Packing a cold swim kit

Gear for heading into the water

  • Bathing suit: as the weather gets colder, I switch to a slightly more worn and looser-fitting suit, so it’s easier for cold hands to pull off afterwards. Nothing worse than cold hands being trapped in your bathing suit while trying to pull it off...it's happened!

  • Silicone cap: retains heat better than latex, some swimmers will wear one of each for maximum heat retention.

  • Earplugs: an absolute must for chilly swimmers in three critical ways, (1) retain more body heat, (2) prevent exostosis, and (3) avoid possible disorientation, vertigo and nausea caused by cold water entering the ear canal.

  • Goggles: I use a pair dedicated to freshwater swimming as chlorine has a tendency to wear down the lenses which then fog up, and with mirrored or dark lenses are great if it’s sunny outside.

  • Footwear: I wear crocs, but any plastic or waterproof footwear my feet easily slide into will do. As the shoreline gets colder/icier, I’m sure to wear something non-slip with good traction. I had to ditch my flip-flops for very cold swims because my exit is sometimes unsteady, not unlike a drunken sailor, and I wasted precious recovery time trying to fit the little strap between my toes. If there's ice, I put ice cleats on my crocs to help make sure I don't slip and fall! Pic below, right.

  • Towel: It’s on the list because I tend to forget. Which really sucks. Bring an extra one to stand on.

  • Thermometer: I usually like to know both air and water temperatures, it allows me to both mentally prepare but more importantly gives me a baseline for what conditions and risks I’m exposing myself to before even getting in. Weather conditions make a huge difference on how cold I get and how well I recover, and how much help I may need upon exit.

  • Watch: For longer swims, I like know how long I’ve been exposed to the cold, it helps me gauge my physiological condition during the swim. I use a GPS watch so I can track distance swum, but it’s not really necessary, key importance is keeping an eye on the time. I start the timer as I head in to the water, and also note the time of full torso submersion. If ice swims are short enough, I don't bother, besides, my poor watch shuts down cause the battery gets too cold under 5C(41F)!

  • Notepad and pen: I often jot down the temps and times while we’re still on the beach, on paper or notes app on my phone, and record how the swim felt when I get home. If someone were just swimming for pleasure, this probably wouldn’t matter much, but I’m swimming to progressively habituate and acclimatize to cold, I like looking back at my progress over time and in various conditions.

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Exiting the water in moderately cold temps, which for me = air and water about 6-9C(42.8F-48.2F):

  • Sheltered way to change: In the absence of washroom/change room very nearby, the next best option is changing quickly on the beach. Men probably have it easier in this regard, a towel around the waist will do, but removing a woman’s one-piece suit and subsequently putting on clothing  while staying covered up is a bit trickier. Possibilities for all include an outdoor swim parka, a large poncho.

  • Something to stand on while changing: Flat kick board, yoga mat, extra towel, anything to keep my feet away from the cold ground and subsequently from getting even colder.

  • Dry clothing: Stretchy clothing is easier to put on, I wear layers where possible (better heat retention), warm socks are a must.

  • Wooly hat and gloves/mitts: I keep my head and hands protected after a swim, to avoid losing more body heat. Gloves allow my hands more dexterity for getting dressed, whereas mitts have enough room to slide in a heat pack to warm those chilly fingers. I bring along a pair of each, and swap them out as needed. Note that heat packs are only good for once your hands have warmed up a bit, put one on to really icy skin and you'll see just how much that hurts, so give it a few minutes if needed.

  • Something warm to drink: Sweet tea, coffee and pea soup are my favourites, I’m not convinced either do much to warm my core, but drinking them feels nourishing and rewarding.

  • Kleenex: I get a runny nose. It’s not pretty. Trust me.

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Exiting the water in very cold temps, which for me = air and water below 5C(41F):

 

All of the above, plus…

  • Swim float: It’s always a good idea to consider wearing one no matter the temp, but some swimmers make it a requirement for more extreme cold swims.

