I love wild swimming, always have. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against a swimming pool, far from it, I really enjoy a swim in them too.
But wild swimming is different. It’s like comparing a steak to a burger (sorry vegan friends, it’s just an analogy!).
There’s something liberating about being outside for a start. We’re conditioned to want to have somewhere to change, then be in a nice warm building for our swim, in nice warm water, then have a nice hot shower before we get changed. Being outside removes all this, and thereby frees you to embrace the experience.
My kids are growing a love for wild swimming too, obviously encouraged by me, and together we have swam in mountain lakes, rivers and the sea.
I know what you’re thinking; does the sea count as wild swimming? When we go to the seaside we all do that! Arguably yes, and even more so when you decide to do it on a whim in just your pants! Good access to the sea is relatively easy in this country (we are an island after all), and with a little imagination and a bit of research you can find hidden gems almost anywhere you go on the coast. Sea swimming has its own challenges – it can be rough, you need to understand how waves move, and how to handle a rip tide, before you even get in there. Knowing the basics of tides is another key factor, as is ensuring a suitable escape route if coasteering for example. Sea water also takes a bit of getting used to, as it affects buoyancy differently than freshwater. But what an invigorating experience!
River swimming in the UK is an absolute pleasure. There’s nothing in there that’s going to eat you (sorry Florida & Australia!) for a start! Currents and temperatures vary, as does cleanliness (I once got caught in a spool of barbed wire…!), but on the whole there are countless spots perfectly suited to a wee dip, again, a little research will throw up something close to home. It’s a good idea to take along a small inflatable if you’ve got kids, if only for a feeling of security while they first get used to it.
Lakes are often a great way to get a calm, current-free swim, but beware the temperature. It may seem obvious, but the deeper the water the lower the temperature, and some are very deep indeed. It can actually feels so cold it’s painful! Altitude also has an effect, I’ve swam many times in mountain lakes, and the higher they are the colder they are.
1. Research – internet searches, Instagram posts (the wild swimming brothers is a good one), YouTube, TV shows (Robson Green’s Wild Swimming was on a while back) etc will all prove useful. The following websites are good for reviews from wild swimmers & directions to the right places.
2. Never jump straight in – Go in slowly to avoid cold water shock. This is when your instinct to gasp at the cold makes you inhale water. Wild swimming is almost always rather cold! Not to mention that if you can’t see the bottom you don’t know what you’re landing on. I always go in up to my waist, then ‘wash’ myself until I’ve got used to the temperature before going fully in. I never wear a wetsuit, but I imagine they’ll prolong your ability to say in, and reduce the chance of hypothermia. They’re also great for kids, who can find the cold off-putting.
3. Never swim alone if you can help it – As nice as it is to have a solitary moment to yourself immersed in your wild swim, if you should get into trouble it’s good to have a buddy around. At the very least tell someone where you’re going and what you’re doing.
4. Know your limits – if you’re not a strong sea swimmer, don’t throw yourself into a big surf or a strong current. It’s dangerous and not much fun. I’ve been thrown around like a rag doll in the sea, but I knew what was happening and was comfortable with my limits.
5. Avoid canals, quarries & reservoirs. Trust me, they’re not safe.
Wild swimming is good for the soul. It connects you to the natural environment in a way like no other; you’ll see the world from a perspective you wouldn’t normally get, and if you’re lucky you’ll see wildlife in a way you normally wouldn’t either. I was once chased by an angry swan for about 100m across a lake, yet in the same week I watched a heron land gracefully about 10 feet from where I was floating, neither experience would I change as they make for good stories!
The fitness benefit shouldn’t be ignored here either. Swimming is good exercise, swimming in cold, moving water is great exercise.
It’s all out there, likely just a short walk or drive from where you are right now. So the next time you’re heading out, stick a towel, flask of tea & a sandwich in your bag, look for a spot to take a swim and feed your soul!