Wild swimming - all you could ever want to know in one handy guide. Let's get cracking!

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George B

Looking for your next adventure fix? Look no further than Wild Swimming.

Wild swimming is making a serious come back right now, with just about everyone giving it a go. From aspiring adventurers inspired by the likes of Ross Edgley’s Great British Swim, to Fenwick Ridley's 70-mile upstream (as in yes against the current) epic of the Tyne, to Sean Conway’s 4,200-mile triathlon around the UK.

But what exactly is wild swimming?

George Beesley lake district wild swimming

What is wild swimming?

Well, your gramps just called it ‘swimming’, but everything sounds better with ‘wild’ in front of it. It’s not just camping, it’s wild camping. It’s not just tiddlywinks...it’s wild tiddlywinks...see, works like a charm.

Wild swimming is, in a way, nothing more than swimming in something other than a swimming pool - think lakes, tarns, rivers, estuaries, reservoirs, bays, and even the ocean. And yet, wild swimming is so much more than that. Wild water swimming, as it's sometimes called, is a way to reconnect with nature, those around you, family and friends, and at a deeper level, it reminds us what it is to be human, free to move and explore nature.

The swimming itself is just part of the experience though, its everything that goes along with it that makes it so special - planning the trip with the pals, scoping out a new spot, spotting wildlife, foraging, cooking, camping, rafting, or even a waterside sauna.

In a time when we need it more than ever, wild swimming connects us to all things good in this world (well a lot of them) - the people around us, nature, and perhaps most importantly ourselves. Not to mention the endless health benefits for mind, body, and soul. So let’s get into everything you could ever want to know about this weird and wonderful exploit.

What’s the difference between wild swimming, outdoor swimming, open water swimming, wild water swimming, and freshwater swimming?

A highly debated question with an interesting answer. Basically nothing. Freshwater swimming would technically be in freshwater as opposed to the ocean, but they are all essentially wild swimming.

Outdoor swimming might encompass swimming in lidos (manmade outdoor pools, which we are lucky enough to have sprinkled around the UK) and even hot springs. Some might not consider this to be true ‘wild swimming’, but those people have too much time on their hands.

Waterfall lake pyrenees france perfect wild swimming

Why go wild swimming?

There is a certain mystique to wild swimming. It provides a new perspective, even on places you’ve seen a million times. Nature is ever changing, unlike the inside of a swimming pool.

There are no chemical or chlorine polluting your swim (hopefully). No opening or closing times, no signs instructing us in what we can and can’t do; do not run, no jumping, no heavy petty, and in general play is discouraged. This is the exact opposite of what we seek out in our adventures.

Wild swimming opens up previously inaccessible worlds allowing you to get up close and personal with unseen habitats and wildlife.

There is something scary, daring, and even a bit mischievous about wild swimming. It’s exhilarating in a unique way, especially in cold water. There are no rules and often no people around. Whether you’re after a solitary commune with the sublime or a unique adventure with mates, wild water swimming has something for everyone.

What are the health benefits of wild swimming?

The many health benefits of wild swimming have been touted throughout the ages - from the Ancient Greeks to the Romans, from Florence Nightingale to Charles Dickens, from NASA to David Walliams.

Scientists have continued to validate what the ancients have told us for millennia - swimming outdoors (especially in colder water) is great for you. Doctor Rhonda Patrick, one of our go-to experts on all things health here at Call to Adventure, wrote a fascinating but fairly heavy report called 'Cold Shocking the Body' - Exploring Cryotherapy, Cold­Water Immersion, and Cold Stress’.

Summary of benefits old cold water exposure (and therefore wild swimming):

  • Cold exposure increased the hormone norepinephrine up to 5-fold in the brain
  • Norepinephrine elevates mood, attention, focus, and vigilance
  • Norepinephrine also reduces inflammation and pain

Cold exposure resulted in:

  • Increased cold shock proteins including one in the brain which repairs damaged synapses (it’s good for the dome) and prevents muscle atrophy (breaking down of muscle)
  • Increased the number of immune cell’s, in particular, one which neutralises cancer cells
  • Increased metabolic rate and fat burning occurred - remember what Fiddy said “get ripped or die trying”
  • Increased the number of mitochondria - the powerhouse of cells
  • Improved recovery times after training
  • Cold water exposure has also been used to treat depression and psychological conditions for ages
Wild swimming lake district

Gettin shredded

Cold water cools the body (not surprisingly), which must work to heat back up again. To make sure your important bits don’t freeze, your body will burn calories just to heat you up. Combine that with the energy required to power your muscles to allow you to swim through the water and you’ve got a body fat burning flamethrower on your hands.

