Dive into the ultimate wild swimming guide. What is wild swimming? Which are its benefits and swimming safety tips to enjoy it more!
What is Wild Swimming
Wild swimming is swimming outdoors in natural pools of water such as rivers, lakes, and the sea, rather than in a swimming pool. The water for swimming can be cold or temperate, but it’s always amidst nature, in the wild. Wild swimming is not just about sport. It’s about reconnecting with nature and experiencing the world from a unique and greener perspective.
Wild swimming appeals to a wide range of people, from local teenagers splashing around in rivers, to older people who find that it keeps them alert and healthy. Besides, there is a group of middle-aged city dwellers who increasingly go out wild swimming as a way to de-stress. It helps them to jump into the moment and focus their minds on the physical sensations, rather than their daily worries and concerns.
Wild swimming has surged in popularity in the UK in the last five years, but it’s not new. All cultures of the past such as Romans and Ancient Greeks practised it. Also all cultures and countries today practice it (such as the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Spain). Yet, it has not been given a specific name, other than ‘taking a dip’, or ‘going for a swim’. A broader term is outdoor swimming, which also includes lidos (outdoor swimming pools).
Wild swimming offers simple, low cost and unusual adventures in amazing, remote or hidden places of the world. It allows you to merge with nature.
Like any outdoor activity, wild swimming has some inherent risks and dangers. Yet with the right information and preparation, you can stay safe, without losing the sense of adventure. The precautions required when going wild swimming are discussed in the ‘Swimming Safety‘ section below.
Health benefits of wild swimming
The health and psychological benefits of taking a dip in natural waters have long been known. The numerous spa towns all over the world are evidence of this.
Swimming keeps your heart rate up but with a low impact on your body (so no joints hammered as you get by running). It’s great for cardio, endurance, muscle strength and tone, heart, lungs, it increases white blood cell count and burns calories! Coldwater swimming further boosts the immune system. Intense vasodilation pumps out muscle lactates, it releases endorphins and circulation improves.
Swimming outdoors, even only for a moment, has been shown to improve depression. Jumping into a natural body of water amidst nature invigorates, leaving a long-lasting, tingly sense of well-being. People report feeling more energetic, happier and less stressed after a swim.
Wild swimming engages all the senses, from the feeling of water on your skin to the smell of the soil around you. It allows you to immerse in the environment, become part of it and merge with nature.
For many people, wild swimming is a great way to alleviate stress, as a form of mindfulness or meditation. It helps them to focus on the moment and the physical sensations, rather than on worries and concerns. It’s the perfect digital detox, allowing you to reconnect with nature.
Is wild swimming safe?
Like many outdoor activities, wild swimming comes with an element of risk. The most important safety aspect of wild swimming is to be able to swim confidently and know your limits. Most of the time, there won’t be a lifeguard around. Nature can be unforgiving and demand respect.
Every year, people die from drowning as a result of an accident in or around the water. These result from simple mistakes, such as a fall into the water, underestimating the effect of currents and cold water, or risky activities as jumping from great heights into water (tombstoning). Contrary to what most people think, animals are usually the least of your potential dangers when wild swimming.
Make sure you have a ‘Swimming Safety Routine’ every time you go swimming. Before you enter the water ask yourself if swimming is safe here, if you are confident in your swimming abilities and if the water is suitable for swimming.
To establish this we have included below the list of all potential dangers and swimming safety tips. Initially, it may seem like there are an endless number of factors to consider, but once you’ve got the hang of it you will feel like a fish in the water!
Below is a list of potential dangers of wild swimming and key health and safety guidelines. We have grouped them into 5 handy sections.
SWIMMING SAFETY TIPS
1. SELF KNOWLEDGE – Know your Limits!
Be aware of your swimming abilities
With usually no lifeguards to watch over you, you’ll have to look after yourself. How good a swimmer are you? You might be an excellent swimmer but you need to measure it up to the external physical and weather conditions, such as currents and water depth.
Always check the depth of the water, even if you visit the same spot regularly as depths can vary. New underwater obstacles (sand, rocks, branches, rubbish) may have been brought downstream. Even shallow water can suddenly deepen.
Slips, trips and falls are the most likely hazard around rivers and waterfalls. Take special care with children and non-swimmers near water.
Avoid solo swimming
It’s best to swim with a buddy, in case you get into any trouble. Cramps in the calf or foot can be very painful and disabling. Wild swimming can tire you out fast. Keep an eye on how far you swim from the shore (checking your distance from your access point regularly) and make sure you have enough energy to swim back. Have an exit plan. You might be exhausted when it’s time to get out, so make sure your exit point isn’t too steep.
