Wild swimming UK 2023: essentials to start open water swimming
Wild swimming is great for body and mind - but there are some pieces of kit that are worth investing to to get the most out of it. Here’s what you need
This article contains affiliate links. We may earn a small commission on items purchased through this article, but that does not affect our editorial judgement.
The popularity of wild swimming has exploded in recent years, with the mental health benefits being increasingly promoted by its advocates. Now many of those once secret spots are meccas for bathers, and the term ‘wild swimming’ is used to encompass outdoor dips in any patch of safe outdoor water, whether inland or on the coast.
For a hobby that can essentially be enjoyed for free, there’s a rapidly building market for kit that is making the activity big business. If you’re the competitive type who wants to gain every advantage possible in the water, then it could cost you a fortune; for the rest of us it’s important to carefully consider what your priority purchases are.
For example, if you’re the type who is planning on dips all year round in colder water, then it’s worth spending money on the stuff that will keep you warm before, during and after your swim.
Besides being hardy souls, wild swimmers also tend to be an environmentally conscious lot, so in this list we’ve considered some of the many products with environmental creds.
Whether you’re the sporty swimmer or a quick dipper, there should be something here that will increase the enjoyment of your next wild swim…
Wild swimming is growing in popularity
Earlier this year, our reporter Helen Johnson examined why wild swimming was growing in popularity.
A trends report published by Outdoor Swimmer in January of this year revealed that 45 per cent of swimmers increased how much they swam outside in 2020, estimating that participation in outdoor swimming in the UK has increased by between 1.5 and 3 times since 2019.
Mountain Warehouse has also seen a surge in interest for outdoor water activities, with searches for wetsuits on its website recently increasing by over 495 per cent, and sales of wetsuits from January to March 2021 growing by 229 per cent.
The benefits of open water swimming
The physical and mental health benefits of open water swimming is by James Whitehead, Operations Manager at the North Yorkshire Water Park, which offers open water swimming at its lake.
Mr Whitehead says, “Open water swimming is a fantastic way to get away from the stress of everyday life, reconnect with nature and exercise without being confined to a pool.
“The cold water increases your metabolism, boosts your immune system, and even improves your circulation.
“Swimming is known to improve your mental health by producing dopamine and endorphins, but even better than that, the cold water accelerates the release of endorphins even further, making you feel great both during and after.”
So - Leap In! Here’s what you need.
Attend any outdoor gathering of swimmers or surfers and we’ll bet that at least one of them is sporting a dryrobe and, before long, it will be the focus of conversation.
These changing robes have become a bit of a phenomenon, spawning many imitations since their launch in 2010 - though we love the original.
Waterproof and windproof on the outside and snuggly warm on the inside they’re used by swimmers when hanging around before or after their swim.
They’re also big enough that once you’ve dried yourself and they’ve helped you get back up to temperature, you can pull your arms out of the sleeves and get changed inside them without feeling the cold air hit your skin.
Complete with large pockets they come in various sizes, along with a range of plain or camouflage colours.
While you don’t need a wetsuit to go swimming outdoors, many people consider it a necessity, particularly those who struggle with colder temperatures or value the extra protection and buoyancy they provide.
Choosing one can be quite a challenge, juggling a range of factors that include comfort, thickness and flexibility while keeping an eye on the price.
We have a comprehensive round up of women’s wetsuits here, and one of men’s wetsuits here. If you don’t want to be burdened with making a decision, however, Alpkit is a great bet.
Alpkit have a variety of wetsuits for most needs, with the Lotic being much admired for its all-round performance at a price that very much suits the beginner.
It’s thick enough to keep the cold at bay for a while, without making you feel stiff limbed, and attention to buoyancy in the design helps lift your lower body in a way that makes your swim more efficient.
Comes in a wide range of sizes for both men and women.
Tow floats are such an essential safety item for swimmers that some locations make them a requirement. The idea is that by attaching something that floats alongside you in a bright, clearly visible colour, you’ll be more easily spotted at distance.
