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Wild swimming in Britain: best places to swim, water safety and how to get started

Dive into our essential guide to wild swimming with our pick of the best places to swim in the UK, water safety and tips on how to get started.

Wild swimming boys in Buttermere the Lake District National Park

Wild – or outdoor – swimming has enjoyed increased popularity in recent years, with more and more people even braving the elements and swimming throughout the seasons. If winter swimming sounds a little bracing, then luckily late spring and early summer is a more favourable time to start. The water temperate is still cold at the start of the official outdoor swimming season, but through gradual acclimatisation your body will soon adjust, and you may be surprised by how much warmer the water temperature feels by the end of the summer – and you should find the experience much more comfortable.

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From chilly dips in hidden lagoons to epic lakes and rivers and the sea, wild swimming is all the rage in the UK, but how do you get started? Before heading for a wild swim it is important to do some research into water safety and ensure you’ve got the correct kit.

Here is our essential wild swimming guide, including guidance on water safety, tips on how to get used to swimming in cold water, best swimming kit, plus our pick of the best wild swimming spots in the UK.

What is wild swimming?

Wild swimming is essentially swimming outdoors in natural spaces, such as rivers, lakes or the sea. It has seen a surge in popularity in recent years with more and more people taking to the water on a regular basis.

female wild swimmer in river
River Lea female wild swimmer in river (Getty)

Is wild swimming safe?

Wild swimming – or swimming in general can be a fun and enjoyable activity. Swimming outdoors is a great way to stay fit and connect with nature but some basic safety precautions must be taken. Each year a number of water-related accidents and deaths could potentially be avoided by following proper safety measures. 

Woman swimming

How to stay safe wild swimming

Open water is usually cold and may be very deep. There can be hazards like shopping trolleys or broken glass in rivers and lakes. Shingle beaches ‘shelve’ quickly, often becoming very deep not far from shore. Riverbanks can be slippery and hard to climb.

These potential hazards don’t mean you should stick to indoor swimming pools, but it’s good to be prepared. Here is our outdoor swimming water safety guide.

1

Check the current

If you discover a river of cool water and you’re itching to dive in, check the water’s flow first. Throw in a stick or branch – if it floats off faster than you can swim, you won’t be able to beat the current when returning upstream. Avoid.

2

Gauge the depth

Diving or jumping should be carried out with great caution, even if you frequent a particular spot. Rocks, sand, branches and rubbish may have been swept downstream, creating shallow patches and hazards. If you must dive or jump always check the water is obstacle free and gauge the depth first by getting in and checking it out from the water, not from the side.

3

Don’t get too cold

Outdoor swimming spots are often chilly, even in the summer months, so zip yourself up in a wetsuit and work on acclimatising slowly (see our guide to acclimatisation above).

Mixed group of swimmers warming up
Mixed group of open water swimmers relaxing and keeping warm after competing in a swimming event. (Getty)

Hypothermia comes on gradually. You may start to feel ‘foggy’ or excessively tired. These are early warning signs. If your teeth start chattering or you’re starting to shiver then get out, dry yourself, put on some dry clothing and do some light exercise to heat your body back up – a walk is enough.

How to acclimatise and avoid cold water shock

Cold water shock can be deadly so even if you’re head to toe in neoprene it’s better not to jump into open water. Instead, ease in and give yourself a few minutes to adjust to the temperature.Cold water triggers an involuntary ‘gasp’ response. You may find you’re breathing more quickly or even feeling panicked. Allow these sensations to subside for a minute or two before actually swimming and splash water on your face before dipping your head under in a few times.You will get used to cold water after just a few swims but build up the amount of time you spend in colder water gradually. On windy days you will lose body heat more quickly.

If you feel very cold, are shivering, or notice your skin is going white or even blue then it is time to get out. Warm up by removing damp swimwear and putting on a dryrobe or towel. Sip a hot drink and try to keep moving by walking on the spot. 


4

Have an escape plan

Always know and plan your escape routes, in case you get into trouble or need to get out of the water fast. Remember that riverbanks can be slippery and may be hard to climb so scout out shallow areas that will be easy to scramble out of.

5

Know your algae

Blue-green algae is a slippery and potentially dangerous substance. Avoid if possible. If it’s rife, move to a different location. It’s most commonly found around lakes in the late summer, and can cause skin rash, irritation to the eyes and sickness if swallowed.

6

Don’t swim alone

Avoid swimming alone. A friend will maximise your safety when wild swimming, and as a bonus it’ll make your swim will be more enjoyable. If swimming with a friend isn’t possible then trail a bright tow float behind you on a cord and wear a colourful swim hat – red is the most visible. Although they’re not designed as buoyancy aids and should never be relied on as such, tow floats also give you something to hang onto for a second if you need a rest. Some have waterproof pockets to put valuables in, or storage for water and snacks.

