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Top 10: winter swim apparel

Temperatures are dropping and the water is getting chillier... We all feel it, but how much kit we choose to put on is a very personal thing. Some swimmers love the feeling of icy water flowing past their skin, while others want to don as much neoprene as possible to keep a little warmer and stay in for longer.

'Skins' and wetsuit swimmers on one of my winter swimming workshops (I'm far left in my 2mm neoprene swimsuit). Water was 12 degrees for this swim and length of time per swimmer in the water varied from 5 minutes up to 30 minutes.

You know what? Either way (or anywhere in between!) is 100% OK. There are no rights or wrongs with winter kit (so long as you are safe, of course) and I'm a huge believer in owning your own swim experience. I've had people shout 'you don't need a wetsuit' when I've been on my way into the water fully-neoprened up – and conversely I've had people tell me I'm nuts for heading into cold water for a skins dip. My advice is to wear what YOU need to wear to enjoy your winter swim or dip as much as possible.

That said, the list below is my top 10 of winter swimming kit (in order of things you can add), with a few recommendations of things folk have seen me wearing at the lake and asked about. As for after your swim, I'll be posting my post-swim kit recommendations next week, so keep an eye out if you're interested in bobble hats and furry clogs!

A skins swim in chillier water! Swimsuit by Batoko, image by Daniel James Pix

  1. Swimsuit or shorts: unless you're into skinny dipping (and I know a few folk who are, I'm looking at you Melvin and Leia*) then something for decency is our first layer in winter. Go for a costume that is easy to remove with frozen fingers though. So no fiddly fasteners or annoying straps! I love the suits by Batoko, which are eco-friendly, brilliantly-designed and comfortable. By the way, my name is Helen and I'm a swimsuit addict...

  2. 2. Tow-float: I'm including this in swim apparel as you 'wear' it during your swim. You won't notice this bobbing behind you but it can be invaluable for keeping you visible while swimming. There's the added benefit of being able to grab it and 'bob' on it if you do have a panicky moment, too. Tow-floats are mandatory in Lake 32 from 1st November onwards.

  3. Swim hat: Brightly-coloured swim hats should always be on your list, again for safety and visibility. They keep your head warm too and if you want extra warmth for front-crawl, an easy option is to wear two swim hats!

  4. Neoprene gloves: These will make a big difference to how comfortable your hands feel in cold water and are useful if you suffer from Raynaud's. I have tiny hands and most gloves from the usual swim brands are too big for me, so a top tip is to check out children's neoprene gloves in surf outlets.

  5. Neoprene socks: Like the gloves, these make a big difference if your feet feel the cold. Just make sure they fit you well, or they'll likely just fill up with water and fall off mid-swim! I like my HUUB Swim Socks (£39.99) which have a split toe design (my friend Evie calls them my 'goat feet'!) which helps them stay on and also means you can wear flip-flops with them.

  6. Neoprene swim suit: Just a simple swim suit shape, but made out of neoprene for extra warmth. Mine is a 2mm version from Finisterre (£110), also available in a sleeved version, and it makes a surprising amount of difference to core warmth in the water! Men could try a pair of neoprene shorts (typically worn for buoyancy but also warmer) as well as a neoprene vest.

  7. Swimming wetsuit: Your first line of defence if you want full-body coverage, there's a huge range on the market but crucially it needs to fit you properly. A wetsuit works by allowing a small amount of water inside, which is warmed by your body and creates a layer in between your skin and the suit. If cold water is flushing through the wetsuit as you swim then the suit is too big and will not work properly. Warmer suits will have thicker neoprene on the core (up to 5mm if race legal for triathlon).

  8. Thermal swimming wetsuit: Need more warmth? Then look at the expanding range of thermal wetsuits out there. Like a normal swimming wetsuit these are made of hydrophobic coated neoprene, but also feature a fuzzy thermal layer made out of Zirconium. I'm using the Blueseventy Reaction version at the moment (£519). If you're on a budget then Alpkit have their Silvertip thermal wetsuit (£199.99) but I haven't tried this one yet as most sizes are sold out! I'm also testing thermal wetsuits by Zone3 and Orca soon for 220 Triathlon, come back soon for full reviews.

  9. Neoprene headwear: For front-crawl swimmers, getting another layer under the normal swim hat can make a big difference and cover up sensitive receptors in your forehead. Choose from a neoprene headband to a neoprene cap depending on your preference, worn under your normal swim hat for a snug fit and to retain the visibility in the water of your bright swim hat. I wear an Orca headband (£12) which also covers the ears, or a dHB neoprene cap (£25) with chin strap. For the ultimate in bonce-warmth, then the HUUB neoprene balaclava (£39.99) is a game-changer, covering the sensitive blood vessels and arteries in the neck.

  10. Extra bits and bobs: Just a couple of extras that can help! Try and cover your ear canal in cold water, as cold water shooting into your ears will make you feel chilly, plus it isn't very good for the ear canal. Finally, if you are putting your face in the water when you swim, then choosing bigger, mask-style goggles will make a difference as more of your face is covered!

Wintery swim with swimming wetsuit, neoprene hat and neoprene gloves. Photo: Daniel James Pix.

Hopefully this is useful, but remember your choice of swim kit is very individual to you and you might find your needs and preferences change as the winter goes on. Start with what you've got and invest in more kit as and when you need it (although neoprene accessories do tend to sell out quite quickly, so be mindful of availability). You'll see me do a mix of both: longer swims in all the kit and shorter, exhilarating social dips in just my cossie!

* These skins swimmers' names have been changed for anonymity. They will know who they are though... and this is also my sneaky way of seeing if my friends read my articles ;)

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