Packing up a cold swim kit

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Aside the research done on cold swimming and location/support planning, developing a cold kit for training swims has been a most critical aspect of our swims. The things I pack into my own kit has changed over time; as water’s gotten colder, more issues and needs have surfaced. It looks like a lot, but once I figured out what worked for me, it’s just a simple matter of having a dedicated kit for cold swimming, ready to go at moment’s notice.

Gear for heading into the water

  • bathing suit: as 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.
  • silicone cap: retains heat better than latex, sometimes I 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 fog the lenses, and with mirrored or dark lenses 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.
  • towel: It’s on the list because I tend to forget. Which really sucks.
  • thermometer: I always 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: I always 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.
  • notepad and pen: I jot down the temps and times while we’re still on the beach, 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.

Exiting the water in moderately cold temps, which for me = air and water about 7-9C:

  • 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, or because I’m handy with a sewing machine making a longer version of something like this.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • kleenex: I get a runny nose. It’s not pretty. Trust me.

Exiting the water in very cold temps, which for me = air and water below 6C:

All of the above, plus…

  • swim float: it’s always a good idea to wear one no matter the temp, but we’ve made it a requirement for our more extreme cold swims.
  • hand towel: I now have the supporter gently dry and cover my hands immediately upon exit, before I even make it into the tent, to further prevent/limit nerve damage.
  • physical shelter to change in: I set up a small dome tent on the beach, or when it’s really windy, up on any grassy shoreline so I can stake in into the ground. It provides protection from cold and wind, and I can change quickly without fiddling under a swim parka. Unfortunately, our car is parked is too far away to get to quickly, otherwise the backseat would do just fine.
  • 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 put on a base layer, then a tight vest or hoodie, and stuff the packs around my torso in between both fabric layers, positioned as one would do to rewarm a hypothermic patient.
  • other creative solutions for quick warming: inspired by a swimmie friend’s colourful onesie, which goes on quickly and is super-cozy, I bought one and made modifications to suit cold swimming; drawstring added to hood, pockets for heat packs sewn into torso area so the packs don’t slide around (I don’t always use the packs, but when I do, this helps), thermal socks sewn into the feet so the whole thing goes on in one fell swoop. Pics here.

The ideal kit for cold swimming will vary depending on any swimmer’s goals, needs, accessibility, air/water conditions, etc. Another example is fellow cold swimmer Michael Kenny‘s set-up, which is different than mine but works well for his swims. He lays everything out on a tarp on the beach, and brings along a chair to sit in while changing and a large sleeping bag for warmth/shelter, both great ideas.

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 roll up the tent properly;
  • 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.

I try to bring along the positivity and confidence that comes from being informed and well-prepared. Being this prepared doesn’t stop me from enjoying the experience, besides, why am I there if I’m not having fun?

And I smile, it will (probably) only hurt for (hopefully) a little while!


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