Precautions you could take when swimming alone are wearing a life jacket, sticking to beaches with lifeguards and keeping a mobile phone close by in case of any emergencies. If you’re on your own, make sure you let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
Avoid drinking alcohol
Alcohol and drugs boost confidence but drastically reduce your ability to swim or react. Alcohol consumption while swimming contributes to at least 20% of deaths by drowning.
What equipment do I need? The minimum is a swimming costume (unless you like skinny dipping in nudist zones) and a towel. Yet, it can be very useful to have the following equipment:
Swimming goggles are ideal for safety but also to see the fantastic world underwater. Goggles with white glass are nicer to enjoy the colours of nature.
Wear a brightly coloured swimming hat and take a tow float with you. These will help you to be seen on larger water surfaces.
Means of calling for help
Carry a means of calling for help, such as a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch and a whistle to attract attention. Some countries have apps to track your swim and alert if you fail to return home on time. For example, the UK has RYA SafeTrx app and Ireland, Irish Sailing SafeTrx app.
Walking barefoot is healthy and recommended. In most natural pools and places to swim in nature, it’s fine to walk barefoot. Yet, others have pointed rocks, pebbles or weeds making it nearly impossible to walk on them. Bringing the right footwear to these places will make all the difference! You’ll be able to get in and out of the water easily and enjoy the natural pools fully.
If bathing in cold water make sure you have warm clothes and a warm drink for after your swim. Swimming changing robes have recently appeared on the market.
Depending on how cold the water is, how long and how deep you intend to swim in it, you might want a wetsuit inside the water. It’ll help you stay warm and can increase buoyancy, so you could stay in the water for longer. You can get thermal swim gloves and socks. Some like wearing bobble hats for icy swims.
Choose your spot
Before you dive in, assess your surroundings. Check for any hazards in this location, currents and tides (check the tide times before entering the water).
Have an escape plan
Before you enter the water, plan where you can enter and also exit the water. Check for alternative exit routes if your planned exit becomes unavailable. Be aware that tides and changes in water level may affect your exit from the water.
Check the depth
Rivers and swimming holes that seem shallow can drop off suddenly. An area that a couple of hours ago was deep may become shallow. Make sure you test the depth of the water before you take the plunge.
Check the temperature
Even on a sunny day, rivers can be extremely cold! Test the temperature before you get in as the shock of cold water can take your breath away and be very dangerous.
Don’t jump or dive
If you dive into water that is too shallow or into submerged objects which may not be visible, you risk breaking your neck, ending up paralyzed or dead.
Even in well-known swimming spots, currents can shift rocks, sand and branches beneath the surface. Water levels can drastically change within hours. For this reason, it’s never a good idea to dive into the water or practice ‘tombstoning‘ (jumping vertically from a high take-off spot).
If you decide to jump, make sure you check the depth of the water, obstacles or other people in the water so that you don’t dive or jump onto them. Never judge water depth by just looking. Walk in slowly and inspect the area you intend to jump in for hidden hazards like rocks or branches. Never jump straight in.
Avoid dangerous access routes
Stick to spots where you can easily enter and exit the water. Choose a softly sloping entry over a ravine.
To avoid being run down while swimming, it’s best to choose a spot where there’s little traffic. Swimmers are hard to spot in the water, especially if the light is poor. Boat pilots, rowers, kayakers and ski riders often don’t expect to come across swimmers. A collision is usually worse for the swimmer. Propellers cause severe injuries every year. Stay alert. You could wear a bright coloured cap and drag a tow float behind you or swim with a kayaker displaying an alpha flag.
One of the most common dangers of swimming outdoors is slippery rocks. Avoid running near a lake or river. You could hit your head, pass out, fall into the water and drown.
Beginners fear to be ‘dragged down by weeds’, but this is extremely unlikely. If you bump into weeds, don’t panic. Just glide through them using your arms to paddle. Swim in deeper water where they will be out of reach.
Danger from animals is site-specific. In Europe, animals may be the least of your worries. Yet, in other places such as the US, you should watch out for crocodiles, snakes, leeches and in Australia, even jellyfish can be extremely dangerous. Check warning signs and research local swimming safety information.
The biggest impact on outdoor swimming is the weather. Adverse weather can turn even the safest swimming spots into danger zones. Heavy rain and wind can cause rivers and oceans to become unpredictable. Check the weather is safe.
