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Ask A Gear Guru: What Do I Need for Open-Water Swimming?

As temperatures continue to climb, pool schedules continue to be difficult, and open water still reigns as the king of tri improvement, we look at the gear you need to do it safely.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, “Open-water swimming is hands-down the best way to get more comfortable, stronger, and faster in the swim leg of a tri.” Yes, you could argue that form/drill work is trickier and probably better done in a pool, and yes, you could say that getting precise interval workouts are tougher in the open water, but we’ve even created a pool workout/open-water workout translator to help you with that. Also, with the proliferation of inexpensive, open-water capable smartwatches (one of our favorites is below), not having a pool clock is no longer a good enough excuse. Long story short: Nothing makes you better at open-water swimming more than open-water swimming itself—but of course safety in the open water is important too.

But of course not everyone likes the open water, and of course not everyone has access to it either. Sadly the latter of the two issues can’t be solved without a realtor, but the former obstacle can be overcome. One of the best ways to start liking open-water swimming is to become more comfortable with it, and aside from simply spending more time out there, making sure you’re safe will go a long way. That said, even if you already love open-water swimming, it’s super important that you’re careful—especially when swimming out in nature that can often be unpredictable and/or not monitored by a lifeguard. So if you want to get faster in the swim leg at your next tri, first make sure you’re safe in the open-water, learn to love “the openness,” and then spend more time out there.

Below we cover some open-water safety tips and then get to some open-water safety products you might not even know you needed (or existed!).

What’s The Number-One Way To Stay Safe In The Open Water?

Easy: Swim with a buddy. Though it’s not always possible, swimming with a friend—or better yet, a group—is by far the best way to stay safe in the open water. Obviously it means you’ll have someone watching, making sure everything’s ok, and you’ll have another set of lungs to call for help if the need arises. It is important, however, that you swim with someone at a similar speed or who’s ok with checking up from time to time or stopping to regroup. If your partner takes off a few hundred meters ahead of you right from the beginning, it’s not going to do you much good if you get into trouble. Even if you don’t have someone who can swim at a similar speed, having a pair of eyes on shore (or in a kayak or stand-up paddleboard) can be as good if not better.

What About Temperature and Open-Water Safety?

If you’re new to a body of water, it’s super important you do your homework. What’s the water temperature? If it’s under 75 degrees F, you’ll likely want a wetsuit. If it’s way over that, a wetsuit could actually become a liability as you could overheat. If it’s under 60 degrees F, you’ll need a wetsuit for sure and some special equipment that goes above and beyond the standard swim/tri wetsuit (neoprene cap, booties, maybe gloves, maybe a thermal wetsuit). Under 50 degrees is basically a no-go situation. 

Who Should I Talk To?

Before you head out, be sure to talk to area experts. This could be a local tri club who swims in the area or even a park ranger or lifeguard who’s familiar with the water. A nice, placid lake with clean-looking water could have a very rocky or dangerous bottom; an ocean shore with mild surf could have riptides only an experienced lifeguard could identify. As a bonus, by talking to the lifeguard, you’ve got their attention, and you’ve given them the understanding that you’ll be out there swimming more than your regular sunbather—this could help keep their eyes on you and simultaneously prevent any undue concern/confusion. Finally, check to be sure the water you’re about to get into is public or you have the permission of the shore’s landowner—nothing spoils a swim faster than an overhead warning shotgun blast!

What Else Should I Know?

The reality of open-water swimming is that conditions can change—particularly if you’re in a larger body of water like the ocean or a Great Lake. Especially if you’re in an area that’s prone to sudden thunderstorms, be sure to check the weather forecast, as lightning and open-water swimming do not mix. Also, be sure you’re a strong enough swimmer to do your prescribed distance without being able to hold onto a wall or touch the bottom—work on your treading water skills before you get too far out.

While water life is also something to take note of, unless you’re in an area that’s notorious for snakes or sharks (OR BOTH!?), you probably have a better chance of getting hurt walking into the water than getting attacked/bit by something once you’re in.

