Beginner’s Guide to Wild Swimming
Wild swimming has attracted significant media attention over the last couple of years writes Laura Moss. Whether it’s Robson Green swimming the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool, Lewis Gordon Pugh swimming up Everest, or David Walliams swimming the Thames, everyone seems to be at it. The question is, why? And why now? For some of us, swimming in lakes, rivers and the sea is as natural as the environment in which we bathe. For others, the idea of swimming anywhere other than the local baths is totally alien. A 2011 survey by the Outdoor Swimming Society (OSS) found that 50% of outdoor swimmers had only picked it up in the last five years.
In this article, I aim to explain exactly what constitutes ‘wild’ swimming, why you should do it, and identify some of the key practicalities you should consider. Above all, I aim to encourage you to jump in and give it a go.
What is Wild Swimming?
Wild swimming is, essentially, swimming in the wild. This means anytime you paddle in a river, bathe in a lake, or swim across an ocean, you are partaking. A broader term would be outdoor swimming, and this would also cover lidos, the outdoor swimming pools with which we are so blessed in Britain.
Wild swimming is not new. The Romans were at it, Lord Byron swam the length of the Grand Union Canal in Venice, and Ancient Greek heroes swam across seas to meet their loved ones. However, in recent years, it seems wherever we turn another newspaper is extolling its virtues. This could be linked to the increasing popularity of triathlons, of which outdoor swimming is usually an intrinsic part. It could also be linked to the credit crunch – as people turn away from expensive gym memberships, they look for low cost alternatives. However, it is not just about sport and exercise. Wild swimming is as much about reconnecting with nature and experiencing the world from a unique and unusual perspective.
Why would I want to do it?
Swimming in general has been shown to have innumerable benefits. As a non-impact sport and one in which your body is totally supported, it can provide welcome relief for joints hammered by other sports such as running. Wild swimming in particular can offer a new ‘duck’s eye’ perspective on the world. Swimming allows you to immerse yourself in an environment and become part of it, rather than being a neutral observer. It engages all the senses, from the stinging of salt water to the silken feel of peaty tarns and, as anyone who has been skinny dipping knows, is a sensual, sensory experience.
Swimming in the outdoors has health benefits too. As well as the potential health benefits of cold water, swimming outdoors has been shown to ameliorate the symptoms of depression. Jumping into a natural body of cold water, even if only for a moment, invigorates you and leaves you with a long-lasting, tingly sense of well-being and a rosy glow. The above-mentioned OSS survey found that 83% of survey respondents said they felt better after a swim – more energetic, happier and less stressed.
Wild swimming also offers you the opportunity for low cost, simple, unusual adventures. ‘Swexpeditions’ give you access to the hidden places of the world, whether an uninhabited island on Derwentwater, intricate gorge systems in Oman, or an alternative side to a city centre. You can get up close and personal with nature and enjoy the slight feeling of subversion that any wild swimming experience brings.
How does it work?
Wild swimming is not complicated. Find your local water body, take off some (or all) of your clothes, and get in. A quick paddle in the sea counts as much as an epic journey down a river, and both will give you an all-natural buzz. Obviously there are safety considerations, as we look at below, but these are far fewer than often assumed.
What’s stopping you?
The largest battle is a mental one. The first entry into the water can be nerve-wracking, and a real force of will may be needed to jump in. However, there are a few other things that need to be considered:
Many people will tell you that you will definitely catch Weil’s disease – an unpleasant disease spread by infected animals’ urine also known as Leptospirosis- if you indulge in wild swimming. In the UK, from 1982 to 1991, there was an annual average of 2.5 cases of Weil’s disease associated with the 5-million recreational water users (source). Not only is that a tiny percentage, it is actually lower than the risk in the non-recreational water using population. Nonetheless, it’s a nasty disease and there are steps you can take to minimise the risk of contracting this or any other bugs. Cover cuts and abrasions, avoid swallowing the water and shower once you get out. If you experience flu-like symptoms up to three weeks after being in the water, seek medical advice. The British Canoe Union is a good source of advice.
If you are swimming in the UK, it is likely to be cold. However, this is where the delicious high comes from and it’s a case of making the mental shift from fearing to embracing the chilliness. Some practical suggestions include:
- Wearing a swimming cap (or two if it’s really cold). A lot of heat is lost through the head and I wear one even on short swims.
- Wearing a mask rather than normal goggles, so more of your face is covered.
- Trying wetsuit gloves/booties.
