With 7,723 miles of coastline, it’s no surprise wild swimming has become one of the UK's go-to adventures. Surrounded by a glimmering open sea and pockmarked with lakes, rivers, streams and waterfalls, wild water dips are deeply ingrained in British history and culture. But not only is this an epic doorstep thrill, your heart beating against your sternum as you run and leap from a grassy river bank into the refreshing freedom of nature -- outdoor swimming also gives you a natural hit of endorphins.
Emerging from the cold waters of a hidden lake with tingling skin and a clear mind is like nothing else, and that’s what makes it such an addictive adventure.
Whether you’re looking to do it as a year-round activity, use it to explore Britain’s wildest corners or make your time at these mega-beaches even more mega, one thing is for sure: discovering a secret stretch of reed-lined rivers, forest plunge pools and mountain waterfalls is the ultimate escape -- and to help you get started, here’s our beginner’s guide to wild swimming...
The simplest way to put it is this: heading outdoors to swim in a natural body of water. No man-made swimming pools or dive tanks, just the refreshing waters of mother nature, something the older generations would just call swimming. And they wouldn’t be wrong. That could be taking a dip in a river bend pool, a saltmarsh creek or making a mad dash into the North Sea in February. The point is: wild swimming is done in the wild.
The answer is very little, and what little you do need all depends on where and when you’re going for a swim. For those looking to jump off a lakeside jetty to cool off in a summer heatwave, some trunks or a costume is all you need -- and even then, you’re free to leave those on the shore. The same goes for a freezing cold splash-in-and-jump-out.
That said, if you’re an adventurous soul that wants to swim -- and we mean swim -- in a biting cold river, lake, pool or sea, then we suggest you stuff a full-body wetsuit in your adventure bag, along with a pair of thermal swim gloves and socks (depending on the temperature).
And, last but not least, always have a towel or dry robe ready for your exit, and possibly a spare pair of thicker clothes too, you know, just in case the air temperature is a lot colder than you were expecting. In short: the equipment you need all depends on where you’re planning to wild swim, for how long and during which season.
Wild swimming is one of the ultimate doorstep adventures. Invigorating, refreshing, daring and freeing. But like all adventures, it comes with its own unique set of risks and hazards that you need to be aware of in order to stay safe while you explore another wild corner of whoknowswhere. Here’s how to do that:
- Before stepping into a new swimming spot, make sure you do some research first. Check the water is safe, that there are no strong undercurrents and that you aren’t trespassing in a prohibited spot.
- Try to avoid swimming alone where possible by planning a trip with a wild swim buddy, especially if you’re exploring somewhere new. If that’s not possible, swim as close to the shoreline as possible as cold water will dramatically reduce your swimming range.
- Always scope out your swimming spot before you jump in, carefully checking the depth and flow of the water first, paying special attention to any submerged rocks, branches or debris.
- Understand the shoreline of whatever water you are preparing to swim in, while looking for possible exit points so that you know how and where you can exit the water once in.
- Always enter cold water gradually to see how your body reacts. This will help you avoid cold shock and hyperventilation. Once you are out, have plenty of clothing ready and try to head straight off on another walk or run to warm up.
- Have a long-sleeve wetsuit available, as well as thermal socks and gloves for extra warmth and protection, just in case the water temperature is a lot lower than first believed.
- Should you encounter aquatic weeds or trailing seaweed, stop using your legs and gently float through them using only your arms so that you avoid getting tangled.
- Avoid wild swimming in any city rivers or canals where the water is more likely to carry harmful bacteria. Instead, do your research and look for safer inner-city swimming spots, such as the Serpentine in London.
- When swimming anywhere with stagnant water, look out for a teal-coloured algae on the surface before getting into the water, especially in lowland lakes during hot summers. This is a nasty bacteria that can cause either swimmer’s itch or make you feel rather sick.
- Never go wild swimming after consuming alcohol. Never. It’s not worth the risk.
The easiest answer is anywhere. That river running past the end of your garden, that nearby lake you heard your colleagues talking about, the saltmarsh creeks along the Norfolk coast, the postcard-perfect shores of Devon’s Jurassic Coast. Simply drop what you’re doing, stuff a towel in your roll top backpack, tell your boss you’ll be back in an hour and run to the nearest outdoor body of water.
Okay, so maybe this kind of spontaneity isn’t always possible (and kudos to those that go wild swimming in their lunch breaks). So to help you plan your next wild water adventure, check out the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Swim Map for the best places to swim near you -- unless you just want to know where to go on your next road trip, in which case head to one of these truly epic wild swimming spots in the UK:
With endless views of Snowdonia’s lowlands all the way across to the stunning Snowdon horseshoe, these twin lakes on the edge of Capel Curig will leave you with pinch marks all up your arm.
Surrounded by the Derbyshire Peak District, this picturesque spot in front of the impressive Chatsworth House will let you believe your swimming in a period drama. Simply stroll down the grassy banks into the river or make a splash with one of the many tree swings.
There’s no other way to put it: Lake Windermere is the undisputed king of wild swimming. Stretching for 10.5 miles between Ambleside and Newby Bridge, England’s largest body of water feels more like a Scottish loch. But it’s the wild forests flanking this somewhat narrow lake that make it such a special swimming hole.
Make the trek to this hidden waterfall and you’ll realise what makes this wild swimming spot so wild. From the glistening splash pool at the end of the waterfall to the sky-high cliff jumping spots, this is one for the thrillseekers, not the casual bather. Just don’t be surprised to see an abundance of wild salmon swimming next to you.
Lake Windermere might be the king of wild swimming, but this is the home of it; a spot so loved by wild swimmers that it boasts the oldest swimming club in Britain. Created in 1730, this 40-acre lake lets you turn your morning commute into an adventure by taking a morning dip in London’s incredible Hyde Park.
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