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Open Water Gear: What Do I Need?

The right tools can make all the difference in open water

Elaine K. Howley | July 1, 2014

If you’re already a pool swimmer, you probably have most of the gear you need to get going in open water. But just as there are unwritten rules governing what constitutes the best gear to use in the pool, open water has its own set of gear rules, too. The basics include a swimsuit, cap, and goggles. You can get by in most events and shorter training swims with just those bare essentials, but a few additional items can improve your experience over longer distances and in certain conditions. Here are some thoughts on selecting the right equipment for open water swimming:

Swimsuit

Depending on the kind of swim you’re aiming for, the type of suit you wear can make or break your swim. For example, if you’re aiming to do a regulated swim, check the rules and find out if you are permitted to wear a suit that extends past the groin. If there’s a rule in place for this, then jammers and knee suits are out and briefs and tank suits are in. Many female open water swimmers also find that thin-strapped, lycra suits are more comfortable over longer periods in the water than their polyester or thick-strapped counterparts—especially if you’ll be swimming in salt water, which can abrade the skin over time. Fancier is not always better in the world of open water.

Sunblock

Sunblock is an absolute must for any outdoor swimmer, and especially so for open water swimmers. The chemicals present in some sunblock brands can irritate sensitive skin, so find one that works for you. You can even find sunblock with jellyfish repellent in it, which may help keep irritation to a minimum if you run into the critters.

Zinc oxide and grease

For really long swims, zinc oxide takes the sunblock theory to a whole new level. Gentle enough to ease diaper rash on babies’ bottoms, a $3 tube of zinc oxide is perhaps the cheapest and most effective tool in the long-distance open water swimmer’s arsenal. (Just make sure you’re buying the type that’s labeled as 40 percent zinc oxide. Some brands are only 10 percent and offer far less protection.) Channel Grease has been proven to be largely ineffective at retaining heat, as it was once thought to do, and it’s a royal mess. This mix of lanolin and Vaseline smears on everything and gets hard and sticky in cold water. Plain Vaseline can help lube chafe points along the suit straps, neck, groin, and under the breasts for women. (Yes, you may well get chafing there, and it is not a fun experience.)

Cap and goggles

Your cap should be a vibrant, fluorescent or neon yellow, orange, or pink. This makes you more visible in the water—it’s more likely that approaching boaters will see you. Tinted or mirrored goggles are helpful in sunny conditions. Goggles marketed as open water goggles often have lenses constructed with a single piece of curved polycarbonate for each eye, giving a panoramic view with good peripheral range that can make seeing and sighting out in the open much easier.

Wetsuit

Depending on where and when you plan to swim, a wetsuit may be an investment you’d like to make. Wetsuits can extend your season in both directions on the calendar, and can offer protection from irritants in the water while providing extra buoyancy and a boost to speed. If you decide to wear a wetsuit, make sure you get one that fits correctly. An ill-fitting wetsuit can cause all sorts of problems from excess drag if a too-large suit floods, to chafing and shoulder pain if it’s too tight. Some experts believe that too-tight wetsuits have been a contributing factor in some cases of swimming induced pulmonary edema.

Safety Device

Never swim alone. If you can arrange it, have a safety kayaker or paddle boarder shadow you. Some open water swimmers also tow safety devices to make themselves more visible to boaters. These devices can double as rescue aids if a swimmer crosses paths with trouble. Commercial devices like the SaferSwimmer Float offered by the International Swimming Hall of Fame also provide a place for you to stow your belongings. A cheap alternative is to MacGyver your own safety device by attaching a rope to a large, plastic ball—the type they sell at Wal-Mart and Toys R’ Us in those end-cap cages for about $3 a pop—and clip the other end of the rope to your swim suit or tie it around your ankle. You’ll look like a moving buoy, but you’ll be visible, and remaining visible at all times is the name of the safety game in open water.

Open Water 101 Article Series

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About the Author—Elaine K. Howley

Elaine K. Howley is Associate Editor of U.S. Masters Swimming. A lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming, she edits and writes for SWIMMER magazine, USMS.org, and the STREAMLINES eNewsletter series. 

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