The summer months bring with it warmer waters, and this is a boon for people who would like to partake in their favorite water sport whether that’s swimming, snorkeling, surfing, or scuba diving. However, all of these activities become much more difficult to do (but not impossible) during the offseason, when cold temperatures and hypothermia become an issue. In order to continue doing these activities, it’s highly recommended to get a thick wetsuit (at least 5-7 mm), however this can be prohibitively expensive for many.
Is there a way to stay warm in cold water without a wetsuit? “Warm” might not be the right word, but you can certainly find a way to brace the cold waters without a wetsuit. It requires a combination of smart planning, mental fortitude, physical preparation, and some other equipment that is much more affordable than a thick wetsuit. However, at the end of the day, the recommended option is to still get a wetsuit because you can only do so much without proper insulation.
When you’re in the water even with a wetsuit, your body temperature will continuously drop because of how effective water is at extracting heat away from the body, as well as how much cooler even “warm” water is relative to our core body temperature. Thus, your time in the water is limited, especially if you do not have proper insulation like a wetsuit, so here are our tips for how to stay warm in cold water without a wetsuit for as long as possible.
How cold is too cold?
This is not a question we can answer matter-of-factly. What is cold for one person might feel brisk for an experienced swimmer. However, there are some averages we can rely on. Data taken from this website:
- 98.6°F (37°C) – Normal body temperature measured with an oral thermometer.
- 99.6°F (37.5°C) – Deep body or core temperature measured with a rectal thermometer.
- 95°F (35°C) – For medical purposes, this is the clinical point at which hypothermia begins.
- 91°F (32.7°C) – The temperature of your skin.
- 85°F (29.4°C) – Water feels pleasantly cool rather than warm.
- 77-82°F (25-28°C) – Swimming pool temperature range for Olympic competition.
- 70°F (21°C) – Water feels quite cold to most people. Treat any water temperature below 70°F (21°C) with caution.
- 40°F (4.4°C) or lower – Water is painfully cold.
Just for reference, at water temperatures of around 40°F (4.4°C), it only takes anywhere from 10-20 minutes before you begin to lose coordination and strength in your limbs as the blood is redistributed to the core organs. At this point, you’ll soon drown or hypothermia will set in.
In fact, even the temperature that Olympic swimming pools are kept at (77-82°F/25-28°C) is enough to result in hypothermia if one stays in it for too long. Crazy, right? It’s also why many are so surprised when they spend time in “warm” water only to find that their lips have turned blue and they are shivering from the cold.
Ways to stay warm in cold water without a wetsuit
Preparation is paramount for any situation in life, and there are various ways you can prepare to brave the cold waters without a wetsuit.
Acclimate yourself to the cold. If you know swimming in the cold is something you want to do, then you need to get accustomed to it gradually. Head out for a swim on progressively colder days so it’s not as much of a shock. This is also a way to prepare yourself mentally because you have experience being in cold water, whereas someone with no experience will already be mentally defeated. Unfortunately, this training doesn’t desensitize yourself to the cold; you’ll still feel it, but you’ll be prepared to endure it. Before heading into the water, already begin exposing yourself to the cold air to begin this process.
Get mentally fired up. Do whatever it takes to psych yourself up for the uncomfortable cold that is about to envelop you. Your attitude plays an important role in your performance. I know this sounds like pseudo-science, but this phenomenon has been observed in humans in various ways. For instance, the placebo effect is very real, and even something like shaving your body hair off can improve your performance in the water. So imagine that the water is actually warm, or that the cold is actually refreshing, and you will perform better in the cold.
Do warm-up exercises. If you have some time, then do some warm-ups and active stretching. Your muscles perform better when they’re warm, plus this can help you endure the shock of the cold better. It’s up to you how you want to warm up. You can jog for a few minutes, do jumping jacks, do bodyweight squats, basically move around, increase your heart rate, and work up a bit of a sweat before you head into the cold water.
Fully submerge yourself
After the preparation phase is over, it’s time to actually dip your toes in the water. Actually, scratch that, you should go all the way in. Many people dilly-dally, only wading halfway into the water and leaving their torso above the water. One piece of advice we can offer you is that you should rip the band-aid off; just fully commit! We don’t mean to dive in carelessly; that’s a recipe for disaster. However, do make haste when entering the water.
The reason we recommend this is simple: it’s easier to regulate your body temperature if your whole body is wet. If only half your body is wet and the other half is dry, then your legs will get used to the temperature first before moving deeper, then now you’ll also need to wait for the upper half of your body to acclimate, wasting precious time. In the end, you’ll be even colder and miserable because of how long it took you to suck it up and just do it within the span of a few seconds.
Note that there is a legitimate risk of the cold water being such a shock that it could cause someone with a weak heart to suffer a heart attack. If you or your family has a history of heart problems, we do not recommend swimming in the cold without a wetsuit. Consult with your doctor regarding what kinds of activities you can do and which you should avoid.
Sometimes, especially when you’re just starting out, the shock of the cold might make you tense up and stop moving, or even curl up in the fetal position. This is not useful. Ignore this instinct and power through; that’s what the preparation phase was for.
