have a tow-float, I might stay close to the edge and look up more regularly.
Don’t get bogged down with having too much stuff as it can ruin the experience of a swim. It can also lead to stress if you grow to rely on having every bit of gear, then suddenly find you’ve left your gloves sitting on the kitchen table. Most of us have the ability to swim with nothing – literally nothing!
As well as gear, one of the most important things are to make a plan – it doesn’t have to be complicated! Just looking at things such as the weather: is it going to rain, will it be windy, is it sunny? I think about the tides and wave size; swimming on an incoming tide is often easier and stops a risk of being pulled out. Magicseaweed.com is a great resource that covers surf beaches, however it can give you a good idea for lots of areas. If I’m heading to a river, I’ll think about if it’s been raining a lot recently and check river levels online. Checking these things can make me change my plan before I leave the house, to choose somewhere different. It can save a wasted journey.
For new swimmers, I’d say hold off before splashing out on a wetsuit as you may not need – or even enjoy – using one. If you are wanting the extra buoyancy, warmth and confidence a suit can give, then see if you can borrow one from a friend. Even better, go for a swim with them! Swim with the wetsuit on, then take it off for a few minutes at the end of your swim. Compare how the water feels and how you feel within it. There’s also a big difference between an all-round water-sports wetsuit and a swimming-specific wetsuit. All-rounders will keep you warm and floating, but a swimming wetsuit can really make you fly faster through the water. Like many swimmers, I wear a wetsuit sometimes and often not at all. For me, it just depends on what I want to get from the swim, and my judgement comes down to years of experience.
Over time, as you become a stronger, more experienced and more confident swimmer, lots of things become second nature or part of your routine. However it can be easy to slip into being a bit complacent, especially when you swim in one place regularly. I used to live near a gorge which had some really nice small pools to explore, as part of a wander up to a waterfall. I loved to go in summer. Like many gorges, it would become wild and unswimmable after heavy rain, with the river washing it out. One pool had a sand and gravel bank that shifted over time. Another pool I could jump into had a tree washed into it after flooding. The trunk jammed between a bank and the bottom, making it impossible to move – it also made any jumps in more difficult! This is a reason to always check the depth and have a look for obstacles under water before jumping: especially after any events that might change the environment. Like with any skill in life, the more you do it, the better you become!