Remember 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps (yeah...the swimmer guy) and his famous 12,000 calories a day diet. Yer we do too, just about. Well, whilst Michael said he only really ate eight to ten thousand calories per day, that’s still a fair bit.

strongman ross edgley's diet
Photo: Ross Edgley

Ross Edgley went one better and was actually up to 15,000 calories per day on his wild swim around Britain and his waistline seems to be doing alright.

Basically, swim a lot in cold water and you can have your cake and eat it. All of it. And a few bevs. And still, be able to see the two-pack.

There is also more of a psychological almost philosophical benefit to paddling around in chilly temperatures. It teaches you the power of doing something challenging. To accept things as they are. And how not to lose your shit when things get uncomfortable.

Stoicism is all the rage these days and cold water really helps embrace the stoic ideals. It makes everything else in life a bit easier to deal with as you build up your emotional and psychological resilience.

That being said, you don’t have to torture yourself every time you go wild swimming. It can be an intensely pleasurable experience feeling even cool water on your body. Add in some mates and a few drinks and you’ve got a great day out on your hands.

Cold water shock

The first time you experience cold water swimming you may go into cold water shock, which isn’t quite as scary as it sounds. Cold water shock does exactly what it does on the tin - it can result in panic-like symptoms such as gasping for air and quickened breathing.

Very cold water, if you aren’t used to it, can begin to shut down parts of the body, especially limbs like legs and arms as blood is rushed to protect vital internal organs.

This is great in some ways as it protects your most important bits (no not those). But for swimming, legs and arms are pretty useful, so you might have difficulty staying afloat. That’s why it’s important to take things slowly when starting your wild swimming journey and let the body adapt over a series of swims before crossing the channel smothered in goose fat donning only budgie smugglers.

Whilst I’ve done loads of wild swimming, even I was caught out recently, not a million miles from hypothermia. And that was in the summer in the French Pyrenees. It was 30 degrees out (air temp) and glorious. The locals wearing shorts and bikinis convinced me that it must be warm out. Perfect time for a swim. Look at me...lapping it up like an overexcited Labrador.

You can actually join us on our Hike and Wild Swim the 1000 Lakes trip if you want to swim here too.

cold water wild swimming in lake
The very swim I nearly got hyperthermia from

So I stripped off and enjoyed some of the most magnificent wild swimming I’ve ever experienced. After only about 30 minutes I began to shiver and the teeth chattering confirmed it was time to get out. I think it was something to do with the fact we were at 2,000+ meters and the lake was filled with glacial meltwater...don’t get caught out.

Just because the sun’s shinning doesn’t mean you can stay in the water forever. Remember, you can lose body heat 25 times faster in water than on land, so you can get cold quick.

Cold water adaptation

Upon your first venture out into wild swimming, your body and mind will do everything it can to convince you to stay firmly onshore. Your amygdala, which triggers the fight or flight response, will tell you ‘Umm Lucy (your amygdala is terrible with names), why are you stripping off looking at that freezing cold lake like you’re about to jump in it’. Don’t listen! Bad amygdala.

If it had its way you’d never have any adventures and you’d be at home, cooped up on the sofa with a tub of Haagen Daas Salted Caramel, spoon in hand, Netflix primed. And we all know how terrible that sounds...well. Actually, hang on a minute...no. Bad amygdala.

After a few wild swimming sessions, you’ll have convinced the scardey cat upstairs that it’s just a bit of cold water, you’re not gonna die, and you look fabulous in those speedos.

Breathing through the initial fight or flight panic response and the massive shot of adrenaline will leave you feeling much more comfortable with the temperature and ready to start swimming.

Is wild swimming safe?

In short, yes but like anything in the outdoors there are some things to be aware of when wild swimming. Fatalities, though rare, do happen, so be smart about your open water adventures.

The ocean comes with its own set of challenges and claims the most lives. Rivers are the next most hazardous. Finally, still bodies of water like lakes and reservoirs are the friendliest of all but you still need to keep your wits about you, especially with cold water.