- If you really can’t bear it, buy or rent a wetsuit. Wetsuits can be very useful for longer swims, but they mean you don’t feel the water on your skin as much, and so reduce the sensory experience. They make you swim faster (one estimate is a gain of 1 minute over 1 kilometre) but make your legs surprisingly buoyant, which may result in backache. Choose one that is specifically designed for swimming, as these will be thinner and should have flexible panels around your shoulders to enable a smoother stroke.
Other obvious pointers would include not staying in for too long, having something hot to drink afterwards and swimming faster to keep the blood flowing.
Bear in mind that there is a big difference between feeling a sharp, breath-taking coldness – which happens in an instant – and the lowered body temperature that occurs over a longer period. Hypothermia takes several minutes to kick in and cannot happen quicker than that. If your plan is just to go for a quick dip in cold water – say, less than one minute – then just make sure you can get out easily and have warm clothes to hand.
The law on access is somewhat unclear in England (there is a right to roam in Scotland which means you can swim virtually anywhere). Check local signs and ask around; if in doubt then be discreet. It is very rare that anyone will stop you – it’s never happened to me.
Tides and Currents
If you are swimming somewhere new, check out local tide tables and signs. If in doubt, stick close to shore and make sure you have an easy exit. Obviously, this is less of a problem if you are just paddling or you are swimming in a lake.
Lots of people will think that stripping off in a public place to jump into a river or pond is just plain weird. And in many ways, they are right. It certainly feels strange the first few times you try it but if you can get past that feeling then the slight deviousness makes it all the more exhilarating. Remember, no one thinks it’s strange to swim in the sea. This is no different.
- don’t swim alone!
- don’t jump into water of unknown depth (if it’s not deep then you could hit the bed at speed)
- identify entry/exit points in advance
- swim around water bodies, rather than across, especially if there are only one or two of you and the water is cold. This is so you’re not far from the edge in case of cramp or fatigue – the cold can do funny things.
As explained with tongue-in-cheek elsewhere on this site, the only thing you really need for a wild swim is a swimming costume and even that’s optional. However, if you want to do a little more than just a quick splash then you might consider:
- Goggles – Any type will do although large mask types are really good for better peripheral vision when swimming outside and have the added benefit of covering more of your face from cold water.
- Swimming cap – Cheap as chips but a big help against the cold. Neoprene hats can also be good as an alternative or in addition to in colder water.
- Wetsuit – Purists consider this cheating but it’s up to you whether you care about that or not. It will keep you warmer, make you more buoyant and give you some protection against scrapes.
- Gloves and socks – Made from neoprene and good for keeping your extremities warm.
- Towing kit – If you’re feeling particularly adventurous then you could look into carrying kit with you. One method is to tie a surfboard leash around your ankle and use it to tow a waterproof dry bag, float or small inflatable.
For a quick dip in the water, no training at all is necessary. However, if you want to get more involved then the three main areas to work on are probably:
- Swimming fitness – Easily achieved with lengths in your local pool.
- Open water swimming technique – Swimming outside offers a few additional challenges such as currents, choppy water and the need to navigate. See the Swimming Resources section for advice.
- Cold water tolerance – Repeated exposure and a bit of extra fat are a good place to start. As is the OSS’ article on cold water adaptation.
- Go for a swim at the seaside to remind yourself just how much fun it can be.
- Find a nearby pond, lake or calm and shallow river and go for a wade. Perhaps a splash and couple of breast strokes if you’re feeling brave. Getting past the feeling of awkwardness at swimming in a wild and public place can often be the biggest step. Try that a few times until you feel a little more comfortable.
- Now, gently, try going for a bit more than a splash. Try doing a bit of swimming, covering some distance. Stay close to shore and do it in a group but see if you can get comfortable.
- From here you could either: Find fellow swimmers through an OSS event or local meeting; enter a race such as the Great Swim Series or one from the Long Distance Swimming Association; or just explore by yourself using a wild swim map or guide book.
If you want to read more about wild swimming then there are a heap of useful websites, books and links in the Swimming Resources section of this website.
Here are some other articles from the site:
- 10 Tips for Your First Swimming Expedition by Dan Martin
- 5 Health Benefits of Cold Water Swimming – More reasons to get involved
- Wild Swims and Mild Whims – How I got into outdoor swimming and how easy I think it can be
- Swimming: The Next Step in Adventure – Dan Martin argues that swimming is the next big thing for expeditions
- Wild Swimming is Not a Sport – Swimming outdoors should be simple and free, not requiring equipment and training
- 12 Reasons to Shower Cold – The only way to start your day
- This Is The Serpentine – Description of a cold morning dip in a London lido