To double up on the tow float benefits, many of them – including this one from Zone3– also act as dry bags, allowing you to keep a few valuables with you while you paddle across the water.
Designed to be lightweight and minimise drag, this tow float practically glows in its choice of vibrant pink or orange colours.
It also features several grab handles and attachment points and comes with a whistle so you can be heard as well as seen.
This is one of those items that you don’t think you need but, when you get one, begin to wonder how you managed without it. It’s essentially a big bag to climb into it and get changed.
The base of the bag is your changing mat, insulated to keep your feet warm.
It’s got a drawstring closure for quick and easy access with shivering hands.
Perhaps the most essential item you didn’t know you needed.
On the one hand, a swimsuit is a swimsuit, yes. But some swimsuits are more environmentally friendly than others.
Everlane’s swimsuits are not only comfortable to wear, but they look great and are produced with the environment in mind. They’re made in small batches from recycled plastic waste (that might otherwise end up in our oceans) - every piece in their line is comprised of 82% regenerated nylon derived from recycled plastic.
The Square-Neck One Piece was fit-tested on 112 different women to ensure that it feels comfortable, looks flattering, and stays put—no matter how you move.
We lose most of our heat through the extremities of our bodies – hands, feet and head – so it makes sense that swimming gloves, socks and hats will all help keep cold water swimmers warm.
You can get all three from Decathlon at a good price, made from synthetic rubber neoprene, which offers long lasting insulation with suitable stretchability.
Swim hats are particularly advantageous for wild swimmers – besides providing warmth and being able to contain unruly mops of hair, it’s sensible to make your head easily visible to other swimmers for safety purposes. With its bright orange side patterns, this Nabaiji swim cap achieves this with a certain degree of style.
For a seemingly simple piece of swimming kit, goggles come with a long list of considerations for the wild swimmer, each likely to bump up the price a bit.
Nabaiji’s Bfit goggles tick off the most of the most important ones, including mirror lenses to keep out extreme UV light; an anti-fog finish; and no latex (which causes an allergic reaction with some people).
They also come with three interchangeable nose clips.
We found they made a good seal around our eyes and were extremely comfortable to wear, while visibility was perfectly clear.
Some people might like to consider goggles with a wider vision or a ‘clean and swim’ coating that increases the lifespan, but for most people these are more than adequate and a great price too.
On most occasions when you emerge from the water dripping wet, the British climate will ensure that you’ll be wanting a hot drink to sip.
Klean Kanteen’s Insulated Thermos can keep a drink hot for up to 20 hours, with an insulated lid that doubles up as a cup and innovative ‘TK Closure’ cap helping to boost its thermal properties, besides making it leak proof.
Made from food grade stainless steel and silicone it’s 100% plastic free, meaning no off flavours or BPA chemicals penetrating your drink of choice, while a chip-resistant coating will help protect its good looks.
It also keeps drinks cold (for up to 75 hours!) on those rare occasions when you’re out swimming in tropical conditions.
If your swimming pals are reluctant to share the locations of their favourite UK swimming spots with you, then discover 300 of them in this bestselling book by Daniel Start (which is probably where your pals found them in the first place).
It features some of the most beautiful lakes, rivers and coastal spots for a watery dip, many of them off the beaten track, with beautiful photographs that will make you all the more eager to seek them out.
You’ll also find all the practical information you need, including notes of safety and access along with nearby campsites, pubs and cafés.
It’s easy to be fooled into thinking the sun isn’t as intense when you’re in water, its cooling nature cancelling out some of the sun’s heat. But factor in water’s reflective properties and sun burn can be a greater risk.
When choosing a sun cream it’s important to not only pick one that offers good, waterproof protection but avoid any that are loaded with the kind of harsh chemicals that can damage the underwater environment.
For this, the label to look for is ‘reef safe’, besides scanning the ingredients to make sure oxybezone and octinoxate aren’t among them.
Green People’s sunscreen is packed with natural ingredients, including aloe vera and green tea, that are 84% organic and provides SPF30 protection for sensitive skin. It also comes in plant based packaging that is 100% recyclable.