Wild swimming: What is it and what safety precautions should you take?

Wild swimming not advisable in bitter cold but can be highly beneficial in warmer weather if practioners take due care (Getty/iStock)
Wild swimming not advisable in bitter cold but can be highly beneficial in warmer weather if practioners take due care (Getty/iStock)

A man has died after entering the River Thames in London amid freezing temperatures of -3C as a cold snap continues to grip the UK.

His body was recovered near London Bridge at 9.25pm on 13 December, four hours after passersby raised the alarm when they saw him entering the water.

The Metropolitan Police said his next of kin have been informed, although a formal identification is yet to take place.

While the physical and mental health benefits of swimming in cold waters are well documented, the above tragedy provides a further reminder of the importance of being aware of the dangers posed by winter weather.

Here is a guide on how to engage safely with British rivers, lakes and seas.

What is wild swimming?

Essentially, the phrase wild swimming simply refers to bathing in any natural body of water – whether it be a lake, pond, river or the ocean.

Wild swimming is appealing because it provides the refreshment of a pool without having to search for one in the summer heat.

Is wild swimming allowed in the UK?

As tempting as it may be to jump into any water in the summer, it is not recommended in winter and the practice is not permitted everywhere in the UK.

In England and Wales, a “right to roam” law means most lakes and rivers are open to swimming but there are some exceptions so it is important to confirm that you have access before you start swimming.

However, you can swim in most public places and open spaces as long as it is not trespassing and unless the law is clarified

In Scotland, all waters are accessible as long as swimmers uphold the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which states that people must respect the interests of others, care for the environment and take responsibility for their own actions.

What safety precautions do you need to take before you go wild swimming?

When the proper precautions are taken, wild swimming can be a safe and fun way to enjoy the outdoors. But in order to ensure you don’t get hurt and you are properly protected from the elements, some precautions should be taken.

First, you should always swim with a partner, or tell someone where you are going. Even if you have swum in the same spot many times before, accidents happen and it is important that someone else knows where you are.

Second, dressing appropriately for a dip in the outdoors is necessary.

Although it may sound refreshing to wade in naked, swimming outfits are recommended – and sometimes required.

Natural water can be cold and a swimming outfit or a wetsuit can protect you from hypothermia, which can come on gradually.

Always have warm, dry clothes nearby for when you get out of the water.

Goggles are also something to consider as they can protect your eyes in the murky water.

If you are swimming in a new spot, it is important to check the depth of the water and the current before getting in and diving should only be done with great caution, as branches and rocks can be hidden beneath the water.

What are the potential risks associated with wild swimming?

Even if you take the proper precautions before wading into natural waters, insects and water-borne diseases still pose a risk.

When swimming outdoors, you need to be extremely careful to watch out for ticks.

According to the NHS, you may not realise you have been bitten by a tick until you find it on your skin.

If a tick bite goes undetected, there is a risk of developing Lyme disease.

Ticks infected with Lyme disease are all over the UK, according to the NHS, so make sure to do a thorough search of your body after wild swimming.

Leeches also pose a risk to people looking to cool down as they are typically found in freshwater.

Although there is thought to be only one variety of blood-sucking leech in the UK, leeches are found throughout the nation.

To protect open wounds from becoming infected, outdoor swimmers should always cover cuts with plasters.

The UK has an array of swimming spots to choose from that guarantee an enjoyable and refreshing summer – just make sure you take the proper precautions first.

Why is swimming in freezing water so dangerous?

Cold water is one of the biggest risks of open water swimming if a person is unfamiliar with the activity. Cold water shock can occur when they are suddenly immersed in the cold water and is considered a principal underlying factor in a drowning death.

When the body is suddenly immersed in cold water, closed blood vessels in the skin can result in the heart working harder to pump blood throughout the body, which leads to rising blood pressure.

At the same time, people instinctively gasp when in cold water, which means the ability to keep controlled steady breathing is lost for a while.

Both of these can lead to a sense of panic, inhalation of water and, in some circumstances, cardiac arrest, says the National Water Safety Forum.

To avoid cold water shock, swimmers are advised to wear wetsuits and allow their body to acclimatise to the change in temperature, instead of jumping straight in.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution also recommends that people check the weather forecast and sea conditions before a swim. A potential danger of swimming in the sea is getting caught in a strong current.

Swimmers are advised: “If in doubt, don’t go out.”

Lee Heard, UK charity director of the Royal Life Saving Society, said: “Whilst we recognise how tempting it is to cool off in the UK’s beautiful waterways, they hide hazards that tragically take lives each year and we urge the public to use caution when entering the water, getting acclimatised to the water temperature before jumping in.”