Ask A Gear Guru: How Can I Stay Safe 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 how you can stay safe.

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. Long story short: Nothing makes you better at open-water swimming more than open-water swimming itself. 

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—whenever that is—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 meet. 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 a warning shotgun blast over your head!

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 with 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. Finally, there are a lot of good products specifically designed to help you swim in the open water—the reality is that the more comfortable you feel with proper safety precautions, the safer you’ll actually be.

Let’s take a look at some open-water safety products to help keep you safe and secure-feeling:

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.

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.

Orca S7 Wetsuit

$240, amazon.com

While a wetsuit will certainly keep you warmer in chilly water, and it’ll also make you faster, a very floaty wetsuit—like the S7—can also keep you safer. Due to the high levels of buoyancy in the neoprene of many beginner wetsuits, and even many advanced ones, depending on your weight a wetsuit can actually keep you fully afloat even if you stop. While this is in no way a substitute for a buoy or swimming with a partner, some triathletes can rest by just floating on their backs with no effort. This is a good way to simulate hanging on the wall at the pool, and it can help increase comfort in the open water—which keeps you safer because you’re less likely to panic during a difficult moment.