A Beginner’s Guide to Outdoor Swimming

Looking to challenge yourself or embark on a new hobby? Or do you just fancy swapping your regular pool swims for the lakes, lochs, rivers, reservoirs, streams or sea, in search of more freedom? Perhaps you have become more aware of the amazing mental and physical benefits of outdoor swimming.

Whatever your reasons….. If you are ready to try the uplifting, exhilarating activity of open water or ‘wild’ swimming, you have come to the right place as we have put together everything you need to know to get you started! 

I think we all know what ‘open water swimming’ is, but I guess it’s still a reasonable question. Technically speaking, open-water swimming takes place anywhere that isn’t a swimming pool. It is essentially any form of swimming that takes place in a ‘natural body’ of water.

Open-water swimming has become increasingly popular but.. in the meantime, there is still quite a bit of preparation that needs to be done before you head to your nearest lake or river for a dip. So let’s get started!

Why open water swimming vs pool?

We all know swimming is an amazing form of exercise, wherever you swim, so what makes open water swimming so special you may ask. First of all ‘wild swimming’ brings with it an amazing sense of community. For lots of swimmers it is as much about the laughter, a good old natter and sharing a hot chocolate and a slab of cake afterwards, as it is about the swim itself. People of all ages, shapes and sizes getting together in a supportive environment and having a good time!

Another ‘biggie’ which has become much wider recognised recently is the amazing benefits on mental health and well-being. A lot of progress has been made recently when it comes to tackling the stigma of mental health and we are, thankfully, becoming increasingly aware of the things which have a hugely positive impact on how we are feeling mentally. Open-water swimming is one of those! It has been shown to help manage anxiety, depression and stress whilst boosting energy levels. The endorphins (or happy hormones) released when immersing yourself in ‘cold’ water and reconnecting with nature, not only give you a real sense of achievement but the freedom you experience being out ‘in the wild’ is truly uplifting and invigorating and you can’t really help but coming out of the water happy and relaxed.

Open water swimming also increases ‘mindfulness’. When stepping into cold water, you have to focus on breathing in and out, and ‘being in the moment’ and being out in nature definitely helps you see the world from a different perspective.

The physical benefits are endless too! Open-water swimming can help boost your immune system, improve circulation, reduce blood pressure, and yep, it is even said to increase libido!

And last but not least there is of course the fact that you don’t have to fight others for space in a lane, you don’t have horrible, cramped changing rooms to contend with (just the battle of the robe!), AND you don’t end up reeking of chlorine.

So, can anyone do it and how do I get started?

Pretty much anyone who can swim, can open water swim. You certainly don’t have to be an athlete to do it. Open water swimming is for everyone, disregarding age or ability, as long as you have the confidence to swim without always being able to put your feet down. When swimming outdoors it’s likely you’ll be out of your depth for some, if not most of the time.

You can either make your own way or check out your local venues or join a club. Whilst many experienced open-water swimmers are happy to swim alone, if you are new to open-water swimming we would definitely recommend the latter. Not only is it much safer to swim in numbers, but it is also a great way to make new friends as well….

What is the best time to start?

In all fairness, for beginners, it's best to start in the warmer months. You may have seen people on Instagram or other Social Media channels taking part in swims throughout the winter, but it's likely these are experienced swimmers who swim almost every day of the year. If you are a Newbie, it is much safer to swim in waters that are of a slightly higher temperature, especially here in the UK where open waters are notoriously freezing, and swimming during winter only makes it more ‘frosty’. Open water temperatures in the UK are usually at their ‘peak’ in late August/early September when waters have warmed up over the summer months. And, although the temperature will start to drop after this, October and November may still be a bit warmer than for example March/early April so autumn is still a good time to start.  This is not saying though that you can’t start in spring. Just be aware before you plunge in, that the water can still be pretty chilly but this is where a wetsuit or some neoprene can come in a treat! More on this below….

So now the age-old question. What do I need?

Your swimming may be up to speed but you still need to have the right open-water swimming kit and equipment. Open water swimming is very different to the warm embrace of a pool and to safely swim in open water you might need a few extra bits and pieces. So, here is our beginner’s guide to open water swimming kit.

First of all you, and I guess this goes without saying, you will need a cossie (Women’s Swimwear) or some jammers or swim briefs (Men’s Swimwear). This really is the very basic requirement, alongside a towel! Saying that, going ‘commando’ or swimming in the nuddy seems to be highly fashionable at the moment with more and more bare bosoms and bottoms appearing on our Instagram feed daily. Well…. If you dare, go bare! Who are we to judge?!



Swimming Cap

An essential part of your swimming kit, a Swimming Cap is vital when swimming outdoors. Wearing a brightly coloured swimming cap not only keeps your head warm and covered, but more importantly, it will make sure you are easily visible in the water. In fact, a lot of open water swimming venues now insist on a brightly coloured hat being worn whilst swimming. Swimming Caps are available in silicone or latex, or even neoprene for the colder months and for those of you looking to add that little bit of glamour, Silk & Lawn have created a lovely collection of swimming cap toppers which can be worn comfortably over silicone swim caps and are bound to bring some additional joy and laughter to the growing community of open water swimmers.

Dive in, we’ve got you covered! Well… your head at least!


Comfortable Goggles are a must-have piece of open water swimming kit. At its most basic, they protect your eyes, avoiding irritation and infections and they obviously also help you see clearer underwater. Swim goggles come in a variety of designs and price ranges, and a great pair of goggles for those new to open water is the Huub Vision Swim Goggle. But with varying weather and light levels (particularly in the UK!), goggles designed specifically for the outdoors will make your swims much easier. The Huub Aphotic Swim Goggle or the Swim Secure Fotoflex Goggles both have photochromatic lenses, which in simple terms means that they adjust to light conditions, which allows you to move around obstacles and other swimmers safely even when you swim into the sun, or have your back to the sun. Another good option is the Zoggs Predator Flex Polarized Goggle which, as the name suggest, come equipped with a polarized lens, making them an ideal choice for the outdoor swimmer, as they battle any bright lighting and glare.