Group of women swimming
Swimming with others is safer and more fun! (Getty)
7

Watch out for reeds

Weeds and reeds can be annoying but become dangerous if they are very thick. If you swim into dense reeds, avoid thrashing or fast movements and use your arms to swim away from that area. Pike also like to hide in submerged freshwater vegetation – another reason to avoid them!

8

Cover open wounds

Always cover up nicks and scratches with a good quality water resistant plaster.

9

Don’t stray too far from the shore

Cramps are uncomfortable at the best of times, but in water they can be dangerous. Prevention is better than cure, so make sure you’re well hydrated before you get in. Dehydration and excessive strain on muscles can cause cramp, particularly during a long swim – if this does occur swim backstroke back to shore and rehydrate before swimming again.

10

Take care of children

Young children need constant supervision in water and a good quality buoyancy aid is recommended. Lilos should be avoided as they can be blown across open water easily or drift in a current.


What to wear wild swimming

We turned to Helen Webster, Editor of 220 Triathlon, for advice on what to wear when wild swimming.

Swimsuit or jammers

A multi-coloured swimming costume on a white background.

Wild swimming can be as simple as taking a dip in a body of water while out in the countryside (think of it as an immersive experience in nature, rather than fitness training!), in which case you can just wear a normal swimsuit (women) or pair of trunks or jammers (men). The benefit here is they are light to carry for impromptu swims in lakes or rivers!

We like Zoggs swimsuits for value, style and longevity – plus their new Ecolast fabric is made from recycled ocean waste, so has good eco-credentials.

For men, jammers offer a halfway-house between baggy shorts (which can be impractical for swimming) and trunks (which are a bit skimpy for some!). dHB offer good value with a striking design.

Swimming shorts on a white background.

Men’s swim jammers: 4 of the best reviewed

Swimming wetsuit

A man in a wetsuit on a white background.

If you’re more serious about swimming outdoors, then a wetsuit will give you warmth and buoyancy, allowing you to stay in the water for longer.

Ideally you should wear a swimming wetsuit rather than a surfing wetsuit when swimming outdoors, as it will have greater shoulder mobility and be smoother than a normal wetsuit, helping you to glide through the water with ease! However, if you’re just splashing around in a stream then a surfing wetsuit is fine.

What’s the difference between a triathlon wetsuit and a surf wetsuit?

Swimming wetsuits are designed to support your body in the front crawl position and depending on budget, look for one that will also help to correct your body in the water. At the budget end you can now buy wetsuits specifically for open-water swimming, whereas the more investment-suits are more tailored towards racing and triathlon, with quick-release zips and cuffs and features to enhance speed included.

Top budget wetsuits for men and women

Swimming hat

A yellow and pink swimming cap on a white background.

If you’re swimming outdoors it’s wise to wear a brightly coloured swim hat as this will make you easier to spot in the water (especially as most wetsuits are black). Colours including red, yellow or a neon orange or pink are good choices – avoid black or white as they can be easily missed in water, especially if there are small waves.

If you feel the cold a lot, try a neoprene swim cap and if possible, choose one in a bright colour too, unless you are going to wear your usual swim hat over the top as well.

A black and orange swimming cap on a white background.

Goggles

Swimming goggles on a white background.

Goggles are a must if you’ll be going underwater. If you’re serious about outdoor swimming you may want to buy polarised goggles, which are designed to cope with bright conditions – glare off water can be dazzling – but normal ones work fine on a cloudy day. Mirrored goggles for sunny days are the next best option. On very gloomy days clear goggles are ideal. You can also buy goggles with light-reactive lenses which are a great choice for changeable conditions or if you are planning longer swims/racing in open water.

10 of the best open-water swimming goggles

Neoprene swim gloves

A black swim glove on a white background.

Hands feel the cold so you may want to wear neoprene swim gloves. Choosing swim-specific ones that fit closely will help to reduce drag (get a poor fit and they may fill with water).

Best cold water swimming gloves

Neoprene swim boots

Black swimming socks on a white background.

Keep your feet warm with neoprene swim boots. If you’re swimming anywhere that’s known for weever fish it really is wise to wear boots or surf shoes as their venomous spines are very painful if you stand on them.

Best cold water swimming socks

Tow Float

An orange inflatable tow float with a black cord on a white background.

A tow float is an inflatable that secures around your waist and bobs after you in the water. As well as being a good extra level of visibility so you can be spotted it can also be useful if you find yourself fatigued and want to rest on it for a moment. Extra features on a tow float can also include a drybag section useful for car keys, phone and nutrition, a place to hold a drink on longer swims and a whistle for safety.

