If, like us, the summer sun has you rushing to any stretch of open water, take a pause before diving in for your first wild swim. Writer, surfer and cold water swimmer Sophie Hellyer shares her dos and don’ts for first-time wild swimmers.
So, your social media timelines are full of people splashing around in beautiful, remote-looking locations – coastlines, lakes, rivers and reservoirs – and this heatwave (read: climate crisis) has got you thinking maybe, just maybe, now is your time to start wild swimming. Cold water swimming is known to boost fitness, mood, the immune system and libido … and most importantly it’s heaps of fun! There are lots of places to swim that are closer than you might think, so even if you’ve never dipped your toes into wild water before, this short guide will give you the nudge you need to find a location and jump in… Or, rather, get in slowly and carefully depending on the location and temperature.
1. Find a buddy or group
Not only is swimming much safer with a friend, it’s also much more fun (and please, never swim alone). Ideally, find a club or an organised group where not only will you make new friends, you’ll also learn about where to swim, what hazards to look out for and when to go. Check out The Outdoor Swimming Society‘s website for established groups. If you’re not a confident swimmer, it’s never too late to learn. You can usually get adult swimming lessons and coaching at your local pool or lido for around a fiver. Check out the Swim England website. And children aged 7–14 in the UK can take advantage of the free Swim Safe sessions from the RNLI and Swim England.
2. Pack your bag
You’ve found your community but what should you pack? Surely you just need swimmers and a towel, right? Wrong. Of course, you’ll probably want a costume, bikini, budgie smugglers or just a pair of undies – don’t worry no-one’s going to judge. I like to swim in a pink cossie with red lobsters printed across it, or even in the nude occasionally! The most sustainable choice of swimwear is to use the swimwear you already own, but if you *really* need a fresh swimsuit you can check my sustainable swimwear guide.
If you’re planning anything longer than a quick dip you’ll need a wetsuit – swimming in cold water saps your body heat. A wetsuit can prevent your arms and legs from feeling heavy and weak so quickly. I like to wear a swimming cap – or two – if it’s cold, or a wooly hat if the conditions are calm. You lose a lot of heat through your head and a cap really helps prevent this. Consider wearing a brightly coloured hat for visibility.
Pack a towel or dry robe, a hot beverage (never take alcohol or swim under the influence) and make sure you have warm clothes and lots of layers for when you get out. Even on a warm day you might get a chill. Trust me!
3. Know your location
Every wild swimming spot is different. Some might be calm rockpools, some might be choppy oceans with slipways leading in, some might be deep reservoirs accessible by jetties and ladders. Each one presents an exciting new experience but with different hazards. Ask local lifeguards, your swim group or other water users to make sure you understand the tides, currents, waves and local marine life. And always be mindful of how deep the water is and what the bottom surface is like. It’s also important to think about where you’ll get out before you get in – because once you start getting cold you may want to make a hasty exit. When swimming in the sea, always stay within your depth and swim parallel to shore, not out to sea. And if you’re at a lifeguarded beach, always swim between the red and yellow flags. If you’re swimming in lakes and reservoirs, stay close to the edge and only swim where you’re visible to others.
4. Don’t dive in
The thing about wild swimming is it’s, err, wild. This means it might be murky and there’s seldom a smooth surface beneath the water. Instead there may be rocks or other hazards (yes, I’ve seen a few shopping trolleys, sigh) waiting to hurt you. This is why you should never dive or jump in. What’s more, average UK and Irish sea temperatures are just 12°C, and rivers are colder – even in the summer – and jumping in could lead to life-threatening complications from the sudden onset of cold shock. Just enter the water slowly and acclimatise at your own pace. Be brave, embrace the positive experience of being in cold water as much as you can, and soon you’ll love it. And if you need still need some inspiration to get in the water, check out #risefierce on Instagram.
Not only is this the most important advice I can give for wild swimming, it’s also the most important advice I can give for life. Focus on doing long, slow exhales because this will help to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and keep you calm. Cold water swimming is much more enjoyable when you breathe!
Don’t show off and stay in the water so long that you get hypothermia. Just two minutes is long enough to feel the benefits of cold water swimming and if you can only stay in the water one minute, that’s amazing, you still did it! The first 30 seconds tends to be the hardest part. The first symptoms of hypothermia are shivering and teeth-chattering. If this happens, get out of the water immediately. If someone’s in trouble, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.
7. The aftermath
Exit the water in a safe place and warm yourself up. Although a hot sauna or shower can be tempting, warming up naturally is much safer. Just dry yourself down, put on your clothes and focus on your breathing. Now is the time to grab a hot drink and appreciate what you’ve just achieved. I’ve been doing this almost daily for the past three years and I promise you the feeling is as strong and reinvigorating every time.
Looking for a secluded swimming spot away from the crowds? Check out our favourite alternatives to the beach.