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by Elaine K Howley

September 6, 2022

The items you’ll need for an open water swim may be quite different from what you’d use for a pool event

Theoretically, swimming should be an inexpensive sport. All you really need is a swimsuit and goggles. Maybe a cap. Maybe ear plugs or a nose plug. And you’re good to go in many a waterway.

However, most swimmers will tell you they’ve spent a small fortune acquiring the tools of the trade over the years, and what works best in one venue doesn’t always work well in another. Case in point, the gear you need for an open water swim may be quite different from what you’d take to the pool for a workout or meet.

Here’s a brief rundown of what should be in your open water gear bag. (And you may want to get a second bag to hold these items separate from your pool training gear for convenience.)

Caps. You probably have a preferred cap and pair of goggles that are your go-to set for the pool. But in open water, you may find that you’re happier with a silicone cap—which can help retain a little more heat than a latex cap. Certainly a latex cap can work in open water, and ultimately it comes down to what’s most comfortable. If the water is chilly, a silicone or even a neoprene cap can provide a little extra warmth. It’s best to bring a couple so that if one rips, you’ve got a spare at the ready.

Goggles. You can buy any number of open water–specific goggles these days, and for some swimmers, the added peripheral vision they offer is key to getting to the buoy first or being able to spot an approaching boat before it gets too close. Again, whatever feels most comfortable and keeps the water out of your eyes will do just great. You may also want to invest in a pair of darker-tinted goggles to help block sun glare so you can see more clearly in very sunny conditions. On rainy or overcast days, lighter or clear lenses are usually more practical.

Sunblock. If you typically swim in an indoor pool, you probably don’t bring sunblock to the pool. But if you’re in open water, you’ll definitely need protection from the sun. A 2020 study from Southern Cross University in Australia found that surfers and swimmers are six times more likely to develop melanoma, a potentially dangerous form of skin cancer, than other ocean users. Being submerged in water for an hour or more at a stretch makes it difficult to protect your skin because sunblock products are typically only “water resistant” and need to be reapplied every 80 minutes or so. Many marathon swimmers swear by zinc oxide ointment, such as Desitin, which is used primarily to treat diaper rash in babies. It coats the skin in a thick, white cream that stays on well in water. This can prevent sunburn even if you’re in the water for many hours.

Anti-chafing lotion. Chafing can also be a big issue in many open water venues, particularly in salt water, so be sure to bring Vaseline or another lubricant to load up at chafe points like the shoulders and neck. If you shave any parts of your body, such as a beard or armpits, be prepared for those areas to chafe too, especially the longer you swim; as that 5 o’clock shadow comes in, the pointed ends of many hairs can act like tiny razors against the skin of the shoulder brushing by 20 to 30 times or more per minute.

Earplugs. Earplugs are super useful for keeping your ears dry, which if you tend to get ear infections easily, is probably a smart move. They can also be helpful when swimming in cold water, as they can help seal out the chill that could disrupt your sense of balance and make you feel colder.

Nose plugs. It’s not often that you see a pool swimmer rocking the nose plug look, but occasionally it’s a thing. In open water, especially fresh open water where pollen collects and allergies can intensify, a nose plug can be a simple, non-pharmacological measure to keep post-swim sneezes at bay.

Water bottle. It’s important to stay well hydrated, especially when engaging in physical activity. Always bring a water bottle with you so you can sip water before and after your swim.

Tools and toys. It’s usually a safe bet to leave the kickboard and hand paddles at the pool. But you might want to bring fins if you’ll be trying to keep up with a faster friend in open water. And if you have any neck issues, a snorkel can be a great adaptive tool for open water swimming.

Tow float. No one ever uses a tow float in the pool, but in open water, they’re a fantastic safety tool that you should be using on all your training swims. Tow floats make you much more visible to passing boaters and other water users, which can keep them from accidentally running you over. That’s a big plus for sure, and most of them also act as a floating dry bag, so you can stash your keys, wallet, and phone inside thereby prevent a devastating theft if left on the beach.

Towel and changing robe. When you finish your swim, it’s nice to come back to a fluffy towel or a changing robe that can block the wind and protect your modesty when you’re getting out of your swimsuit and into dry clothes.

Drybag. Stashing all these items in a drybag can help keep everything dry if it starts to rain while you’re out swimming.


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