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Top Tips for swimming safely in cold water

How has cold water swimming impacted your overall well-being?

Any outdoor activity has risks, and cold water swimming is no different. This is not to say that swimming in open waters should be avoided; quite the opposite.

We urge you to get involved with this amazing hobby, but you must take the necessary precautions to ensure your safety at all times.

With our top tips, you will learn about important equipment that keeps you buoyant and visible.

We explore crucial steps to ensure the water is safe and cover key tactics for avoiding hypothermia.

Keep reading to educate yourself on swimming safely in cold waters!

What is cold water swimming?

Cold water swimming is an activity which involves submerging in open waters, particularly in the Winter. It is an increasingly popular hobby due to the immense health benefits associated.

Many cold water swimmers choose to swim in rivers, lakes or seas. It is important to remember that swimming in any open body of water involves hazards, even if you know the area well.

Even the most experienced swimmers should take the necessary steps to stay safe, including supporting themselves with the right equipment, such as a bright tow float.

How to stay safe when swimming in open waters

How does your body react to cold water?
Swimmer by a cliff

Here are our best tips for swimming safely in cold water:

1. Take cold showers.

A cold shower, rather than a hot shower, will help you prepare for frequent cold water swims, as your body will acclimate to a lower water temperature. To begin with, you can have your usual shower, then turn the water cold at the very end.

Without preparation, a quick dunk into icy water could result in cold water shock and even hypothermia. So, you can reduce the likelihood of shock by acclimatising your body temperature to feel comfortable with cold immersions.

2. Choose the right equipment.

Cold water swimming is much safer if you have the right equipment. For example, if you swim in Autumn or Winter, you might want to consider the equipment that regulates your core body temperature, such as a wetsuit or neoprene gloves.

Neoprene wetsuits trap a thin layer of water directly against your skin, which helps insulate your body and keep you warm, even in freezing waters.

Other equipment, such as tow floats, whistles, torches, and cameras, can increase visibility and buoyancy. Visibility is essential as it could be deadly if no one can locate you in an emergency.

Choose the right equipment
Woman swimming in the ocean

3. Warm up beforehand.

Always warm up before you enter any open body of water, either with a warm drink, a light jog, or ten minutes of stretching. Warming up is important before ice swimming as your core temperature and heart rate will increase, which reduces the impact of cold water shock.

Whether it is your first time or you are a professional, this is one top tip you should never avoid. Some quick exercise is a great way to loosen your muscles and prepare them for the shock of the cold water.

If you struggle with staying warm in the extremities of the water, you should consider wearing a wetsuit, swim jammers, or rash vest over your swimsuit.

4. Assess your surroundings.

Before entering any body of water, even an area you frequent, you must assess your surroundings to check for any signs of danger and ensure you are swimming safely in cold water.

Harsh weather can pull a range of hazards into the water that may not usually be there. It only takes one time of misjudgement to end up in an adverse situation, so never presume a site is safe without checking.

The best way to assess a site is to walk around the area you wish to use, making a mental note of the cut-off where you can safely go up to when you enter. Ask other local users or lifeguards for information about possible riptides or underwater currents.

You can use an underwater camera to scan the areas you may not be able to see above. If any branches, animals, or other debris could cause you a problem, you can find them before it’s a danger to you.

5. Enter and exit the water slowly.

Enter and exit the water slowly
Swimmers by rapids

As part of your open water swimming risk assessment, you need to check for any slippery rocks that may hinder your entrance or exit from the water.

You should always enter the water slowly to avoid slipping or hurting yourself. A pair of swim booties may help keep your grip.

Even if the pathway to the water is safe, you still need to wade in slowly to reduce the risk of afterdrop or hypothermia. Cold water immersion can cause you to get short of breath; taking it slow helps reduce any adverse reactions.

You can splash your face with water to help your body adjust or keep your head out of the water entirely, as this can aid regular circulation to continue.

6. Don’t push yourself too hard.

You may be excited to try out this thrilling activity, but it can be dangerous, so never push yourself too hard. Instead, you can build your personal bests up slowly and with support.

Even in the UK, the temperatures can get very low, impacting your blood pressure, body heat, parasympathetic nervous system, and more. Even avid wild swimmers need to recognise their limits to remain safe.

If you experience signs of hypothermia, immediately vacate the water and warm yourself with a hot drink and warm clothes. Common signs include shaking, exhaustion, confusion, or drowsiness.

7. Never swim alone.

An important part of the fun social scene is finding swim buddies with whom to enjoy the cold swim. However, swim buddies provide more than a laugh; they also provide safety.

Swimming alone is extremely dangerous, as you never know what kind of emergencies might occur, so it is important to have someone with you who can help if a situation does arise.

It is a good idea to go with someone who shares your love of swimming and understands the risks as well as you do. Unlike indoor swimming, wild swimming causes fatigue much quicker.

You should keep your outdoor swimming partner in your periphery at all venues. They should always be able to see and hear you at all times to ensure you are swimming safely in cold water.

8. Stay close to the shore

You should stay close to the shore no matter where you go wild swimming. By the shore will be shallower and safer as you can quickly exit the water if you need to.

Even with goggles, it is difficult to fully locate hidden debris in the water or assess the depth of the water. If you are fatigued or need to rest, you will feel more secure if your feet can touch the ground or if you have something to hold onto.

A swim buoy can help increase your buoyancy, and we recommend using a tow float for every cold water swim, even if you remain in the shallows.

9. No diving

No diving
Swimmers entering water from a cliff

Never dive straight into the water! The best way to enter any body of water is feet first and slowly. You may not have assessed the depth of the water accurately, which could result in injury should you try to dive head first.

Additionally, leaving your head out of the water is wise until you have properly acclimatised. Diving in is not a safe way to enter cold water, as it could result in shock.

Wild swimming has many more hazards than any indoor swimming, so you must take steps to remain safe.

10. Wear a changing robe

Once you have finished open water swimming, remove your damp swimwear and wear a thermal changing robe. Cold water swimmers need good, warm outdoor clothes to put on after swimming to help them safely increase their internal temperature.

Plenty of warm clothes are suitable, but a high-quality changing robe is popular for keen swimmers, as you can discreetly change anywhere.

Other warm-up options include bringing a hot water bottle, drinking a hot cup of tea, and slipping into a pair of thermal shoes.

FAQs

How to work out if you are hypothermic

The key signs of hypothermia that you need to be aware of include the following:

  • Shaking.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Confusion.
  • Memory loss.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Drowsiness.

If you feel any of these symptoms or are unwell, you need to exit the water, remove wet clothing and warm up carefully.

You can avoid hypothermia by wearing bioprene or neoprene materials in the water and keeping your head dry.

What are the benefits of cold water swimming?

There are many mental and physical health benefits associated with cold water swimming; for example, it helps to improve the immune system.

Other benefits include:

  • Increased endorphins.
  • Increased metabolism.
  • Reduced pain and inflammation.
  • Eased menopause symptoms.

Read our article to learn more about the body’s positive response to cold water!

Summary

We are well aware of the amazing benefits cold water swimming offers, but we are also aware of the hazards. 

Many risks associated with swimming in cold water can be reduced by introducing a few practices, such as assessing the area and kitting yourself out with essential equipment. 

After reading this article, you will know how to enter and exit the water, warm up before and after your swim and avoid hypothermia.

You should feel confident that you can enjoy wild waters with your swimming partner, so swim free, happy, and safe.