Swimming in the rain
Swimming in rain is usually no problem. Make sure you keep your clothes and towel somewhere dry.
Yet, conditions in some rivers can change rapidly when it rains. It may be raining lightly where you are, but up the mountain, the water might be pouring down. In a matter of minutes, this water can come down the ravine and can potentially cause floods where you are. Always be aware.”
Heavy rainfall reduces water quality. With heavy rain, sewers can discharge untreated sewage directly into rivers. Fertilizers and pollutants are washed off the land into the water, making them dangerous to swim in. Avoid swimming the days following heavy rain.
Strong winds will make water choppy which can make swimming and spotting boats and obstacles difficult. The water can be especially choppy when the wind blows in the opposite direction to the current.
During stormy weather
Check the forecasts, currents and tides in advance and check your surroundings. Storms can totally change the landscape of swimming holes, rivers, lakes and beaches. Access points may disappear, and new currents may appear. Leave the water if there’s an electrical storm.
Check the flow. Strong currents can rapidly sweep people away. Even exceptionally strong swimmers, won’t be able to swim against rivers with a fast flow. You can check how fast the current is by throwing a stick into the water and watching it float downstream.
Open water is usually colder than water in a pool, which can affect swimming ability. If the water is very cold, it could lead to ‘cold water shock’. Initially, it takes your breath away and is then followed by an increase in breathing rate and blood pressure. Extreme cold can also restrict blood flow to the arms and legs, as the body works to protect vital organs, making it harder to swim. It typically lasts a couple of minutes but it can be deadly. The trick is to first let your body adjust to cold water. Enter slowly and don’t jump into the water until your breathing is under control and your body has adjusted. Stay close to the bank or shore if you are feeling very cold. Take note of water temperature. The colder it is, the less time you should spend in the water.
5. WATER QUALITY
Is it clean? Rivers and oceans aren’t always as clean as we’d like. Cleanliness is an important part of swimming safety. Here’s what to watch out for to swim healthy!
How is bathing water quality monitored?
Many coastal waters and a few popular inland swimming locations (natural pools, rivers and lakes) are designated as bathing waters. Bathing waters are monitored and protected from pollution sources which may be a health risk.
Other open water locations that are not designated bathing areas are managed to protect fish and wildlife, not people (surprisingly it’s not the same). The health risks of swimming in these locations are higher. Waters are not monitored for the 2 types of bacteria (intestinal enterococci and E. coli) which are used to assess bathing water quality. They can also contain high levels of sewage, faeces from livestock and pollution from farming or industry.
Open water swimming can increase the risk of gastrointestinal illnesses. These may cause diarrhoea, vomiting, respiratory, skin, ear and eye infections. Most symptoms will generally be mild. Yet, there is also a risk of more severe infections caused by microorganisms as E.coli and leptospirosis (Weil’s disease), which can cause liver and kidney problems.
The actual risk of contracting leptospirosis (‘Swimmer’s itch’) is extremely low. Yet it’s still important to take simple precautions.
If unsure about the cleanliness, cover your cuts with waterproof plasters, don’t swallow water, keep your head above the water, shower soon after swimming, wash your hands before eating and never swim in stagnant water.
There are various types of algae growing in natural waters. The blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in freshwaters poses the greatest health risk.
Over summer, in lowland lakes polluted with fertilizers, algae can multiply. This results in a powdery, green surface scum (the blooms) on the downwind side of a lake. Bathing in it can cause skin rashes, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, muscle, joint pain and eye irritation. Toxins produced by blooms are also poisonous to wild and domestic animals and can cause severe illness and death. Find a part of the lake without blooms, or don’t swim.
After periods of high rainfall, water quality may be temporarily reduced. It can become contaminated with fertilizers, untreated human sewage and other pollutants. This issue is known to happen in seas, but it also affects rivers. Some apps (Safer Seas Service app, provided by Surfers Against Sewage), alert users in real-time of this risk.
Plastic in rivers and oceans is killing wildlife and is a huge growing global concern. Don’t litter when you go swimming. Unintentionally, small plastics like candy wrappings you have with you might blow away. Be aware of this when preparing your bag to go swimming. Clean your bag and only take what you really need to swim in nature. Consider taking a bag with you to collect and remove plastics from nature.
PLACES TO SWIM & SAFETY
The different types of swimming spots will to a large extent, determine the swimming issues and potential dangers you might face.
1. SWIMMING HOLES
Natural pools in rivers often have tiny, thin snakes, but they are harmless. They might look intimidating, but they are actually kind of cute!
