Open Water Swim Equipment

The popularity of open water swimming has been aided by several important and significant improvements in equipment:

The Wetsuit.

Neoprene was first used as an insular material in a total body suit for divers in open water in the 1950s. It is considered a “wet” suit when it traps a small amount of water inside the suit, which eventually warms up and adds to the insular effect. Conversely, dry-suits are completely sealed, and do not allow water to enter; they are used more by divers, in very cold water, and are more complex to get into. They are not practical for open water swim training or racing.

Wetsuits have dramatically reduced the risk of hypothermia in open water endurance swims and dives, by reducing thermal losses by about 90%. In more recent decades, the design, materials, and manufacture of wetsuits have evolved beyond just providing thermal protection; with varying the thickness of the neoprene in different panels of the suit, with improved fit and other newer features, modern wetsuits boast a variety of extra benefits. With rippled texture on the forearms, they can improve the catch phase of the arm stroke; with thicker neoprene over the torso, core warmth is improved, core stability is enhanced, and body position is better streamlined; smoother materials over the suit reduce drag; and with thinner neoprene over the shoulder panels, movements of the shoulder and chest are less restrictive. These benefits have improved swim times significantly for most swimmers in open water (relative to pool swim times). And, of course, the foamy neoprene in wetsuits improves floatation significantly, providing another level of safety for swimmers in open water.

Although wetsuits are not legal in FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation) open water swim events, they remain a mainstay in most triathlons; however, athletes can overheat in a wetsuit when water temperatures exceed 22°C, after which they are not recommended. In the new sport of swim run, where competitors have to run in their wetsuits, thinner materials and easy removal have become important features in wetsuits.

Selecting a wetsuit for open water swimming is first and foremost about comfort and fit. If it is too loose, water may flush through it, and the wetsuit is less likely to keep you warm or swimming efficiently; too tight in the neck chest and shoulders, and it will feel like it is strangling you, it may interfere with chest excursions and breathing, or it may impede shoulder movements and a full, relaxed arm stroke. A sleeveless wetsuit may be a consideration for warmer swims, allowing improved shoulder mobility and water feel, while still providing core insulation.

In triathlons, being able to put on or shed the wetsuit quickly becomes another important purchasing consideration, and this relates in part to the direction that the zipper goes. Triathlon wetsuits all have their zippers up the back, and come in both top down and bottom up zipper configurations; both have an advantage and a disadvantage, and since both designs require your hands to access the zipper behind your neck or back, without being able to see if the neoprene flaps are catching in the zipper, they can be hard to put on without help. Since the upper back is often where the most tension is in a wetsuit (the chest has a larger and firmer (more bony) circumference than the waist), pulling the zipper slider from the bottom up may be hardest to get past this point. Alternately, although it is more difficult to connect the slider and initiate the zipper in the top down varieties without help, once engaged at the top, the pulling down to the bottom may be easier.

Since there is a pull-cord attached to wetsuit zipper sliders, pulling downward on a zipper that closes from the bottom up will open the zipper, a small risk factor while swimming, should the cord get caught in something, including the arm-stroke of another swimmer. Alternately, pulling on the cord in the top down zipper would only tighten the zipper, since the slider is already at the bottom. A cord dangling from the bottom of the back may also be easier to access than one dangling down from the back of the neck, making the removal of suit quicker once the triathlete is transitioning from the water to the bike course.

Since 2007, the advent of swim run events in Europe has prompted further modifications in open water wetsuit designs. Since swim run events are often in cold water, with multiple transitions from swimming to running, they require participants to run in their wetsuits, so most swim run suits have zippers in the front and the back to allow athletes to easily loosen the wetsuits to prevent overheating while running. Some of these suits are also two-pieced, to allow the top part to be completely removed if conditions are too warm.

No matter what the design, putting on (and taking off) a wetsuit takes some care, and is discussed in the Lessons section in Part 4.


Goggles are now considered an integral part of the endurance and competitive swimming armamentarium. Goggles dramatically improve vision in water; in open water environments, they also reduce glare, and protect the eyes from foreign bodies and various irritants, including the sting of salty water.

Perhaps surprisingly, widespread adoption of swim goggles only began about 50 years ago. Although two English Channel swimmers (Thomas Burgess, using breaststroke in 1911, and Gertrude Ederle, using front crawl in 1926) were seen using a modified form of motorcycle goggles about a century ago, goggle use in competitive pool swimming did not appear until the early 1970s, when Scotland’s David Wilkie introduced both a cap and goggles in the 1970 Commonwealth Games. Goggle use in Olympic swimming was only officially sanctioned in 1976—well after legendary swimmer Mark Spitz won all of his 11 Olympic medals (in 1968 and 1972), without ever using goggles. Triathlon and most open water swims have always encouraged the use of goggles, given that these events have had growing popularity only after the widespread introduction of goggles.