  • Physical shelter to change in: I set up a small dome tent on the beach, close to our exit point. It provides protection from cold and wind, and I can change quickly without fiddling under a swim parka. Unfortunately, our car is usually parked is too far away to get to quickly, otherwise the backseat would do just fine.

  • Towel for hands: For extremely cold swims, I keep a towel to gently dry and cover my hands immediately upon exit, before I even make it into the tent, to further prevent/limit nerve damage. If you've got a supporter, they can do this for you.

  • Towel for edge of ice: If we're swimming somewhere where the shoreline is frozen over and iced up, sometimes we'll lay a towel down to make it easier to sit down and step into the water from a seated position. If the edge of the shore has sharp ice, we'll dangle it right over and into the water to protect our legs. Edge ice can be very sharp, enough to slice into your calf if you were to fall backwards while getting in, I'm sure, so we're very cautious and ensure there's a layer of protection against the ice. Never stand on the towel, it can slide, instead sit down and scoot forwards on your bum.

  • Heat packs: My tent is too small to safely use a propane heater, but reusable Toasterz heat packs work like a charm (pic below), each pack is filled with food-grade fluid and a small metal disk, snapping the disk produces a chemical reaction that generates heat. Depending on the ambient temp and conditions, let’s use a light breezy 7C sunny day for example, the heat can last up to 45mins: first 10mins are hot heat, next 20mins are moderately warm heat, and afterwards a cozy lukewarm heat. In much colder temps, say 0-2C dark and windy, it will last about 10-15mins total. I have about 12 of them, just in case, and I keep them in a plastic container so they don’t accidentally activate while rolling around in my kit. I don't use them much these days, I've gotten used to just rewarming on my own, but they are a lovely treat sometimes. Careful not to use them on icy skin as they will feel like burning, or until your core starts to rewarm on it's own, best to let nature take it's course first before applying outside heat sources.

  • Other creative solutions for quick warming: Inspired by a swimmie friend’s colourful onesie, which goes on quickly and is super-cozy, hubby bought me one for my birthday and I made modifications to suit cold swimming; drawstring added to hood, thermal socks sewn into the feet so the whole thing goes on in one fell swoop.

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Nope, not done yet…

  • My cold swimming gear is kept separate from my regular pool swimming stuff, as it often picks up sand and stones from the beach;

  • I pack my gear in a kit bag that has pockets for small stuff and a wide opening for bigger pieces, it’s easier to manage finding things beforehand and packing up afterwards in the cold, a big blue IKEA bag also does the trick when hands are too cold to pack things up properly;

  • My tent goes into a extra-large duffle bag, no fussing with proper rolling and folding.

  • I’m always checking out what other cold swimmers are doing, asking questions, asking for advice, exploring other ideas and solutions. I never stop learning, one person can’t know it all.

Swim treats

​Have I mentioned swim treats yet? No? Weird, cause that's practically the most important part! Well, it's not really, but it is definitely a lot of fun. Consider bringing along treats for your chilly swim gang to share, or take turns. We often enjoy them on the beach, or if it's too cold, in the car while waiting for the heat to warm us up. It's amazing how hungry you can get after a good swim. And, how amazing food tastes when you're rewarming! Ideas: hot pea soup in a thermos, bread and hummus, and cupcakes or something sweet and sinful within the cake category. Below are some pretty divine cupcakes we had at Vampire Swim one year, eyeballs and all. Any swim cake will do, really!

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The ideal kit for cold swimming will vary depending on any swimmer’s goals, needs, accessibility, air/water conditions, etc. Being overly prepared doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying the experience, besides, why am I there if I’m not having fun in the first place?!?

Developing a cold kit for training swims has always been one of the most important aspects of our swims. The things I pack into my own kit have changed over time; as I started experimenting with really cold water temps, more issues and needs surfaced. And conversely, as I've got better over the years at dealing with cold, sometimes I find myself needing less of something in my kit. The list below may look like a lot to think about, but once I figured out what worked for me, it was just a simple matter of having a dedicated kit for cold swimming, ready to go at moment’s notice. I've added some pics and ideas from other chilly friends too. It's just really good to be prepared.