The essentials of Open Water Swimming equipment

open water swimming equipment

What are the basics of open water swimming equipment?

More than ever, we need that connection with nature. If you are used to the outdoors, finding the right kind of equipment will be easy for you. But if you are moving from the pool to the open water, it will require some adjustments. You might wonder what you really need to make the step. Here is a list of the essentials of open water swimming equipment.

The basics for pool swimming are a swimsuit, a swim cap, and swimming goggles. Keep those and let’s add a few items to complete the list.

1. Open water swimming wetsuit

The wetsuit is arguably essential for open water swimming. I say arguably because a lot of people choose not to use it. The first purpose of a wetsuit is to keep you warm in cooler water. Most open water swimmers will use it only during the cooler months and not in the summer. But most is not all, so it is not a generality. It has a lot to do with preferences. It depends mostly on where you swim, your experience with open water swimming, and the water temperatures.

Here is a link to my article Which wetsuit for Open Water swimming?”

The first reason to choose to wear the wetsuit is the water temperature and to keep you warm. There is another reason some people choose to wear it: safety. Indeed, your wetsuit gives you extra buoyancy and actually works as a life vest. If you are a nervous swimmer, there is absolutely nothing wrong about using the wetsuit to make you feel safer.

  1. Open water swimming buoy

The open water swimming buoy is attached to the swimmers’ waist. Its main purpose is safety. Indeed, with its bright color, the swimmer can be seen from a long distance. Why is it important to be seen in open water? As open water swimmers, we wished we would always be the only ones in the water. You want to be seen from far away by other users like boats, jet skis, kayakers, and other paddlers. The sooner they see you, the earlier they can anticipate and avoid you.

The other reason you want to be seen is by your swim mates. Indeed, if it is fairly easy to see a swimmer from a paddleboard or kayak. It is much harder to spot anything when your eyes are on the water level. We swim in groups for social reasons but also for safety reasons. We watch each other. The best way to do this is to make it easier for others to see us.

The wetsuit can work as a life vest giving you extra buoyancy but in warmer water could feel uncomfortable. The swimming buoy will not give you extra buoyancy. It is meant for you to be able to rest on top of it. Perfect for the not so confident open water swimmer!

An argument against the swimming buoy is the drag. The experienced swimmer will indeed feel it, even if it is minimal. The drag will even be bigger in case of big winds. When we are swimming in open water, we are not affected by the wind because most of our body is immersed. It is not the case for our buoy, which will easily catch the wind. Depending on where the wind is coming from, it can either hit your arms while turning or pull you back. So no, the swimming buoy is not perfect. I personally always put safety first. Even if I take more pleasure swimming without the buoy, I always have it with me. In case of heavy winds, I think about it twice before getting in the water. 

This is the number one safety equipment, like a seatbelt or a bike helmet.

Go and check out my post which lists the different types of safety buoys and how to choose the one for you.


open water swimming equipment
Open water swimming buoy
The swim buoy I use - click on the image to purchase

  1. Fins and/or snorkel

For most open water swimmers, fins and snorkel are not essential. Yet I put them in this list. At some point I couldn’t get out without my fins, they were part of my everyday equipment. Also, because they are really essential to a lot of open water swimmers.

Why were fins so important to me? When I started swimming in the winter, I would pretty much get near hypothermia at every swim. My hands were getting so numb, I wasn’t sure my arm’s strength would get me back to shore. Probably I was fine, but in doubt, you would better be safer than sorry. I used my fins at every single of my swims for safety purposes. I knew that I could rely on myself to get back to the start without any help.

A lot of nervous swimmers use them not to swim faster but to give themselves extra safety equipment. For the same reason, I also sometimes use fins when I swim with nervous swimmers. If they get too nervous and need help, I will be more useful to rescue them with fins than without. 

The snorkel will be essential for swimmers who struggle with their breathing. As a swim coach, I would not advise to always use a snorkel. If you are just starting and struggling with breathing, this is a great piece of equipment. It will help you build some stamina and improve your swimming technique. Once you have improved both, the learning of breathing will be much easier. 

open water swimming equipment

  1. Neoprene swim hood

It took me a long time to decide to use the hood. I like my freedom and seek contact with water and nature as much as possible. I thought the wetsuit would be enough to keep me warm. When I started having pain in my ears with the cold water building inside that, I started thinking about it. And the fact that most open water swimmers were telling me how much of a life-changer the hood can be. And they were right!

I could have just used earplugs for the ear issue, but the hood does more than that. It is like on a cold winter day in the snow, I would not get outside without a beanie. The neoprene swim hood works the same way as a wetsuit. It warms up the layer of water between your head and the hood keeping your head warm. Now the water that gets in my ears is warmed up and is not painful anymore. I was afraid I would find the chin strap uncomfortable. I was wrong, neoprene is very soft, and the hood is very comfortable to wear.

Extra tip: I wear my silicone swim cap underneath the hood. It keeps my hair in place and gives me extra coverage on the forehead. If I tie my hair in a bun, it usually comes dry after the swim. Not negligible on cold winter days when you change outside.

  1. Neoprene gloves and/or socks

This is the only piece of equipment I put on this list that I don’t actually use myself. You do not go out on a snowy day without a beanie? What about shoes and gloves, then? I actually used the neoprene socks for a while but did not notice any real difference. Not being able to move my toes didn’t feel comfortable. For me, the socks were not useful enough to keep using them.

The gloves, I used them only once. What I like the most about swimming is the feeling of the water, and the gloves take it all away. At least that is how I feel. It is thus a personal choice to not use gloves and socks. And indeed this is where I suffer the most from the cold (with the face which can’t be covered). When the water is freezing, I would rather shorten my swim in order to still feel my limbs. I prefer to compromise the length of the swim rather than my freedom and my feeling with the water. 

I do see some swimmers using the neoprene hood, gloves, and socks without a wetsuit. It does look a bit strange, but that is a chosen style. Those swimmers like feeling the water on their bodies rather than their hands and feet. Once again, it is really just a question of preferences.

Alpkit has an “Outdoor Swimming Extremities Pack” available on their website, click on the photo to learn more.

open water swimming equipment
Click on the photo to purchase

  1. A poncho

Another piece of equipment I didn’t think I would need. I personally do not find them aesthetically attractive. I thought a towel would just be fine to dry me and change. There is nothing worse than getting out of the water and have the wind freeze you to death. Since my first use of the poncho, I never go open water swimming without it anymore. Even in the Summer.

When you take your wetsuit off on a cold day, it is a nice feeling to get your poncho on. It warms you up and serves as a towel at the same time.

It is the perfect piece of equipment to get changed outdoors. No need to flash everyone or freeze your butt while doing so.

Here are a few options.

  1. A bottle of water

Well, I should say two bottles of water. One to drink, the other one to rinse off the saltwater. Only the lucky ones will get to swim somewhere where you can use a shower after your swim.

If it is not the case for you, fill a bottle with warm tap water to rinse yourself off. This is especially handy with the sand on your feet. 


This is the essentials of the list of equipment I use for open water swimming. This list may vary from one swimmer to another. But most likely, it will be very similar.

When the water is warm enough, I ditch all the neoprene equipment. But the rest is always in my gear bag. Although, I am the kind of person who always forgets something. So yes I have already forgotten my goggles, my water bottle, or my poncho. It didn’t stop me from swimming, but I must admit swimming without goggles wasn’t the most comfortable.

There is a list of extra gadgets I like to take with me that I find less essential. I have listed them for you in this article with some extra tips.

Have a good swim!

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