Like wetsuits, goggle designs have evolved considerably, especially in recent years–a large array of sizes and shapes for pool swimmers, with extra lens options for the outdoors, (e.g., for sun and glare problems common in open water swimming), including tinted, mirrored, polarized, and even prescription lenses.

Goggle lenses also come with a fog-resistant inside surface that eventually breaks down with repeated use, prompting a need to find an anti-fog lens-cleaning product that helps preserve vision; otherwise, there may be a need to replace goggles frequently, which can get expensive. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a permanent or long-term solution to the problem of goggle lenses that fog up, which is really just a condensate of a highly humid airspace. For many, using ordinary saliva is as effective as any commercial products, although they may be all worth trying.

For many open water swimmers, goggle lens size also matters. In lakes, oceans, and rivers, there are more variables to look out for peripherally than in a pool; and in the absence of a dark line on the bottom to follow, open water swimmers need to “sight” to establish or maintain direction (more on sighting in Part 4). Larger lenses or a mono-lens can easily improve the field of vision, and would take longer to fog up. Although larger goggles may be slightly less hydrodynamic, they tend to improve head insulation in colder water, since they will cover a larger part of the face and forehead with a wider gasket, containing a larger air pocket.

Although there is now an almost bewildering array of goggle models and styles, just like wetsuits; since we all have different shapes, the most important criteria for goggle purchase is the fit and the comfort on your face. The pliable plastic gasket has to fit snugly and perfectly over your cheekbones, nose and forehead, otherwise leaking goggles will be a constant annoyance while swimming. The gasket fit needs to be comfortable as well, without any pressure points, which will also become troublesome over longer swims. With age, and repeated use, gaskets eventually become less pliable and start to leak, at which point it is usually time for a new pair. It is recommended that once you have found a brand and model of goggles that work well for you, consider buying more than one pair at a time, especially since various products are always being discontinued and replaced.

Swim Cap.

As descendants of the bathing cap, swim caps have long been used in pools, primarily to protect hair from salinated or chlorinated water, to reduce drag created by excessive hair, or simply to identify swimmers with their team logos when in races. These caps are usually made of latex, and are inexpensive, lightweight, reasonably durable, and highly elastic. Because of their ubiquity, latex swim caps are also often used by swimmers in open water as well.

However, swim caps used in open water should have at least two other important properties. First, because of the colder temperatures swimmers usually encounter in lakes, rivers and oceans, silicone caps are preferred for open water use due to their greater insulation value. “Double-capping”–using one silicone cap on top of another–can further insulate the head in colder water, especially under 15°C. Silicone caps also have a wave-like profile on their lower edge, to add protection for the ear canal, an area sensitive to the adverse effects of cold water.

Second, the colour of the cap is an important consideration in open water. Since swimmers are usually at least 80% submerged, and often wearing black wetsuits in wavy conditions in open water, swimmers can be hard to see, both by followers (e.g., coaches and supporters), and by various watercraft, from boats to boarders. Along with personal swim buoys (discussed below), brightly coloured caps, especially orange, yellow, pink, and red) are the best choices for open water swimming.

For very cold water, neoprene caps are also available in various thicknesses and designs, and these usually cover the ears completely, even extending over the jaw and under the chin as well. In a race setting, they can be worn under a marked (and brightly coloured) swim cap.

Personal Swim Buoy.

A personal swim buoy (PSB) is an inflatable, brightly-coloured safety aid (usually orange, pink or yellow), about the size of a watermelon, that is attached by a short tether to a waist belt, and towed behind the open water swimmer (they are known as “tow floats” in the UK). PSBs were initially developed in the 1990s in China in various designs and sizes, using various synthetic materials (now mostly durable nylon/PVC composites); they have been sanctioned by the International Swim Hall of Fame (in Florida) as an important safety tool for open water swimmers. PSBs are being increasingly seen and recommended/required in many open water events in North America and Europe, especially in the last decade.

Because they use (usually two) air chambers that are theoretically vulnerable to puncture and deflation, they cannot be officially considered a life-saving device, yet when fully-inflated, they can easily provide sufficient floatation to hold up a 250-pound swimmer, even if one of the air bladders fails. When used while swimming in open water, PSBs are recognized to have several important functions:

A swimmer is more visible to various watercraft–boaters, jet skis, kite boarders, paddlers, etc. A brightly coloured PSB, along with a similarly coloured swim cap, significantly lessens your chance and worry of being accidentally run over; and a swimmer’s progress can be more easily monitored by others, whether by coaches or lifeguards, or just from shore by spectators or others monitoring your safety.

