Pay to Play
(for longer in the water)
Money can provide solid insulation, but neoprene is probably warmer. Poor dad jokes aside, I have found that cold water can be tamed to a certain extent with the proper equipment. I will go over six items for in-water use (and a couple for out-of-water) to help make your experience go as smoothly and comfortably as possible. These I have learned from experience, as I am not well acclimatized to cold water swims and needed to make the most of the time I was out in the river. Below is a list of items that helped push me through the entire winter season to keep on swimming.
This is first on the list for a reason. I found it to be the most important piece of gear for creating a more tolerable experience when trying to swim in cold water. There is something about cold water hitting your ears and temples that will create such a crushing headache that you'll immediately want to seek out resources to prevent that from happening again. There are many options out there but it's improtant you pick a cap that has a nice snug fit. I'm currently using the blueSeventy cap and very happy with it so far. It's neoprene and also has another liner in it for warmth (I went with the warmest/highest rated cap I could find). If you have something similar laying around, give it a shot first and then you can put that money towards other gear.
Earplugs and Silicone Cap
We'll stay focused on the head for this second set of items on the list. These are fairly inexpensive and there is a good chance you might already have these in your swim bag. Using these two items along with the neoprene cap will complete my list of ways to insulate your noggin'. Ear plugs are great to keep water from giving the sensation of penetrating through your skull. Not to mention, if you tend to get water in your ears frequently with swimming like I do, a rush of cold water into your ear canal can cause vertigo. Definitely not something desirable for a potentially long swim out in the open water.
Also, a silicone cap is an excellent addition to the neoprene cap for added warmth. It can also be pulled down a little lower on your forehead than the neoprene cap, so that it can cover your frontal sinus cavities as well as covering a little more of the exposed skin. This added layer of insulation to the sinuses helps slow the cooling of those open air cavities. All these small adjustments and additions add up for a more desirable experience overall.
I've had my hands get cold to the point of losing most muscle control that made it almost impossible to continue catching water. Luckily I was nearing the end of the swim and had a current helping push me to the exit point. That experience felt like doing a closed fist swimming drill at the end of a long workout and really had me in my head about other issues that could arise. So I researched several different neoprene gloves and chose the warmest ones that I thought would work best. I currently use the Zone3 Heat-Tech gloves and haven't had any issues since with cold hands.
Neoprene socks are a great item to have for multiple reasons. Obviously warmth is the main reason for this article and a good pair of socks will keep your feet from going numb and flapping behind you like a couple of full nalgenes attached to the end of your legs. The other benefit is safety. Having the socks add a layer of protection for when you enter and exit the water. As mentioned in the "Free Tips/Tricks" article, there is a much higher risk of slipping or cutting your feet in cold water once they have gone numb. My feet never really gave me issues in the temperatures I swam in, so I went with cheap neoprene socks off Amazon and have been happy with my purchase. Another Agua-holic has the blueSeventy socks and they looked really nice and comfortable.
It is important to keep in mind that scuba/dive wetsuits differ from swimming wetsuits and these come in a wide range of styles and prices.
Finding the best suit for you is a four step process:
Step one is figuring out if you are going to need sleeves. If this is your first swimming wetsuit and you are trying to go as cold as possible, go for a suit with sleeves. The triathlon and swimming specific suits are very shoulder friendly these days - dive suits don't have as much arm mobility.
Step two is figuring out your budget. Fortunately it doesn't cost a lot of money to get an entry level suit that will get the job done. Xterra is a solid brand for getting into this hobby. They seem to always have a "sale" going on, so I've noticed the prices fluctuate around $30-$50 throughout the year. I'd recommend spending around $150 USD to get the level or two above the basic if you can afford it. If money isn't a factor, I would recommend going with a mid to upper tier version of the standard suit from the brand you choose. Don't go with the elite or thermal versions as your first suit unless they win the suit-off in Step three.
Step three is testing out different suits to figure out what is the most comfortable. There are two ways to find that perfect suit. The first is to seek out a shop that rents wetsuits (preferably in your area) to test out different brands/models. Every shop is different but I have heard of some that put your rental fees towards a new suit if you purchase from them. The second option requires more money up front, diligence in time management, and great care taken with each suit when putting on and removing. Many of the big brands offer at least 30 days to test out a suit and encourage you to take it to your open water spots. Some even allow pool usage. You'll want to be sure to follow any instructions given about care of the suits while testing. Know exactly when the start of the testing window starts, so you can have it in the mail with a couple extra days to account for any shipping delays.
Step four is all about fit. Taking the extra time to make sure the suit is on properly is key. It should take around 15 minutes to really get a wetsuit on and properly snugged up in all the right places. The arms and legs of the suit need to be worked up to your armpits and groin area to create the smallest pocket of air possible. The arms and shoulders are the most important for a beginner to get fully worked up. The neck is effected the most by arms that are not fitted correctly and can feel like the suit is choking you. Being newer to open water swimming, there is already some anxiety being in the water that will amplify the feeling of any extra tension on your neck. I've had friends experience this and nearly quit the sport but were able to fix the issue by taking the extra time getting a proper fit. Its alright for the suit to fit a little snug or tight on land because it will loosen up some in the water. Good luck!
Insulated Cups/Water Bottles
One insulated cup for the swim is must. However if you are like me, you may already have a ridiculous assortment of insulated cups and water bottles on hand. I like to use an insulated cup for my pre-swim beverage that provides a boost of warmth right before hitting the water. Then have an insulated water bottle that I give to my pilot for the times I need a warm sip during a feeding. If space is an issue or you don't already have a bunch of spare bottles/cups, the last post-swim drink is the most important and truly the only insulated vessel you need. I've found that drinking a warm-to-hot beverage after cold waters swim is crucial for warming your core back up while your exterior still feels like a cold lump of flesh.
Big Warm Towel or Parka
A warm parka, dry robe, or large towel is another must have item. It always makes the walk to the entry/exit point more pleasant. This needs to be stored near the exit point so getting to that item is as fast as possible. You want to get out of your wet swim apparel and dried off swiftly. The effects of afterdrop are reduced by a quicker transition from wet to dry. Which brings us to the last out-of-water section.
Beanie, Gloves, and Warm Socks
Once all the wet stuff has been shed, it's time to get those warm layers on your body. That beanie was probably already thrown on during the drying process and if not, get it on first. Your torso should be the next area of focus for layering with warm clothing. Then it's dealers choice on how you'd like to dress. Just make sure you have some warm socks, gloves, and thick beanie. These don't have to be fancy items, just make sure you have them before getting out in that cold water.
Remember to not operate a motor vehicle before you have warmed up completely. Afterdrop is very real and people have passed out after cold water swimming, so don't risk it. Spend a little extra time with those wonderful people who made it out with you.
Please listen to your body over trying to hit a certain time when out in the cold. Don't go out alone and listen to others when they tell you to call it a day. Safety is first and foremost when it comes to water activities, especially cold water exposures. Have fun and don't forget to take a moment to soak in the beauty of the area you are swimming.
Semi-coherent ramblings by Jimmy Hanson