Tow Float

Swimming outdoors can take you to a number of beautiful locations and although going for a swim in cold, open water can be exhilarating, it’s not without risk and it is important to enjoy the activity safely. Additional hazards can come in the form other traffic in the water or even strong currents and streams. If you are new to open-water swimming or you plan on swimming in an unsupervised location it is sensible to have a Tow Float and Safety Whistle to keep you safe and seen.

A tow float is basically a ‘floatation device’ that makes you more visible to boats, lifeguards and other water users. They are brightly coloured, attached to your waist with a waist belt and short leash, very lightweight to keep drag to a minimum and they are ‘pulled’ behind while swimming, out of range of arms and kick zone.

There are many ‘variations’ on the market now. There is for example the Tow Donut, which works in exactly the same way but has a nifty little integrated dry bag pouch, which sits neatly in the centre of the donut, out of the water and is perfect for storing small items, such as keys, a drink, snack or even a phone for that all important selfie.

And the ultimate alternative to a tow float is obviously the Dry Bag. With the same great ‘safety features’ as a tow float (i.e. another brightly coloured ‘floatation device to keep you safe and seen), it offers the added advantage of storing your kit, keeping it safe and dry while swimming.  They also easily support an adult’s weight so are perfect for those moments when you need a rest, which considering there is no side to hold on to when you need a five-minute breather and add that to waves, currents and windy days, you are likely to fatigue a lot sooner in open water than you would in a pool.

Ear Plugs

There is no need to wear them if you really don’t want to, but if you are susceptible to ear infections or hearing loss, it is a good idea to invest in a pair of earplugs to prevent water getting into your ears. It is not just extremely annoying to have water trapped in your ears, the likelihood of ear infections increases significantly if you are a regular swimmer. There is even such a thing as Swimmer’s Ear, an infection caused by bacteria entering the ear canal and for those of you who have suffered ear infections, you will agree that they are nasty!   


Not only do Wetsuits keep you warm when open water swimming, after all the UK is not known for balmy water temperatures, they also provide some buoyancy. Whether you immediately need one is debatable and I believe, very personal. Some people definitely feel the cold more than others. I have friends who happily swim all year round in a pair of budgie smugglers or swimming costume, breaking ice as they go along whereas others ‘turn blue’ even in the middle of summer. So if being warm makes you happy, and there is nothing wrong with that, invest in a wetsuit!

If you are a beginner and don’t want to spend your life savings on your new hobby, there are some pretty good, affordable options. The HUUB Alpha Beta Triathlon Wetsuit is a great open-water swimming wetsuit which has been designed to offer fantastic flexibility while having the buoyancy required to give the most comfortable swimming position. Raceskin also offers a great range of wetsuits for outdoor swimming for all budgets. The Yonda Spook is a perfect first wetsuit for those who want to get out into the wild, have fun and enjoy the open water and, as not all swimmers are comfortable with a crawl, this wetsuit is ideal for breaststroke swimmers. All available in both men’s and women’s….

Lubricant or anti-chafe stick

If you do swim in a wetsuit, we all know a wetsuit can get uncomfortable during a long swim. It rubs against your skin and can create uncomfortable rashes!  Using a Wetsuit Lube can help!

Neoprene gloves and socks

There are various pieces of open water swimming kit that might not be essential, but nevertheless are a great addition to your kit bag, for example gloves and socks!

If again, warmth is of the essence, a little bit of neoprene can help you stay in the water longer and enjoy your swims more. Whether you choose to wear a wetsuit or not, Neoprene Gloves and Neoprene Socks will give you an extra bit of insulation, as it is always the extremities that get cold first.

And believe it or not, gloves and socks are not the only bits of neoprene on offer, there’s a buff, there’s a vest, there’s a top! If you are a cold morsel, the world is your oyster so check out our dedicated section on Cold Water Swimming. Show me the Neoprene!!!!!

Saying that, warmth might not be your driver! My other half of the Outdoor Swimmer Shop has an issue with ‘things between her toes’! Yep! Mud, seaweed, plants…. Anything that can get between her toes! Bizarre right? Well, not necessarily! The Swimming Sock is a hugely popular item! Great for holidays on the beach, they protect your feet from stones, urchins and other ‘nasties’ but we are becoming more and more aware that open water swimmers love them for the sole reason that they make walking in and out of the water much more pleasant underfoot!

Changing Robes

As I think all of us know, is that there is an actual art to changing before and after swimming. Changing under a large towel might seem entirely satisfactory, but I guess a majority of open-water swimmers and water enthusiasts are keen to avoid revealing parts that society deems inappropriate to display in public. Changing Robes are also something warm and cosy to climb into when getting out of cold water, they protect you against the elements, provide an extra layer on your way to your swim in the mornings (or evenings) and they are great for making a quick getaway after being in the water…. throw it on and hit the road.

Open-water swimming is COLD! Staying warm and avoiding after drop is crucial to swim safety, and a robe is a great piece of equipment to help you do this. 

As we have only recently published a full review of all the ins and outs of Changing Robes, we won’t repeat ourselves and welcome you to read the full review here

We could go on… and on! But I think we’ve established outdoor swimming is an adventure, a community, a way of life…….  

If you have anything to add,  stories to share, we would love to hear from you at customerservice@outdoorswimmershop.com.