The joys of cold water swimming are so plentiful — from anecdotal depression and stress reduction to chronic pain management and muscular healing. It is important, even life-saving, that those who benefit from it should feel safe to enjoy their dips all year round. If outdoor swimming helps you mentally and physically, you likely don’t want to sacrifice your cold water therapy for part of the year. So, how do you continue to swim outdoors safely throughout the winter months as temperatures plummet?
Education is key. So, this guide will help you stay safe as you swim outdoors, going beyond your comfort zone in your search of that giddy, wintry euphoria, and reaping the rewards.
Swim Outdoors in Groups
While one of the joys of outdoor swimming is the peace, solace and oneness with nature, if you’re new to cold water swimming, it is highly recommended that you buddy up — at least as you acclimatise to the temperature changes throughout the season.
The outdoor swimming community is a particularly inclusive and welcoming space full of body positivity and plenty of giggles. Someone almost always brings cake to organised swims, which should persuade the solo swimmers to give a group a go. There are local societies to be found worldwide connected through social media.
Plan Your Swim Outdoors Well
It is vital that you plan your swim well, noting safe entry and exit points with backups in case they are unusable for any reason. Always check the currents and tides, particularly if you’re planning open water or river swims. They differ vastly across the globe, so really get to know your locale.
It’s worth checking the temperatures upon your arrival at the swimming spot, too. Generally, swimmers consider anything below 10 degrees Celsius cold and anything sub-5 ice swimming. After you’ve been for a few swims, you’ll learn your limits. It’s best not to push yourself and there’s no shame or judgement for giving one a miss if you don’t feel comfortable with the conditions.
Finally, as with all potentially dangerous outdoor activities, let someone know where you’re going to be conducting your swim outdoors.
Master Your Breathing
The more you swim in cold water, the less you will be affected by cold water shock. Being mentally prepared will help to alleviate the effects of the initial gasp and stave off panic. Physically, there are things you can do, too. Enter the water gradually but stay moving. A handy tip is to walk into the water and splash your torso, shoulders, neck, and eventually, your face, as you go. Make sure your breathing has evened out after the initial gasp before immersing yourself, especially if you’re submerging your head.
It is advisable that you do not dive or jump into cold water. Not only does this approach give you no chance to assess the current, but it also leaves no time for acclimatisation and is, therefore, more likely to lead to cold water shock.
So, picture yourself moving through the water. The cold, sharp shock hitting your body should only last a few seconds but, of course, varies from person to person. You will find your limits with experience and practise. Breathe deeply through these moments. They should pass and your breath will help regulate your body’s response.
The more you swim outdoors, the longer you’ll be able to stay immersed in cold water. Staying active will keep your core temperature higher for longer. Should your energy dwindle, try sculling as an alternative to your usual strokes and immediately make your way out of the water. If your energy completely depletes, the RNLI in the UK advises that you ‘Float To Live’.
Swim Outdoors in the Right Kit
People might give you props for swimming in just your skins throughout winter but the icy water doesn’t allow much wiggle room for ego. In other words, if you continue to swim outdoors in the winter, you probably need to change your kit as the temperature of the water drops with the seasons. Consider investing in kit to keep your head, feet and hands warm, and even an affordable wetsuit. Although a wetsuit will not prevent cold shock or hypothermia, it will help you stay warmer for longer and could aid buoyancy.
It’s worth noting here that, while upgrading from your usual swimming cossie can allow you to stay in longer, even the most hardened outdoors swimmers stay submerged for much shorter times in the winter months — sometimes just a minute at a time.
Check out this basic kit list to get you started:
- Tow float
- Swimming costume or wetsuit
- Neoprene boots and neoprene gloves
- Brightly coloured and clearly visible bobble hat or swimming cap
- Towel or changing robe for drying
- Warm, slip-on shoes (laces can be tricky with numb fingers!)
- Layers and layers of warm clothing to change into — including gloves
- Flask of something warm (and non-alcoholic) to drink
- An optional sugary treat
Most importantly, make sure you feel comfortable. Outdoor swimming is primarily an exercise in freedom and joy — don’t let your kit or comparing yourself to what other swimmers are wearing get in the way of your euphoria. Enjoy it while you can because the next bit is probably the worst aspect of an outdoor swim.
Warming Up After Your Swim Outdoors
Once you’ve safely exited the water from your pre-planned exit spot, you must warm up. It’s a great idea to exit the water at a sheltered spot, protected from any wind.
Believe it or not, taking a hot shower immediately isn’t a good method of warming up, as hot water can actually cool your core. For this reason, a hot water bottle isn’t advised either, because it may reduce shivering by heating your body externally — but shivering is your body’s way of warming you up from the core. Embrace the shivers!
You want to warm up slowly but efficiently by putting on warm layers of clothing, starting at the top of your body with a nice, cosy hat and working your way down. Sip a hot drink slowly, too. Cake is advised!
What if Something Goes Wrong?
If someone gets into trouble during the swim, don’t put yourself at risk by jumping in after them. Instead, call for help by dialling your country’s emergency services number. If you find yourself in difficulty, the advice is to ‘float to live’ on your back. Some of the warning signs of hypothermia during a swim include shivering in the water and a noticeable change of stroke or difficulty with motor control. Warning signs that apply both during the swim and once you’re out of the water include slurred speech, disorientation, lack of cognition and difficulty breathing, dizziness, loss of consciousness. Post-swim, watch out for rigidity, an inability to rewarm yourself or a lack of shivering despite being evidently cold. Seek medical attention in these cases.
The good news is your body will acclimatise if you continue to swim outdoors throughout autumn and into winter. Try to swim a few times a week so that temperatures don’t drop too extremely by the date of your next swim. Proceed with extra caution if there have been long gaps in between your winter swims for this reason.
It is vital that you know your limits and listen to your body. Get out and conduct your safe warm-up routine if you begin to feel uncomfortable in the water, if your limbs become too cold to function at their fullest, or if the cold shock sensation lasts longer than normal.
Of course, there are risks with any swim outdoors, particularly when cold. But managed safely, the rewards can be great when you take it at your own pace and enjoy the moment!