Five safety steps everyone must take before going wild swimming

Experts have issued a warning over wild swimming after a huge surge in interest in the exercise, as we head towards warmer weather. Sally’s Cottages has teamed up with Lee Heard, Charity Director of RLSS UK and Paul Kay, Professor of Water Science at The University Of Leeds, to raise awareness on how to stay safe while wild swimming.

Sarah Pring, Digital PR Manager at Sally’s Cottages, said: “Wild swimming has seen such a boom over the past couple of years, and it is great to see that people are exploring so many beautiful pockets of the country while taking up wild swimming. However, we want to raise awareness of some of the safety precautions that visitors and residents need to take when enjoying these spaces.

1. Ensure you understand basic water safety

It should go without saying, but before entering open water, swimmers should always make sure to understand the basic principles of water safety. This includes knowing your capabilities as a swimmer such as how deep and how far you’re able to swim, understanding warning and guidance signs, and avoiding jumping into deep water. Lee Heard adds:

“The basic principles of open water safety, combined with knowledge and understanding of the hazards, can increase the enjoyment of open water and significantly reduce the number of incidents that occur each year.”

2. Scope out the swimming spot

Swimming in open water comes with its own set of dangers and hazards, that you wouldn’t need to consider if swimming in a public pool. The RLSS recommends taking a risk assessment, with Lee suggesting that you consider the following risks in particular:

  • The depth of the water – this changes and is unpredictable

  • Underwater objects and hazards that may not be visible

  • Obstacles or other people in the water

  • Strong currents as these can rapidly sweep you away

  • Uneven banks and riverbeds

  • Water quality including toxic algal blooms and industrial or agricultural pollution

3. Listen to your body – always wear the correct equipment

The temperature in the UK can be especially unpredictable and can affect water temperature. Cold water shock can happen when your body is unable to move due to the temperature shock of the water.

Lee recommends “[…] wearing appropriate clothing such as a wetsuit, a tow float and a brightly coloured swimming hat. It’s vital to also ensure that when you get out, you have appropriate clothing to keep you warm after the swim.

“RLSS UK also have a ‘Sponge to Plunge‘ programme which helps those who are looking to take part in open water swimming acclimatise to cold water.”

4. Never swim alone

A solitary swim in theory seems quite idyllic when surrounded by mother nature, but it can be extremely dangerous. The RLSS recommends always buddying up when taking on a swim, but ideally swimming in a lifeguarded area. Lee comments:

“There are a great number of open water sites which are lifeguarded, and we would urge people to go to lifeguarded venues if they are looking to take part in open water swimming. Lifeguards are trained professionals who can ensure your safety whilst out on the water and provide assistance should you need it. There are also many organised events around the country which have lifeguards on duty.”

5. Always consider the water quality

Public pools are thoroughly safe and sanitised; however, open waters can, unfortunately, be prone to aspects like sewage spills and bacteria. Speaking on this, Paul Kay outlines:

“Bathing waters are generally assessed in terms of pathogenic bacteria, like E. coli, so that is the main concern. Other things to consider are exposure to the thousands of chemicals we put into rivers in sewage effluent and agricultural runoff. Weil's disease is a concern, particularly in urban areas.

“Avoid any waters that receive sewage effluent, urban runoff and agricultural runoff. Restrict wild swimming to the very upper reaches of river catchments, places like the Lake District. If you do feel unwell, go to the doctor to be tested as soon as possible.”