Be on guard if you’re swimming alone, or with kids.

horse near mountain wild swimming lake pyrenees

Top tips to ensure safety whilst wild swimming

  • Go with someone else, or use a buoyancy aid and tell people where you’re going
  • Go with a group if you’re lacking confidence for your first swim, ideally with experienced wild swimmers
  • In the early days, swim around the outside of the lake staying close to the shore as opposed to from one side to the other
  • Plan your exit before you get in (this one’s a biggie). Wrapped up in the excitement of your first cold water expedition it’s easy to be a bit of an over-keen bean and just jump right in. 10 points for enthusiasm but it’s a good idea to just spot how you plan to get out if shit hits the fan. This is especially true in rivers or steeply banked sides
  • Entries (and exits) can be slippery so be careful
  • Stay hydrated and within your limits to avoid cramping. Cramp might seem pretty minor but it’s the last thing you need when you’ve got cold through and still have a long way back to shore. If you do feel cramp whilst swimming pop over onto your back and swim backstroke to shore. Down your Lucozade and have a break before getting back in
  • Always check the current. Chuck in a stick to see how quickly the water is flowing. If it zooms downstream like poop off a shovel you’re very likely to get swept away
  • Waterborne disease/pathogens such as cholera, typhoid, infectious hepatitis, gastroenteritis, cryptosporidiosis and dysentery can be a factor so check water quality and try not to swallow too much water (more on that later)
  • Cover open wounds with waterproof plasters
  • Weil disease - whilst extremely rare, there are still some instances of people contracting Weil’s disease from swimming in open water. Cover open wounds to avoid this
  • Don’t stay in for too long (10-30 mins per sesh is normally enough) - especially if you're new to wild swimming
  • Use a wetsuit when needed - it's still wild swimming
  • Wear a bright coloured swim cap not only to look like an absolute ledge but this makes you visible and can provide warmth - red is best but any bright colour will help
  • Use boots / shoes if needed - most of the time they aren’t but be especially cautious when you can’t see the bottom as all sorts can be hanging around on the bottom - shopping trollies, sharp plastics, glass, etc.
  • Whilst your spirit animal may indeed be the pike fish, its best to avoid areas with loads of reeds as they can be tricky to escape. If you do find yourself caught, remain calm and more slowly to free yourself
  • Enter the water slowly allowing your body to acclimate. If the water is very cold, and your still a newb, it’s better not to jump in the avoid cold water shock
  • Don’t jump in until you have checked that nothing has been swept into your landing spots and you’re sure of the depth
  • Be aware of ticks as Lyme Disease isn't much fun at all. This is a factor when wild swimming throughout the UK.
  • Avoid getting too cold. One of the best parts about wild swimming is the thrill experienced with swimming in chilly water. But hypothermia is a very real threat, even in the summer. It’s a bit of a slow creeper and so you may not notice when it’s set in. If you experience a foggy feeling, unusual tiredness, excessive shivering, or teeth chattering it's time to get out. If you’re with others let them know you’re feeling very cold and to keep an eye on you as you exit the water. Once you’re out, warm up quickly by hauling on the laters and start light exercise until warm
wild swimming costa rica

Is wild swimming legal?

First off it’s important to say that wild swimming is allowed in most places in the UK but not everywhere. Having said that, don’t let this be an excuse. You’re hardly robbing a bank at gunpoint. Of all the wild swimming I’ve done, I’ve never been asked to move on or had so much as a finger wag. I think the same can be said for most wild swimmers. Use some common sense, stick to the following and you’ll be fine.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives us the right to access certain areas of land. This is commonly referred to as the Right to Roam or Freedom to Roam. It grants us permission to parts of the country without having to use paths.

Due to our history, our land was carved up and every bit of it was assigned an owner. However, we are now able to access even some private land including “mountains, moors, heaths and downs”.

This is basically gold dust for the budding adventurer. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you want and venture anywhere but it does open up a whole world of responsible adventure.

Swimming lake district

Those jammy dodgers up in Scotland have gone one better with the Outdoor Access Code promoting even more freedom to explore wild places. For wild swimming, it recommends minimising problems by:

  • not swimming close to water intakes, abstraction points or spillways
  • avoiding nets or other fishing tackle
  • not disturbing anglers and other water users
  • not polluting the water, and
  • being aware that in prolonged dry spells, fish might be distressed due to low water levels

So in short, don’t swim too close to peoples property, be discrete and respectful, play nice with anglers, and remember that you’re unlikely to have any problems in most places. The more remote the less chance of running into difficulty but don’t let that stop you.

Most landowners are pretty relaxed about you enjoying a quick dip. Don’t be overly discouraged by ‘no swimming’ sings but of course do take them into account for safety reasons. Many are there just to protect landowners from being sued.

What do you need for wild swimming? Wild swimming kit and equipment

So now you're convinced that wild swimming is for you. But what kit do you need for your first trip?

Well, wild swimming just might be the ultimate accessible adventure given you technically don’t need any kit. No expensive bikepacking bags or 4 season tents here. In fact, you need less than you’re wearing right now...at least I assume so, but each to their own and all the that if not.

