Alternatives to the Ubiquitous DryRobe
Keeping warm is obviously one of the most critical parts of outdoor swimming and this includes out of the water just as much as in.
Take one look at any group of outdoor swimmers and you will instantly notice they pretty much all wear the same thing on land... a DryRobe or DryRobe style coat.
The DryRobe has become a ubiquitous as part of many swimmers kit and they are indeed a useful bit of equipment to have if you can afford them; however, personally I found the heavy price tag to performance ratio did not match my expectations and there are alternatives.
What to Consider
Firstly, there are several things you need to consider when thinking about kit that is specifically designed to keep you warm after being in open water.
> Can I get it on quickly when cold and wet?
> Does the lining stick to cold and clammy hands?
> Is the exterior windproof/waterproof?
> Are there pockets and are they easy to get into with cold and clammy hands?
> Are the pockets big enough to hold thick woolly hats and gloves?
> Does it have zips that require dexterity in the fingers?
> Does it pack down small, is it easily transportable in a backpack, on a bike, or in a RuckRaft for cross country swimming?
> Can I use it for anything else to maximise value?
If you are serious about open water swimming you are going to be exposed to disgusting weather conditions and you are going to get cold. It helps to have a piece of kit that not only warms you up quickly but also can be used in a variety of ways.
Click here to read a DryRobe review which contains many of the features you need to consider. If you are a DryRobe fan, sorry, I have been brutally honest!
Use a Poncho!
I have used everything for my main open water swimming 'jacket', from a DryRobe to down filled hiking coats to army surplus jackets. Most do the job just fine, although many lacked the versatility I needed.
I was looking for something I could also use for camping and hiking and on swim hikes, single or multi day, and recently discovered the Helikon Tex Swagman Poncho.
Made in Poland this high quality, multi-purpose poncho comes in two colours (green or black) and is quilted with water resistant pertex outer.
Being a poncho you can literally throw it over your head and it instantly covers you, keeping in the warmth and the wind out.
The first and most obvious difference between a poncho and a jacket of course is there are no zips. From an open water swimming perspective this is interesting because zips can be difficult to use when you are cold and wet, or when your hands are numb.
This poncho comes with two wraparound elasticated straps with clip locks that go behind and in front of you to wrap the poncho around your body and keep it in position. the design is such that once you are clipped in it's completely wrapped around your whole body with the sides acting as sleeves.
Hood & Pockets
The poncho has a snug fitting hood with a draw chord that completely covers the head, much better than the DryRobe hood. It has a large chest pocket big enough to keep a variety of stuff like hat gloves socks etc.
Zips & Sleeves
One of my biggest complaints about the DryRobe is that zip often jammed at the worst possible time and the sleeves were too narrow at the cuffs and stick to cold, clammy hands after a swim, causing frustration getting arms through sleeves as the pile lining rides out and gets wet.
The poncho of course does not have zips or sleeves but is literally thrown over the head and wrapped around your body and is on in 2 seconds. Due to its design it does cover the arms to the elbow, looking rather like wizards sleeves, and instantly traps a layer of air next to the body, warming you up in seconds.
The wrap-around straps can be loosened easily when sitting or pulled tight when walking around to keep the poncho close to the body.
I also found my DryRobe, whilst it was windproof, was definitely not truly waterproof. Sure it kept out a little shower but anything more than 5 minutes of rain soon seeped through and drenched the cuffs and hem.
The Helikon Tex Swagman Poncho is coated in a water repellent material and as soon as it rains you can see the water beading off. I would not like to use it specifically as a rain coat in a heavy prolonged to rain storm, it's not designed for that, but it does come with attachments points for standard, military style, nylon ponchos, if you think you need it. If you are caught in torrential rain the quilted filling does retain its warmth when wet, unlike say down.
A Changing Robe
One of the main concepts of the DryRobe was that it could be used as a changing robe, allowing you to get changed on the beach. You can do the same under this poncho - the wrap-around straps keep it closed around your body.
Personally though I never really saw the point of doing this, you just wet the inner lining doing this and that reduces the ability of the garment to keep you warm. Better to brave the elements for 5 seconds while you quickly towel off and absorb water on your body then get dry layers on as quickly as possible.
Size & Weight
As far as size and weight goes, the poncho weighs in at just 750 grams and packs down to this size of a couple of bags of sugar!
It fits easily into a backpack and also into bike bags that strap onto bicycle handlebars/paniers etc.
When it's opened out it's about the same size as a single blanket.
A Versatile Piece of Equipment
I mention above about kit versatility and the ability to use items of kit for different things... The reasoning for this is so you don't have to carry so many items.
A DryRobe style coat is just a (very) big coat and can't be used for much else. I have tried - it's too small to be used as a blanket. It's too big and heavy to be packed down small and carried around in a backpack on long hikes or in a bike bag strapped to your bicycle. There is really only one thing you can use it for.
The best part about this poncho is it quadruples up as:
> A ground blanket
There are loops on the corners that you can peg to the ground, and the hood can be tucked away in its own stow pocket.
> A lightweight sleeping bag
There is a zip all the way around the edge of the poncho, just zip it up, get in and sleep! This makes it a great piece of kit for cross-country your multi day swim hikes or for athletes attending multi-day events who need to camp or sleep in their van.
> An under quilt for a hammock
If that's your thing!
In my opinion this is a good piece of kit for any serious outdoor swimmer, especially those who are looking to dabble in swim hiking / trekking also known as cross-country swimming.
> Easier/faster to get on and off than a jacket
> Just as warm as a DryRobe
> No zips means no jams, no breakages
> One massive pocket, no gimmicks
> Nice fitting hood with elasticated draw chord
> Packs down very small
> Very lightweight
> Can be used as many different pieces of kit
> It doesn't come down much past your knees as a DryRobe does, some may see this as a disadvantage.
> A poncho is not a coat, some people may just prefer a coat.
> Maybe it doesn't look as cool as a DryRobe!
In the end it's about selecting the best features in a piece of kit in order to do what's required.
If, for you, 'looking like one of the crowd' is important, or if having a nice logo or bright colours is your thing, then this kit isn't for you - Helikon Tex are not as well known (in the UK anyway) and focus on military style equipment, so this may not look 'cool' enough!
But if you are looking for something that can be used in a variety of situations and that is highly versatile in terms of performance to cost ratio, I would recommend it, or something similar such as the Honcho Poncho Thermarest, which looks a bit 'cooler', but lacks some of the more versatile features such as wrap around straps and and sleeping bag zip. Even a wool blanket with a couple of holes cut in would suffice!
There are several features listed above however that I have considered carefully that are a good match for the needs of more 'hard core' open water swimmers and those who want to combine swimming with hiking and camping.