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The Beginners Guide to Open Water Swimming

Open water swimming – often known as wild swimming – the names are very interchangeable, is a truly unique experience to the pool, and one all outdoor enthusiasts should try at least once. On a hot summer’s day, there’s nothing more refreshing than swimming in the cool, clear waters of a lake. Our rivers, beaches, waterfalls, and lakes are cleaner than ever before, and the health benefits of swimming in cold waters are now better understood. The idea of swimming with no restrictions surrounded by nature is liberating and exciting.

Whether you’re training for a triathlon or embarking on a new hobby, open water swimming is an exhilarating sport that requires confidence, technique, and a good-fitting wetsuit. With lockdown restrictions easing all over the country, the UK’s outdoor swimming centres are now open and ready for use. It’s a great time to get started.

Here’s our guide to taking your first steps out of the pool and into the open water.

How to start open water/wild swimming

Check out the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Swim Map for places to swim near you. They also have a list of swimming clubs where you can learn the basics. If the idea of swimming in a wild location is not for you, there are commercial open water swimming venues in the UK. You pay a small fee to swim and the venues have lifeguards for safe and easy access to the water. Most centres open from April-October which is a sensible time of year to get in the water, especially if you’re just starting out.  

How to meet other open water swimmers

If you can’t convince your friends to love your new hobby, don’t worry there are plenty of swimming groups and societies out there with like-minded people seeking adventure. The Outdoor Swimming Society has 25,000 members, it’s the biggest wild swimming group in the UK, and it’s free to join. 

The mental health benefits of cold water swimming

Coldwater swimming has a long tradition in northern countries. It’s only recently become a trend here in the UK. Perhaps Wim Hof had something to do with it. As well as the obvious adrenaline rush and endorphin high, scientists have found benefits linked to stress reduction and chronic illness. Why? Dipping into cold water puts your body under stress. As you gradually repeat this, you have better control over your stress response. Apparently, cold water swimmers are naturally calmer and more resilient. 

What to wear open water swimming

One of the beautiful things about swimming in open water is you need very little swimwear and equipment to get started. It’s also important to bear in mind that the key difference between pool and open water swimming is the water’s temperature. That means if you’re starting out it’s worthwhile investing in a high-quality wetsuit.

Top Tip* always know where your towel is! It’s vital to warm up slowly after your swim.   

Swimming Wetsuit

If you’re new to open water swimming, it’s wise to wear a wetsuit. You’ll still feel the cold initially but soon after the layer of water trapped between the skin and wetsuit will warm you up. 

Open Water Swimming Equipment

  • Swimming hat
  • Goggles – some prefer to wear two pairs. One that is clear and another that will block out the sun.
  • Water shoes and gloves
  • Earplugs
  • Swimming Towel and insulating clothes for post-swim

Trespass Top Tips for enjoying cold water swimming safely

  • Start now – and dip at least once a week to gently acclimatise yourself to the water.
  • Never jump in. Cold water shock can be dangerous. Wade or lower yourself in slowly and then keep moving.
  • Know your limits. In winter swimmers tend to swim for one or two minutes at a time. Listen to your body, it should be a gradual process.
  • Wear the right kit. If you’re new to wild swimming a wet suit is highly recommended.
  • Warm-up slowly. When you get out of the water add layers immediately, enjoy a hot flask of tea or coffee – and keep moving to regain your regular body temperature safely.

Open water and wild swimming is for everyone, as long as you can swim confidently you’re off to a great start. You can take it as seriously or as casual as you want whether that’s an elite level open-water race or a dip in the lake with friends – it should be fun.

For the ultimate adventure combine wild swimming with a wild camping trip.

Read our Guide to Wild Camping