On that point, nothing is more invigorating, exciting, or indeed natural than a good old skinny dip. We’ve got a whole section to come on that so hold your horses.

If you want to extend your time in the water or open up otherwise inaccessible places though, a few bits of kit will be necessary though.

WETSUITS FOR WILD SWIMMERS

Narrow minded purists will tell you that a wetsuit is cheating. Put simply, it’s not. It’s just different. To cheat you have to be playing a game with rules. Fortunately, you make the rules for your adventures so feel free to wear one if that’s what you want to do.

That being said, part of the thrill of wild swimming is the rush from the cold water. There is something freeing and natural about going skins, but just do whatever you feel comfortable with.

A swimming specific wetsuit is ideal given greater freedom of movement (especially around the shoulders) but a surfing or other type of wetsuit will do.

triathlete swil swimming with wetsuit cap and goggles

GOOGLES FOR WILD SWIMMING

Googles are great for protecting your eyes from bits floating in the water and from bright sunlight.

Polarised will do the best job of protecting you when the sun is blazing strongly, but mirrored will also get the job done.

Clear are best in poor weather.

TOWEL OR DRY ROBE FOR WILD SWIMMING

A towel or dry robe isn’t essential but will likely make your swim much more enjoyable. Any towel will do and you can even use an item of clothing if you’ve forgotten one.

A dry robe is a kind of wearable towel. It feels like a warm hug when stepping out of the water. It’s also exceptionally good at preserving modesty whilst changing on a windy day too.

Dry Robe is the brand name the product is just a wearable towel/coat.

Other great brands include Charlie Mcloed, who call it a Sports Coat and Smoc Smoc who offer an eco-friendly bamboo inner version and therefore get our vote.

She's wearing non of these below but check out that hat.

woman with towel and hat outside finnish sauna

SWIMMING HAT / SWIMMING CAP FOR WILD SWIMMING

Swimming caps make you more visible, which is especially important if there are boats around but are also useful for drawing attention to you even when not.

men wearing swimming kit speeds wetsuit and swim cap

Remember the golden rule of swim hats - go bright or go home - red is best but any bright colour will do.

BOOTS / BOOTIES / AND GLOVES FOR WILD SWIMMING

Boots and gloves can be great when the water is verging on frozen. However, they do create drag and many swimmers dislike them.

Wearing something on your feet can be great for exploring new areas that you aren’t yet sure about. They also come into their own when swimming with dangerous creepy crawlies and fish (like the weaver fish)

EARPLUGS FOR WILD SWIMMING

You may have noticed the massive rise in surfers around the UK using earplugs, or maybe not. They are great for preventing infections, which are most common in cold water.

They are designed to let sound in but not water.

We like the Putty Buddies Floating Silicone Surf Earplugs. But most pairs should get the job done.

A great bit of kit if you’ve had problems with your ears.

TOW FLOATS FOR WILD SWIMMING

For longer swims and even overnighters, dry bags mean you can drag all your kit along with you - water, food, camping equipment - no problem.

These aren’t necessary on shorter day swims. Save the money and spend it on an extra few ciders at the pub after.

INSECT REPELLANT FOR WILD SWIMMING

Nothing pisses on your open water paddling parade like some unwelcome midge’s dining on you for a lunchtime snack. Bring some eco-friendly repellent and you will be the praised a hero.

PICNIC BLANKET FOR WILD SWIMMING

Without a doubt, the most important bit of gear you’ll need for your adventure. Don’t bother leaving the house without it.

Where can / should I go wild swimming?

Now is a fantastic time to embrace wild water swimming as our waters are the cleanest they’ve been for many years.

92.4% of our bathing waters were at Good or Excellent status in 2018.  In 1995 over half would have failed. - The Environmental Agency

The Environment Agency (EA) rate the quality of bathing water in England for specific locations (look to SEPA for Scotland, NRW for Wales, and the DAERA in Northern Ireland).

In very recent times though we have seen some waters deteriorating though. The downsizing of the EA is also a concern. There's lots of work to be done here. We will be elaborating on this in a series of dedicated articles. Take a look at Save Our Rivers and The Rivers Trust to learn more.

environment agency where to wild swim map

So what are you actually looking for? Public lands surrounding lakes and rivers, waterfalls, and reservoirs are a good start. Then there is the sea of course which is usually a bit easier to locate.

Where can’t I / should I not go wild swimming

You should avoid poor quality water which includes canals, rivers known to be contaminated (often nearest inner cities), and stagnant bodies of water. You also need to be cautious wild swimming during flooding and drought as they too decrease water quality.