A PSB is also a floatation device, when needed, for rest or recovery–open water swimmers may occasionally suffer from cramps, dizziness, injury, fatigue, or anxiety, prompting a need to stop moving. The PSB’s dual air chambers provide a margin of safety against a deflation failure and can easily be held onto. A PSB can also be easily and quickly detached to rescue others who are in any kind of distress, without risking being pulled under by a desperate swimmer.

Some PSB models can be used as a dry bag, and include a third chamber for storage, allowing some of your personal effects to be taken with you while swimming, a feature that is especially useful in a point-to-point swim. You can also keep various personal effects (keys, wallet, cellphone, shorts, sunglasses, etc.) safe while you’re swimming if you don’t want to leave your valuables on the beach or in your car. Surprisingly, the drag created by a loaded PSB is negligible, due in part to an eddy current created by a swimmers’ bow wave that pushes the PSB forward.

There are several PSB currently on the market, and they come in a variety of colours, materials, styles, and sizes. Check out the listings under “swim buoys” at to see most of the currently available products. Note their sizes (volumes), the number of air chambers, the valve system, the presence of a dry bag chamber, and the quality of the materials used.

Tracking Devices.

GPS-enabled multi-sport technologies have been available for several years now, evolving every year with more options and sophistication, more compact designs, and more competitive pricing. They can all track your course, your time, your pace, and your distance while swimming in open water, although monitoring heart rate remains difficult while immersed in water. Companies like Garmin (such as the 735XT and 920XT), Suunto (Ambit3 Sport GPS), Polar (V800 GPS Sportswatch, TomTom (MultiSport) and Finis (HydroTracker) have made products better suited to open water, although there are many others that also do well in the pool. Only the Polar V800, the Suunto Ambit3 Sport GPS and the TomTom MultiSport Cardio currently provide heart rate data, although it is only accessible after downloading the data.

These tools can provide you fairly accurate distances and time in the water. They can also give you a close look at how straight your swim was, which can be very instructive to a swimmer trying to correct poor sighting abilities or an asymmetrical drifting tendency (more on this in Part 4). None can give any indication of water temperature or body core temperature, which are two other important variables to at least note while open water swimming.


My Personal Story (part 2): Baby Steps, Three Epiphanies

On a logical level, going to a public pool to get adult swimming lessons made perfect sense for me–to better engage with my kids (who had grown up in the water), and perhaps to reinvent myself as a triathlete one day, and interest I had harboured for decades. Yet emotionally, even just to book these lessons, I had to dig deep to overcome my chronic feelings of shame and embarrassment, now coupled with a new risk of publicly exposing myself as an inadequate swimmer. I have never forgotten walking on that pool deck that first day even now, along with several other anxious swimming newbies, hoping against hope that no one, either in the group or otherwise in attendance, would recognize me or embarrass me. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded.

When our instructor asked us to get into the shallow end of the pool, it became quickly apparent I was already in the top half of the class — I, at least, had no trouble getting into 4 feet of water in a swimming pool, but several of my new classmates had clear hesitations doing even that. Somehow that knowledge seemed to relax me — there were others worse off than me!

Our instructor asked us who could swim 25m of the pool and then back without stopping. Although I succeeded in swimming one length, I was gasping by the end and had to swim a modified back stroke to get back to the starting point. An inglorious start to my new swim program, but there were only two others in the group who could do the same thing … we were already the “stars” of the class, though that wasn’t saying much! Our collective baselines, at least, were now clearly established, and I had nothing left to hide.

Our instructor spent the entire class building a sequence of breathing drills, which seemed at first glance to be somewhat boring, but became integral to my understanding as to why I couldn’t swim, despite athletic success in a wide variety of other sports. My first epiphany: it became clear that swimming is the only sport where breathing matters; so much so, in fact, that learning to maintain breathing rhythm has to be prioritized over the techniques of stroke production. With this first lesson, our instructor was getting us to see what would be my second epiphany: that to learn how to swim, you have to build your stroke around your breathing, and not the other way around.


The breathing exercises were all simple enough—any child could understand them–they were a built up sequence of baby steps, none of which needed strength or speed, or even looked like exercise — with practice, we all eventually got it. Within a few sessions, my 25meter swimming limit became a 400m continuous swim, and all because my breathing, for the first time, remained under control while swimming easily. My third epiphany would continue to anchor all my future swimming: to be able to do a sustained swim, I needed to stay relaxed while swimming, so that my breathing rate and rhythm remain totally under control. Just like we all learn to walk before we can run, we have to learn how to swim slowly before you can swim fast. I now, finally, had a foundation of principles to build on.