Swim safety

Outdoor swimming can be safe and fun for all, if we assess the risks and avoid them with some simple steps. It is important to realise it is different from swimming in a pool, though. This article looks at the issues and gives some information.

See also a Q&A with key info on swimming safely on this website, and the Outdoor Swimming Society’s Top 10 tips  for summer safety.

Women and children in river in summer, one woman holding a small child’s hand, other children splashing in the shallow water
Families and children having fun in the River Thames in summer

Why talk about outdoor swimming safety?

In the heat of summer you can find many families, children and groups of young people swimming and enjoying the water, for example at St Helens in Thetford Forest.

But for many of us nowadays swimming outdoors in rivers or lakes is unfamiliar: we have been encouraged for the past 50 or so years to swim in life guarded swimming pools instead. Or we only swim in warm calm seas on holidays abroad.

So even if someone is a strong swimmer in pools and calm seas, they can get into difficulties in rivers or lakes.

Most people swim outdoors safely, but not understanding how different it can be can lead them to panic or get into difficulties, and at worst can lead to tragic loss of life.

How can we make sure outdoor swimming is safe?

Some landowners, organisations and concerned individuals want to ban swimming outdoors, but that doesn’t solve anything as young people will find places to swim, whether in the open or in forbidden places (discussed here (Wild Swimming) and here (Hung out to Dry)).

Other landowners take a more pragmatic approach, including putting helpful signs at popular swimming spots explaining how to swim outdoors safely. Download text of Carding Mill safe swimming sign (Word.doc, 1 page)

sign with text giving advice about safe swimming, text available here https://twitdoc.com/6YTW
Carding Mill safe swimming sign

And others give good practical advice, such as the Lake District, on  their website.

The Visitor Safety Group brings together landowners that seek to balance access and minimal barriers for visitors with safety as explained in its Guiding Principles, chapter 2 of detailed guidance, ‘Managing Visitor Safety in the Countryside: Principles and Practice’

RoSPA’s  ‘Managing safety at inland waters guidance’  explains the law and gives practical guidance to landowners.

The Outdoor Swimming Society has published this wonderful guide to access to inland beaches, with advice for landowners & managers, and anyone who wants to see more swimming in lakes, rivers, and other inland waters. Read about and download the OSS Guide to Inland Bathing Areas.

I am keen to encourage outdoor swimming with an understanding of keeping yourself safe, so am leading on a new project about outdoor swimming in the Brecks, Healing Waters, which is part of The Brecks Fen Edge & Rivers Landscape Partnership Scheme (BFER), supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The project will include training sessions to introduce people of all ages and families to outdoor swimming safely and working with landowners to look at access to swim places in the Breckland area.

I suggest that we can all learn how to swim, and how to swim safely outdoors. We should take children when young to the water and teach them this, so they know how to stay safe and have fun.

Those of us who have become familiar with swimming in rivers and lakes, and have learnt how to assess the possible risks and how to cope with them, can pass this on.

In summary: assess the risks – cold, obstructions, currents – and avoid them being a problem by knowing how to get into the water, knowing when and where to get out, and what to do if you run into problems.

There’s lots of helpful advice and info available on swimming websites – see links below (and throughout).

See also a  Q&A with key info on swimming safely.

Here’s my safe outdoor swimming checklist:

  • Be aware of the cold – don’t jump in; don’t stay until you are very cold; swim close to shore so you can get out if you get cold; get dry and warm quickly after your swim; be aware of ‘afterdrop’
  • walk into the water: don’t jump or dive until you’ve checked for obstructions and the depth and know how cold it is
  • know where you can get out of the water, especially if there is a current
  • look out for obstructions – rocks, logs, weeds – and avoid them
  • check whether the water is clean and take precautions
  • look out for boats, avoid them, make sure they see and avoid you
  • wear shoes to swim to protect your feet and make you feel more comfortable
  • check for currents – if a river will wash you downstream make sure you know where you can get out further downstream, or if swimming across the river swim up against the current first and let it send you down
  • avoid weirs
  • be careful in waterfalls
  • don’t swim alone
  • if you can’t swim well don’t go in water out of your depth
  • supervise non-swimmers, weak swimmers or young children
  • if you feel panicky and are having trouble breathing, breathe out slowly and try to relax
  • don’t let others persuade you to do something you don’t feel is safe for you
  • don’t mix alcohol and swimming
  • if you see someone in trouble in the river, here’s what to do: call for help, throw a rope or similar, and only go in to rescue them if you are trained (as a drowning person can pull you under with surprising strength).
children in the river with a family sitting on the edge
Children enjoying the water in summer at St Helens

Useful swim safety advice links

Outdoor Swimming Society’s Top 10 tips  for summer safety.

Outdoor Swimming Society website summer swim safety guidelines

General info on Outdoor Swimming Society website on safe swim spots

A wide range of safety info on Outdoor Swimming Society website

General advice on the Safe Watersports website

Advice on the Outdoor Swimmer website

Advice on the difference between pool and open water on the Outdoor Swimmer website

My article on Getting Started in Inland Outdoor Swimming (or download note Getting started in open water outdoor swimming (Word.doc, 4 pages)

Advice for adults and teenagers on Hung out to Dry website

Advice for parents and children on Hung out to Dry website

Download pdf guide on wild swimming safety from Rob Fryer’s wild swimming website

Swimming safety checklist and advice on RALSA website

Wild swimming safety from Wild Swimming website

Advice on the National Water Safety Forum website

Download Note: Risks to health and safety of outdoor swimming, and how to mitigate them (Word.doc, 5 pages)

Some pages/notes on risks and benefits of swimming; and more info on risks, finding places, moving on once you get started; and a shorter and simpler key info Q&A with key info on swimming safely.

Taking responsibility for your own safety is part of the Outdoor Swimmers Code.

Specific hazards and types of hazards

Advice on currents in rivers on Outdoor Swimming Society website

Advice on a range of river hazards on Outdoor Swimming Society website

Advice on swimming in lakes, reservoirs, quarries on Outdoor Swimming Society website

Advice on open water safety on Loneswimmer website: Lakes and Rivers

Advice on open water safety on Loneswimmer website: Estuaries, man-made including Reservoirs

Advice on open water safety on Loneswimmer website: Ocean

Advice on swimming in the sea on the Outdoor Swimming Society website pages

Advice on swimming in the sea on the Safe Watersports website

Advice on blue green algae on the Lake District website

Problems – advice

Advice on understanding and avoiding panic and hyperventilation on Seattle Athletic Club website

Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning on Soundings Online

How to save someone in difficulties in the water on Swimmers Daily website

Problems – discussion

Blog post on responsibility of swimmers to spread safety message

A discussion of swimming tragedies (including advice and checklist) on wild swimming website: Is wild swimming safe?

An opinion piece on wild swimming safety

A discussion of attitudes to outdoor swimming and education on the risks on swimming news blog: Could H & S be drowning us by accident?

See also my Links page

swims and swim places, and related issues