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by Elaine K Howley

May 5, 2021

Wetsuits can keep you warm, but here are four accessories that’ll do the job

The concept of what constitutes cold water is a highly personal matter. For some swimmers, anything cooler than the typical 82 degrees you’ll find in your local Y pool is cold. For others, the water only starts to feel brisk when it creeps below 60 degrees. No matter where you fall across this spectrum of cold tolerance, there are tools available to help you stay warmer longer.

Certainly, donning a wetsuit is the first place many swimmers look when trying to extend their open water season. But there are a few other tricks in the open water swimmer’s gear bag that can help you eke out an additional few degrees of comfort in cold temps.


Though many have long been told that you lose a majority of body heat through the head, that old wives’ tale hasn’t been borne out by science. Nevertheless, the head does constitute about 10 percent of the body’s total surface area and you can lose heat via an uncovered head to a cold environment. Keeping the heat in your head from escaping can help your whole body feel a little warmer.

That’s where swim caps come into play. There are three primary types of caps that you’ll see open water swimmers using, and each has its own heat retention profile:

  • Latex. Made of a type of thin, flexible rubber, latex caps are the lightest swim caps you’ll typically see open water swimmers wearing. They’re stretchy and may be more comfortable to wear than other heavier caps, but they provide little protection from the cold.
  • Silicone. Made of thicker material, silicone caps help retain more heat from escaping and can help you feel a little warmer in cold water.
  • Neoprene. Neoprene is a type of synthetic rubber that’s used to make wetsuits and other heat-retaining swimwear, including swim caps. These caps may not be allowed in certain events because of their superior heat retention capabilities, and they can look a little goofy, like an old-school aviation ace’s pilot’s cap. However, for training in cold water, they’re the best way to keep the heat in and the cold out and may help you last just a little longer in cold water.

As water temperatures plunge, many open water swimmers will double up their caps, putting a more comfortable silicone cap on first and topping it with a silicone or neoprene hat for added heat retention.


It might seem absurd that such a small addition can make a difference, but it’s true. Adding earplugs to your open water swimming kit can help you feel warmer for longer in cold water. That’s because the ear canal is loaded with nerve endings and when even just a few drops of cold water get in there, that can bring down the temperature in the ear, sensitizing you to the cold and making you feel colder all over.

Cold water in the ear canal also has the added unfortunate power of potentially making you feel dizzy. When cold water makes contact with all those nerve endings, that can cause a sensation similar to seasickness as the delicate balance of the inner ear is thrown off balance.

Repeated introduction of cold water to the ear canal can also lead to a condition called surfer’s ear, or the development of bony growths that can reduce your ability to hear properly. For all these reasons, when heading out for a cold water swim, it’s wise to plug up your ears.


When swimming in cold water, one of the first body parts that registers when you’re really getting cold are the hands. Any swimmer who’s been in open water that’s cold enough has probably experienced “the claw,” or stiff fingers and hands that won’t relax. It can be very uncomfortable and alarming the first time it happens, but it’s just a sign that your hands are cold and you should consider getting out and getting warm.

Adding neoprene gloves to your open water swimming gear can help delay the onset of the claw. The thicker the neoprene, the more time you’ll buy in open water. Just be sure to find a set of gloves that fit well—gloves that are too loose will let water rush in, negating their heat retention properties and making swimming more cumbersome.


If your toes are the first bits of your body that revolt in cold water, you’re definitely not alone. As you wade into cold water to launch a swim, your toes are first in and last out, and thus endure the heat-stealing effects of cold water longer than other body parts. Adding a pair of neoprene booties or socks to the equation can help ease some of that painful chill and help buy you a few additional minutes in cold water.

In addition, wearing neoprene swim shoes or booties also protects the soles of the feet from sharp seashells or other hazards that might be lurking in the sand or muck at the shoreline. When your feet are very cold, you might not realize that you’ve been cut, but a neoprene barrier can stop that injury before it happens.

Find What Works for You

Get creative and mix and match. But always swim within your limits and in the company of others, especially when the water is very cold.

Cold water swimming is a growing area of interest for a lot of swimmers, and it’s a wonderful way to extend your outdoor swimming season. As you progress, experiment with your gear and find what feels most comfortable for you.

Some winter swimming devotees use a mix of all of these items and forgo the wetsuit all together, instead enjoying a cold frolic while looking a little silly in their cold waterready hats, booties, mittens, and earplugs. As long as you’re safe and having fun, who cares how fashionable you may or may not be?


  • Open Water