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A quick guide to outdoor swimming

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

Swimming in the outdoors has seen a recent revival and is becoming increasingly popular across the UK. Hot summers have helped, but there is also a growing body of evidence that swimming in the outdoors can have significant physical, physiological and mental health benefits.

What is wild swimming?

Outdoor swimming, open water swimming and wild swimming are all different terms for simply swimming in a natural body of water, rather than a man-made pool. However, people's approach to outdoor swimming varies considerably, from the fair-weather paddlers, to those seeking cold water immersion surrounded by nature, to more serious swimmers wanting to train and cover distance.

How do I get started with wild swimming?

If you can swim then you can get started with outdoor swimming straight away.

If you are simply after a dip on a hot day, then pack your towels and a picnic and head for your nearest swimming spot. Be aware that many places can get extremely busy in good weather, so get there early.

If you are after some cold water immersion or if you want to start swim training outdoors then you would be best to find a swimming buddy or join a group or a club that meets nearby. As a minimum, you should always swim with someone.

You can check out great places to swim outdoors, including outdoor swimming pools, with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder - you can use the search filter to find places that provide instructors and coaching.

What are the risks of wild swimming?

Any activity in the water comes with a risk of drowning and so should be conducted with care and forethought, especially where there are floods, tides, waves or strong currents. Immersing too quickly or staying too long in very cold water also bring risks of shock, fatigue and cold injury, so if you have underlying heart or lung conditions you should seek advice from your GP first.

On a more positive note, we don't have crocodiles or piranhas in British waters. Generally the risks are small and can be easily managed if you are careful and avoid swimming alone. For more on how to stay safe when swimming outdoors, check out the Outdoor Nation Top 10 safety tips for wild swimmers.

What skills do I need for wild swimming?

Being able to swim is important... but you need to develop other skills too. If you plan on swimming unsupported in very cold or less predictable waters, then you should work on the following skills.

waves crashing on headland
Swimming skills - know how to identify suitable swimming conditions

Know how to identify suitable water conditions

Some bodies of water can have very changeable conditions. The sea can have strong currents, waves or cross winds, and rivers can rise and fall to dangerous levels. You need to know how to check these things before you swim in less predictable waters.

Man swimming in ice pool
Swimming skills - know how to swim in very cold water

Know how to swim in very cold water

As well as its significant benefits, cold water swimming has risks. Knowing how to enter the water, how long to spend there and what to do afterwards are all important to learn for safe swimming.

Lifebouy by a river
Swimming skills - know how to react in an emergency

Know how to react in an emergency.

The chances of there being a lifeguard on hand when you are wild swimming are slim. Knowing how to look after yourself and others in an emergency, including administering first aid and contacting emergency services, could save lives.

What kit do I need for wild swimming?

You need very little to swim outdoors. What you do need depends on what type of swimming you are doing and when you're doing it. There are even places across the UK where you do not need any kit at all to go swimming - we are stopping short of introducing a specific filter for these on our outdoor activity finder!

Packing list for wild swimmers

  • Swimming costume

  • wetsuit, swim hat and goggles if you're doing proper swimming

  • old shoes, swim shoes or wet suit boots

  • Towel or swimming robe

  • Warm clothes

  • Gloves and hat for cold days

  • Fully charged mobile phone (kept dry)

  • Small rucksack with dry bag for wet kit

Where can I swim outdoors?

As is the case with paddle sports, the rules for where you can swim in the UK are complex and contentious, based on land rights, fishing rights and duty of care. For more information, check out the Outdoor Swimming Society article on the subject.

Despite some confusion, there are countless places where swimmers are welcome across the UK, including a network of open water venues and outdoor pools. You can check out great places where you can swim outdoors with the Outdoor Nation Activity Finder.

Where do I find more information about wild swimming

Swim England is the UK's governing body for swimming, including open water swimming. The Swim England website has information on getting started with open water swimming, with a focus on swimming training. For the more wild side of outdoor swimming you will find lots of information on the Outdoor Swimming Society website.

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