Be alert with depths and check your exit point before entering, as sometimes natural pools may have very steep drop-offs.
People plunging into the water (tombstoning) without having properly checked the depth or obstacles in the water can be disastrous.
Check the flow when going river swimming. Even the strongest swimmers should stay away from rivers with a fast flow. You can check how fast the river is by throwing a leaf into the water and watching it float downstream.
Currents in rivers are usually easier to spot and predict. Yet, rapid currents in rivers and streams can be fast-moving and catch you off guard. Some strong currents such as rapids are visible, but others can be hidden under the water’s surface. Heavy rain, storms and overflowing rivers can create strong currents. Also, man-made channels and reservoirs can be empty one minute and full of water a couple of minutes later. Additionally, if a river has an upstream dam, it may have sudden changes in flow rate.
Always think in fast-flowing water about where you will be able to get out if you lose your footing. Identify your emergency exits before entering and scan around for any hazards downstream (obstructions, waterfalls or weirs).
In canyons, the gorge narrows, increasing the flow. Explore canyons from the bottom up, so you can check for safe exits. Never enter a canyon if a thunderstorm is expected upstream.
In tidal sections of rivers and estuaries, the current will flow upstream at times.
Swimming near water structures such as weirs, sluices, locks and pumping stations can be dangerous, even for great swimmers. They don’t always have warning signs for strong currents and sudden changes in depths.
If swept downstream in a river, float on your back with your feet in front of you and toes on the surface. Bend your knees, so your feet will cushion you if you run into an obstacle. Move towards the inside of a bend where the current is slack to get out.
Make sure the water is not stagnant when choosing your lake for swimming. Snails, rats and algae can breed and release parasites into open water. In humid conditions, algae multiply and a powdery green scum (the blooms) can collect on the downwind side of a lake.
Lakes may hide underwater currents which are not visible over the water.
The main danger with swimming in waterfalls is that undercurrents directly below a large waterfall could hold you under, and you may not surface.
Swimming directly under waterfalls has a certain risk. Any debris flowing over the waterfall could hit you from above and cause injury.
Beware of large waves, as they can slam you like a puppet in a washing machine. Even from the shore, large breaking waves can sweep you off your feet and drag you out to sea.
Tides result in the physical rising and falling of the sea level. By checking the tide, and planning, you can avoid being trapped by the rising tide. Tides can affect your entry and exit points. A spot with an easy sandy entrance may be rocky and inaccessible at low tide. Also, swimming against an outgoing tide is hard, even for strong swimmers. Stick to swimming on an incoming tide.
Riptides can be deadly, but with a little knowledge, it is possible to exit from one safely. A riptide is a strong offshore current caused by breaking waves and changing water levels. They are usually long, narrow currents that form unexpectedly. If you find yourself caught in a riptide, stay calm. Panicking in deep water is dangerous, so float on your back and don’t try to swim against it. Let the natural current push you out of the riptide. Swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current, then swim back to shore. If possible, raise your hand and shout for help.
Familiarize yourself with emergency procedures in place. Check the ‘Flag System’ at swimming beaches. They might differ slightly from country to country, but many countries have the same. In the UK, red over yellow flags parallel to the shore means the lifeguards are on duty on the section between the flags. Hence, people are advised to swim between the flags. Most countries use flag colours to indicate the level of danger of the sea. For example, a red flag indicates swimming is dangerous and a green flag indicates calm conditions.
Let people know where you are and what you’re doing (inform beach lifeguards if you are going for a long swim).
Inflatables are best used in swimming pools, not the sea. They can easily be swept out by currents or offshore winds.
There are only a few marine animals that can cause harm to humans. Most will inflict a sting, resulting in mild to moderate pain. If you feel like you’ve been stung by something, leave the water. Weever fish have a defined sting and jellyfish will create a rash over an area. Both shouldn’t need hospital treatment (unless you are in Australia, as jellyfish can be lethal there). Some people have allergic reactions. Seek medical help if you sense any difficulty in breathing. Very few species of sharks are dangerous to people. Shark attacks are extremely rare. Don’t swim where sharks feed (for example, next to seal breeding colonies).
Parasitic, viral or bacterial infection can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. Beaches have bathing water quality checks more often than inland water, as more people go swimming on beaches. Choose a beach that has been controlled and checked, for example, those that have been awarded a Blue Flag.
Do your research in advance. Make sure you know the swimming spot, its surroundings and how it’s affected by changing weather conditions. If you are still unsure, ask the locals!