Wild swimming: A beginner's guide

Wild swimming continues to grow in popularity. Fancy taking the plunge? Here's everything you need to know

Wild swimming guide
(Image credit: Ella Foote)

Wild swimming is a brilliant physical and mentally soothing activity. Much like running, taking your swimming outdoors adds additional benefits that can take your exercise to another level. Natural daylight, fresh air and engaging with nature creates a perfect blend to stimulate all the senses.

You don’t need lots of kit or gadgets to get started with wild swimming (although you can browse our guides to the best swimming goggles and the best dry bags for help in this department). Just heading to the water with some common sense and a bit of research can ensure you have an experience that will elevate your mood and work every muscle in the body. With many swimming pools closed or operating under strict new regulations, now is a great time to take the plunge. Read on for everything you need to know to take your first dip.

Is wild swimming safe?

Like many activities in the outdoors, wild swimming does come with an element of risk. It seems obvious, but the most important thing is to be able to swim confidently. Many people head to outdoor waters without much thought, but ensure you are swim fit and know your limits – most of the the time, there won't be a lifeguard around. 

The biggest impact on outdoor swimming is the weather and conditions. Heavy rainfall will reduce water quality, wind will cause chop and if it is hot out, cold water shock, which causes you to gasp for breath, is a real danger. The best way to combat this is to get in slowly and don’t jump in until your body has adjusted.

Wild swimming guide

(Image credit: Ella Foote)

The best thing you can take with you when swimming is knowledge. Submerged objects, strong currents, weather and not knowing how you will enter or exit the water are risks worth exploring before getting in the water. Instincts are a good thing to trust, if it doesn’t seem right, don’t get in. Currents are largely an issue along the coast or in swollen rivers. Paddling feet can give you a good idea of the strength in a river current, visually it could look calm but below the surface stronger. Rivers will always be faster after a period of rain. Coastal areas and danger areas are often marked with warning signs, don’t ignore them.

Water quality can be an issue, so don’t swim after heavy rain and ensure you cover any open wounds. Natural clues like fish, wildlife and clarity of the water will help aid decision making when assessing water quality. If it doesn’t smell or look right, it probably isn’t. For more info on this, head to The Rivers Trust site.

There are also a few precautions you can take for extra safety. First, it's never a good idea to drink and swim. Unless you're very experienced, it's best to swim with others, especially those with local knowledge. A quick search on social media will link you to groups who meet and swim together regularly. 

Where to go wild swimming

If you are new to outdoor swimming, there are plenty of open water venues that offer swimming sessions with safety cover and give you the outdoor experience that'll act as a good taster.

If you are looking for a wilder experience, rivers are a wonderful way to immerse into the countryside, eyeballing ducks while your nose skims the water’s surface. There is something special about a swim journey that a river can offer. Walk upstream and then enjoy a swim downstream, clothes, keys, wallet, phone and towel in a tow-float dry bag. So long as there is a public footpath and access to the river, or it is navigational, you are normally allowed to swim, if there are private fishing signs respect them. Be smart – avoid areas busy with boat traffic and do your research. 

There are plenty of websites and books to help you find swimming spots. wildswimming.co.uk has maps and books for a number of areas across the UK and Europe. There are some lovely books that can inspire you before you take the plunge. Classics like Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur are brilliant reads with lots of historical stories. Natural Navigator Tristan Gooley’s book, How to Read Water is useful and William Thomson’s Book of Tides is a great way to help you understand the UK coastline better. Outdoor Swimmer monthly magazine and website is a great source of up-to-date news, trends and features about outdoor swimming across the world.

Wild swimming guide

(Image credit: Ella Foote)

Essential wild swimming kit

You don’t need much to get started with wild swimming: a decent, comfortable swimsuit, bright swim hat and pair of swimming goggles are the basics. Wetsuits offer extra warmth and buoyancy but are not essential. Pack a decent jumper and a flask of something hot to help warm yourself up after, even on the hottest of days. 

Being visible in the water is key, especially if there is watercraft where you plan to swim. A bright swim hat and/or tow float can ensure you are seen by other water users like fishermen, rowers and water craft. They also enable you to be spotted if you require help, you can attach a whistle too which enables you to alert people nearby of an issue. Water shoes or swim socks are a great way to protect your feet.

Beginner’s wild swimming checklist

  • Do your research: where to get in and out, other risks
  • Have the right kit, warm jumper and hot drink
  • Swim sober – alcohol and drugs will impair judgement, ability and impact body temperature
  • Don’t swim alone, swim with others
  • Get in slowly, don’t jump unless you know it is safe to do so and you have acclimatised
  • Recognise the signs of drowning; people who are in trouble are often silent
  • Find safety supported swim spots and lifeguarded beaches
  • Follow your instincts and use common sense 
  • Take a deep breath and enjoy yourself

Wild swimming etiquette

Wherever you choose to swim ensure you are mindful of the local area. Watch where you go ensuring you don’t trample any wildlife, flora or fauna. Leave nothing, take litter home or even litter pick as you go. Respect the rural communities – where possible walk or use public transport. If you do drive, park in public car parks and keep roads and lanes clear for emergency vehicles. 

Why bother with wild swimming?

Pools offer an excellent safe environment to swim, but outdoor swimming brings back the playful experiences from childhood. Larking about on riverbanks or hiking the hills to hidden lakes adds an element of adventure and great satisfaction to swimming. The cool zing from the water and the flash of blue from a swooping kingfisher will give you a natural high like nothing else. 

Mud between the toes and reeds brushing your legs is more enjoyable than you might think and much better than someone else’s hair wrapping around your fingers in chlorinated water. Outdoor swimmers note improvements in their mental health, healthier hair and skin than pool swimmers and better immune systems. With experience and acclimatisation you can swim outdoors all year round, the low impact joint friendly movement can help with injury and once you can swim there is no age limit!


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Ella Foote

Ella Foote is a swim teacher, Open Water Lifeguard and the Dip Advisor. An intrepid swim explorer, she is constantly seeking out new rivers, lakes, ponds, seas and pools to plunge into.