Instead of (somewhat literally) freezing up, do the exact opposite; keep moving! I’m sure you know from your warm-ups that moving around really… warms you up. Right? So when you’re in the water and you feel cold, how can you get warmer? That’s right, do literally any movement and you will start to feel better about the cold, even treading water. Just make sure you’re doing it properly, otherwise you’ll waste a lot of energy.
Just like how you warmed up on land, we recommend you warm up in the water. Don’t immediately launch into a max-effort swim; do a few laps to distract yourself from the cold as you mentally prepare to swim for real.
Some additional tips: If you are open-water swimming, do not swim as far out as you’re used to. The cold may deplete your energy stores faster than usual, leaving you unable to swim all the way back. It’s better to be safe than sorry, because there are no do-overs for this.
Also, if you need to stop to rest, don’t rest too long. If you’re not moving, the cold will creep right back and paralyze you, so try to stay moving.
Follow these useful tips to help you deal with the cold.
- Exhale as you submerge yourself. We recommend this step because often the shock of the cold will take your breath away. By exhaling, you were already controlling your lungs and stand a better chance of bracing for the cold than otherwise.
- Focus on your breathing. Once you’ve acclimated to the cold, it’s time to get moving. Focusing on your breathing is an important skill for any athlete. Do not breathe quickly because this might lead to hyperventilation. Exhale slowly so that your lungs have more time to use up the oxygen in the breath you previously took.
- Have a warm drink in a thermos. Your core body temperature is steadily decreasing in the cold water, meaning you have a limited amount of time before hypothermia sets in. You need to “recharge” yourself every once in a while by surfacing, covering yourself, and drinking a hot beverage or pouring warm water over yourself to increase your body temperature.
What to do post-swim
Just as you need to prior to entering the water, you also need to prepare for getting out of the water. We’ve already alluded to this with our “have a warm drink” advice above, but there’s more you can do.
- Layer up. There are many options for this. You can use a thick, fluffy robe to absorb the water and protect you from the cold air. You could also use a large towel or a big blanket, or wear a heated jacket. If convenient, remove all of your wet swimwear.
- Get indoors. The temperatures inside are warmer than outside, so get inside a building, car, tent, anything. Failing that, start a fire and huddle up next to it with a warm drink in hand and many layers of warm clothing.
- Take a hot shower. Pretty self-explanatory. If it’s not convenient for you to shower, simply layering up and drinking a hot beverage can warm you up quickly.
Why can’t you just wear a wetsuit?
Being in cold water without a wetsuit seems like an arbitrary and severely limiting restriction to place on oneself – why not just buy or rent a wetsuit instead? Heck, if money is an issue, you could even buy a used wetsuit to save some dough; wetsuits have very poor resale value which works out in your favor, so you can get one for probably less than half its retail price!
The truth is, there are many valid reasons why one would not want to buy a wetsuit or even rent one. For starters, it’s possible that the wetsuit will not get very much use in which case buying is obviously not worth it. Also, properly storing your gear and maintaining it can be a pain that many people don’t want to deal with.
How about renting instead? In terms of savings and lack of maintenance, yes, renting would be worth it. However, money is not the only consideration. Many people take issue with renting due to the hygienic problems that might arise. You know that many people pee in their wetsuits, right? Also, renting is not always cheaper because if you accidentally damage the wetsuit, you lose your deposit which can be as much as the price of buying the wetsuit outright.
Buying used is also not the best option because of the same hygiene and quality issues that renting a wetsuit has. Additionally, if it is a private sale, the seller might not be trustworthy and lie about how the wetsuit was used. The wetsuit might be worn down very thin and not provide the insulation you’d expect from a wetsuit of that thickness. It actually requires a great deal of knowledge to successfully buy used, which is another hurdle.
Plus, it’s just generally a good idea to know how to stay warm in cold water without wearing a wetsuit. It’s possible that one might find themselves in a situation where they need to dive into cold water and there is not a wetsuit nearby they can don first (e.g. emergency rescue situation). The less you need to rely on equipment to perform basic tasks, the more versatile you become, and it might save someone’s life someday, or even your own.
Non-wetsuit accessories to help you stay warm in cold water
You may not have access to a wetsuit for whatever reason, but perhaps you have access to other gear like swim caps, earplugs, gloves, and booties. These items are significantly cheaper than a thick full body wetsuit and they are good at their respective tasks. We recommend you read this article to learn more about how they can help you.
You can learn how to stay warm in cold water without a wetsuit pretty easily. That said, we recommend gradually working your way up to it. Do not just decide one day, “I’m going to try cold water swimming without a wetsuit” and then jump into the ocean with no preparation.
At the very least, follow the advice we provided: get used to the cold over time, mentally prepare yourself, and even physically prepare yourself by staying in shape and doing warm ups before each swim. Have a hot drink and thick towels close by for rest intervals or for when you’re ready to leave. Get out of your wet swim gear, layer up, and get indoors ASAP so you can take a hot shower after swimming in the cold without a wetsuit.
There are also other equipment you can use such as swim caps, earplugs, gloves, and booties to help you persevere against the cold for a little longer. However, going completely gearless is also good training for emergency situations when you don’t have any gear on hand to change into.