Outdoor swimming can be safe and fun for all, if we assess the risks and avoid them with some simple steps. Many people don’t realise it is different from swimming in a pool, and this can lead to problems. This article looks at the issues and gives some advice.
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)
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.
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 available on swimming websites – see links below (and throughout).
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).
Useful swim safety advice links
My article on Getting Started in Inland Outdoor Swimming (or download note Getting started in open water outdoor swimming (Word.doc, 4 pages)
Specific hazards and types of hazards
Problems – advice
Problems – discussion
See also my Links page