Getting Started With Wild Swimming: A beginner's guide to swimming outdoors

With the weather warming up, many people are thinking of dipping their toe in the water for the first time since childhood. Outdoor swimming or 'wild swimming' has become hugely popular, particularly over the past year following pool closures. If you are thinking of finding out why so many people are enjoying taking to the water, but don't quite now how to start, we have written some pointers to help you.

When should I start wild swimming?

You can start swimming outdoors at any time of the year, although starting in the winter has more challenges. At this time of writing (June) the water is warming up nicely and it is a great time to take your first dip and continue into the cooler months. It is worth noting that although we are entering the summer months, the water in the UK is still cold, so it is a good idea to read up on the risks involved and how you can enjoy the water safely.

Where can I swim outdoors?

You can swim outdoors in rivers, lochs/lakes, lidos or the sea.  All have a very different feel to them, bringing a wonderful range of experiences. Depending on the body of water you have chosen to swim in, you will need to consider factors such as weather conditions, entry and exit points, tides, currents, waves, water temperature and water quality. There are a growing number of great guide books to point you in the direction of accessible swim spots. 

Can I swim alone?

Buddying up with someone is recommended. If you don't have friends who are experienced cold water swimmers, it is worth considering joining a group to find out specific information about the local swim spots and any safety issues surrounding them. Joining a group can feel intimidating at first, but even observing forums from a distance can provide you with a wealth of information from more experienced swimmers.  Outdoor swimmers are an incredibly welcoming bunch, and will be delighted to share their joy of swimming with you. 

If you are on social media, Facebook is a good place to start to find a group local to your area or The Outdoor Swimming Society has a list of local swim groups.  If you are looking to start swimming outdoors to benefit your mental health, Mental Health Swims may be running a group near you. If a group is not your thing, there are many outdoor swim coaches or guides who can provide 1:1 sessions to help you get started. 

Do I need to be able to do front crawl?

You don't need to be an athlete to swim outdoors, however it is important that you feel confident swimming out of your depth.  There are many swim coaches all over the UK if you want to find advice on your technique or try a different swim style. Check out the coach finder page with Straight Line Swimming.

What kit to I need for wild swimming?

It can be daunting thinking about what you need to bring to swim outdoors. As children we didn't care if we waded into chilly water on a beach in only our pants, but as adults it doesn't seem as straightforward. Wild swimming kit can be as simple or as technical as you want, from your birthday suit, to neoprene from head to toe.  We have previously written a blog post on kit required for winter swimming and because water in the UK still chilly even in the Summer, most of the kit advice still applies. 

If you decide not to swim in your birthday suit, here are the most essential items for your swim:

  • Swim hat and tow float
    A brightly coloured swim hat and tow-float allow you to be visible to other water users and allow people to spot you, should you get into difficulty. A tow float looks like an inflated pillow that you attach to your waist via a leash. 
  • Swimsuit/trunks
    It is personal choice whether you wish to wear neoprene or not. Although neoprene provides warmth and buoyancy, a swimsuit or trunks is a lot less faff to get changed into and out of.
  • Goggles
  • Towel 
  • Warm clothing
    Plenty of layers of warm clothing that is easy to get changed into .
  • Flask with a warm drink

Tip: Add your emergency contact details (ICE) to your tow float or somewhere easy to find.

How do I get into the water?

It may be tempting to jump or dive into the water, however this is not advised due to the possibility of cold water shock or hitting a hazard under the water.  Enter the water slowly and splash the back of your neck with the water.  You will find your breathing increases and it can be quite unnerving to start with. Focus on your breathing, it can be really useful to focus on your outbreath. Wait until your breathing is calm for you to start swimming. 

How long should I stay in the water?

Start off gradually, staying in for only a very short amount of time and get out before you are feeling cold.  It is easy to be swayed by peer pressure, and some more experience swimmers can spend considerable time in colder water.  Gradually building up your time in the water is a better idea, and allows you to get a feel for what is okay for your body, everyone is different.

How do I warm up after a swim? 

You may feel fine when you first come out of the water but you will continue to cool after you leave the water, this is known as afterdrop. To help you warm up after your swim, get dry and changed into lots of layers as quickly as possible. You don't need to splash out on an expensive changing robe straight away, although a few bits and bobs can make things easier when you are sure you want to continue taking dips.  After getting changed, drinking a warm drink may help to reduce the rate of cooling due to afterdrop and to refuel your body to allow shivering (Dr Heather Massey and Straight Line Swimming).  Something sweet to eat is also advised to help your body heat up (outdoor swimmers are particularly partial to cake). It may be tempting to have a shower straight away to warm up, however this is not advised.

Check, clean and dry

To avoid non-native freshwater plants and animals contaminating your next swim spot, check, clean and dry your kit.  For more information go to our latest blog post by Sara Barnes on the topic

Further information about getting started:

Science informed advice with Straight Line Swimming
The Best Advice for All Outdoor Swimmers You'll Ever Hear

Cold Water Swimming webinar with Professor Mike Tipton and Dr Heather Massey, hosted by Immerse Hebrides and H2O Training.

The Outdoor Swimming Society

Royal Life Saving Society UK


We hope that you have found this blog post useful.  We are pretty sure you will enjoy the water as much as we do. 

Happy Swimming!

If you have a health condition consult your doctor prior to cold water swimming.  We have made every effort to provide accurate advice on the risks associated with outdoor swimming, however you swim at your own risk. Sea & Stream will not be held legally or financially responsible for any accident, injury or loss as a result of the above information.