Areas with lots of blue-green algae should be on the no-no list too.

Whilst it might seem obvious, the sea presents the most hazardous swimming conditions due to waves, currents, very large boats, and the occasional Sharknado.

Wild swimming naked and skinny dipping

As promised, it's time to talk about getting nakey. In our prudish shackles leftover from Protestantism and those Calvinist weirdos we still have a hang-up about getting our kit off in the showers, let alone in public places.

Go to Germany, Scandinavia, Holland, or pretty much anywhere other than Anglo countries and you’ll find being naked is much less of ‘a thing’. Most saunas and many swimming pools forbid any form of clothing and nobody thinks twice about it.

It’s important to remember that, being naked is the most natural thing in the world. We’re born that way. It’s actually clothes that are unnatural. But it's equally important to remember that we’re not just saying get starkers anywhere. Secluded spots are best for skinny dipping, and there’s plenty of them.

If there are a couple of people around and it seems to be mainly adults watching their own business a quick skip down to the waterside sin swimming shorts is unlikely to be a problem. If you’re over in Europe you will see plenty of people enjoying a full naked stroll at swimming spots.

Use some nouse as to when’s a good time to go only sporting your birthday suit though. Night swims are especially good for obvious reasons.

Swimming naked can add an extra dimension to your experience, feeling fully covered by the sensations of the water and an unrivalled sense of freedom.

wild swimming naked skinny dipping

How to find a secluded wild swimming spot

Whilst Google dominates the search engine world, Bing has one uber trick up its sleeve. OS Maps. We are lucky enough to have a well-mapped country with OS being the big daddy in the mapping space.

With so many places to enjoy open water swimming, you can find your own secluded spot pretty easily.

Head over to Bing maps, click on the ‘Road’ icon in the top right-hand side and select ‘Ordnance Survey’ and boom (or Bing if you prefer) you’ve got yourself access to a free OS map for the whole of the UK.

how to find a wild swimming spot using bing.com

Now navigate to an area you fancy exploring, zoom in, and find a body of water which looks appetising. Head back over to the Environment Agency water checker to make sure you aren’t going to emerge bright yellow from floating in uranium-contaminated waters and you’re off the races.

find a secluded and secret wild swimming lake or pool

Once you’re there apps like ViewRanger and Gaia will help you navigate to your chosen spot. Or just use a map and compass for that true digital detox.

Adventure ideas for wild swimmers

The whole point of wild swimming is to do something a bit out of the ordinary. To spice things up a bit. To provide a free (or very cheap) adventure everyone can try.

To make things a bit more exciting try:

  • A night swim.
  • Try exploring a new place.
  • Build a rope swing.
  • Go tubing.
  • Bring a snorkel for spotting wildlife.
  • Hire or bring a canoe.
  • Go free diving or cliff jumping.
  • Build a riverside sauna.
  • You’re still thinking about the naked swims, aren’t you?

Some of the best wild swimming books

Fortunately for us, there are loads of great books on wild swimming. A few of our favourites include:

Your first wild swim - The hardest parts

Like most things, the hardest part is just before you begin. So here are a few pointers to get you going.

  • Getting in sucks - at first, the water can feel cold, especially for blokes at the groin level…just remember it will get better
  • Putting on a wet wetsuit sucks (only surpassed by sleeping in a wet sleeping bag) so do it quickly and be done with it
  • Getting out sucks - especially when its windy and you’ve forgotten your towel. Again be speedy and minimise the pain
  • You will always be happy you did it afterwards no matter how chilly
  • Arrive hot, like steaming hot. Wear a boatload of clothes and walk briskly to your chosen spot. Uphill jogs and star jumps work wonders
  • Remember to spend a few minutes in the shallows before swimming to acclimatise
  • Keep your swim short, 15 mins or so is ample
  • Ideally, go with a group or a friend
  • Know how you will get out before you get in...don’t be that guy or gal
  • Get out if you being to feel really cold, shiver, experience teeth chattering, turn blue, purple, or any other unusual colour
  • Have a dry robe or towel and a set of warm clothes ready
  • Have a hot brew ready too
  • Follow up with light exercise to help you warm back up - a walk, climb, egg and spoon race all do the job.
  • Embrace and enjoy it

Now you’re ready for your own open water adventures

That’s it. You’re all set for a wild swimming adventure.

Nothing would please us more than if you now take your new-found knowledge and actually get out there on your own trip. Start small. Take another look at our best spots for wild swimming or use Bing to find a good place to give it a go near you.

If you’re keen to build your confidence a little more first though or just heading out with a good bunch of fellow scoundrels, check out our wild swimming adventures.

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