The best tow floats for open water swimming

Ear plugs

A pair of transparent and blue ear plugs on a white background.

Avoid ear infections (more commonly picked up from cold natural water) by popping a pair of swimming ear plugs in. They can also help protect against the cold and many swimmers find it more comfortable to swim with earplugs in. Swim specific ones are commonly and cheaply available.

Towel changing robe

A black towel changing robe on a white background.

If you’re worried about changing in public (albeit near a quiet swim spot!) then a changing robe is a great investment. These are like a giant towel/poncho that you get changed inside and which can then be used to modestly dry yourself after your swim.

Changing/winter swim jacket

A black winter swim jacket on a white background.

More advanced robes feature a warm fleece interior and a waterproof outer shell, often with zippy pockets and a large hood. These are a great investment if you feel the cold or are planning to wild swim into the winter as after cold swimming it is imperative to get warm quickly to avoid the afterdrop, where your core temperature continues to fall after exiting the water.


Best places for wild swimming in the UK

There are literally hundreds of amazing wild swimming spots in the UK, from tiny secret beaches, to vast lakes and crystal clear rivers. These are just a few of our favourites.

The Grantchester Meadows, Cambridgeshire

For a quintessentially English spring time dip, head to Grantchester Meadows.  Amongst other luminaries, the river’s shallows and pools were allegedly frequented by Lord Byron. Fringed with early blooms, they provide a relaxing place to bathe.

River and green riverbank
The River Cam in Grantchester Meadow. Credit: Bill Boaden. for Geograph

The Barle, Simonsbath, Exmoor National Park, Somerset

Follow the Barle up-river through Bluebell woods to find numerous clear, secluded pools. It provides good swimming from Tarr Steps, a prehistoric stone bridge. As a biological site of Special Scientific Interest, there is a wealth of rare flora and fauna to see, with good pubs nearby.

River in spring
The Barle river at Simonsbath, a small village nestled in a valley of Exmoor National Park. (Getty)

Lady Falls ‘Sgwd Gwladys’ – near Pontneddfechan, Brecon Beacons, Wales

Hidden in the heart of woodland, the gentle, green waters of Lady Falls are edged with a small beach, making it ideal for families. There are various trails through the Brecon Beacons National Park which lead to the falls; a truly enchanting place.

Waterfall and pool
Sgwd Gwladys or Lady falls Afon Pyrddin, Brecon Beacons, Brecon Beacons National Park, Powys, Wales (Getty)

Various spots in the Lake District

The jewel in the crown of the watery landscape of the North West, the Lake District is a wild swimmer’s paradise. Avoid areas busy with ferries and boats for hire and stick to quieter spots like Rydal, or the secret stoney beaches at Ullswater.

Boathouse across the water
Boathouse on Rydal Water lakeshore surrounded by forest, Rydal, Cumbria, England, UK (Getty)

West Beach, Berneray, Isles of Harris, Outer Hebrides

The clear turquoise waters of Berneray are reached by wandering through dunes and crossing fine, white sands. The island’s colourful landscape is covered in stone circles. With exquisite views, it is perhaps the most beautiful swimming beach in the UK; brace yourself for the cold waters!

Sandy beach and sea
Sandy beach with dunes near Solas, North Uist, Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland, UK (Getty)

Discover more wild swimming locations 


How to choose somewhere to go wild swimming

The Outdoor Swimming Society has an interactive wild swim map where you can search for wild swimming spots all over the world and contribute your own secret swimming spots. Or download regional wild swimming apps direct to your iPhone or Android phone.

There are also some great books available which give details of brilliant wild swimming spots.

We like Wild Swim, by Kate Rew; Wild Swimming by Daniel Start; and Wild Swimming: Hidden Beaches, also by Daniel Start. All three of these have swim spots listed all over the UK and detailed maps or OS references and directions.

For more regional info try Wild Swimming Walks (Dartmoor and South Devon) by Sophie Pierce and Matt Newbury; and Wild Swimming Walks (London) by Margaret Dickinson.

Dorset coastline, Dorset

How to meet other wild swimmers

If you’re stuck for a swimming partner in crime or want to meet other wild swimmers, do a search for wild swimming on Facebook. There are lots of regional wild swimming groups and they often have regular meetups, meaning you don’t have to swim alone.

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It really is worth joining the Outdoor Swimming Society too. With 25,000 members it’s the biggest wild swimming group in the UK and it’s free to join. The OSS hosts several events across the country, including the legendary Dart 10k, and also hosts a national outdoor swim event calendar.