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite open-water bits of gear:

Zone3 Hydration Swim Safety Buoy

$62, amazon.com

Open water safety

Zone3 makes a super novel product with this unique piece of equipment, combining a tow float that provides floatation and high visibility with a 1-liter hydration bladder that allows you to drink while out in the open water. That old excuse of not having a water bottle on deck vanishes with this contraption. Hydration aside, a tow float is an essential piece of open-water equipment, particularly if you’re swimming in an area with boat traffic or you’re alone. Zone3 also makes a version that allows you to stash gear and keep it dry and a version with backpack straps for swimruns or carrying gear out to the water.

Coros Pace 2 Smartwatch

$200, coros.com

One of the most common excuses from triathletes for not going in the open water is, “But how will I do my ____ workout?” There used to be a time when most open-water swims were just straight swims at a medium pace, and while those are still valuable from time to time, with the popularity (and affordability) of open-water compatible smartwatches, you can do almost any pool workout in the open water. We like this smartwatch because it’s one of the cheaper options, it works well in the open water, and it allows you to program distance alerts that vibrate when you hit a certain distance. While it doesn’t have open-water workouts you can preprogram (you’ll have to upgrade to something like this watch), when properly set up, it’ll do most of what you need.

Read the full Coros Pace 2 review here.

Swimrunners Whistle

$10, swimrunshop.com

Open water safety

A good whistle is a fantastic way to signal for help if you need it—whether it be to shore or to a swimming partner—or signal to a boater that they’re too close. This model is easy to see, has good grips for cold hands, is non corrosive, and floats. For sure this is one of those items you won’t need until you really need it, so tie it to your zipper string and practice grabbing it before the need truly arises.

New Wave Fluorescent Green Silicone Swim Cap

$15, amazon.com

Open water safety

A super highly visible swim cap is a must have if you’re going to be swimming in the open water. It’s important that you don’t simply wear an old white race cap, or—worst case—something black, blue, or green because boaters can easily mistake you for a natural water feature like a small crashed wave. Your best bet is to get something completely unnatural-looking like this green one or a neon orange one that resembles a buoy (boaters don’t usually like hitting buoys).

Roka X1 Goggle

Starting at $22, amazon.com

Ok, obviously you need goggles to swim, but in the open water, you need a pair that has a wide range of peripheral vision and you need to make sure you replace them more often than your pool ones. Visibility in the open water is essential to safety—whether it’s sighting properly to shore, avoiding obstacles, or seeing through quickly changing bad conditions like fog. Good goggles are actually a huge safety asset, so get a high-vis pair (like the clear, cobalt, or light amber) and a dark pair (like the dark grey mirror or dark amber mirror) and bring both with you whenever you head out to the open water so you can choose based on the conditions.

Restube Swim

$90, restube.us

This little lightweight belt-plus-mini-fanny-pack device straps around your waist and has a pull tab that automatically inflates when you need it. More of an emergency device for you (or a swimming partner), it’ll provide enough floatation and visibility if you get into trouble. If you have a wetsuit on, you won’t be able to feel it at all when you swim, and only expect a slight hindrance if you’re just in a swimsuit. Bonus: The pull tab doubles as a whistle for extra attention if you need it.

Quintana Roo HYDROfive Wetsuit

$335, quintanarootri.com

Most first-time triathletes think that you get a wetsuit because the water’s cold, and while that’s a great reason to have a wetsuit, there’s more to it than that. Staying warm is super important—if you’re in cold water for long enough, it’ll actually use up a ton of energy just staying warm—but experienced triathletes love wetsuits for their floatation. Not only will extra buoyancy help float you while you take a rest (for the floatiest wetsuit we’ve ever tried, check out Roka’s beefy Maverick MX), but it’ll also make you faster by keeping your “draggy bits” higher in the water. We like the HYDROfive because it’s effectively a $500-plus wetsuit for a more midlevel price.