Open Water Safety Guide to Lake Swimming

Whether you want to improve your mood, immune system, quality of sleep, or overall physical fitness and well-being, the benefits of cold water swimming have been widely documented.

This beginner’s guide has been written to equip you with the knowledge and confidence to get the best out of lake swimming because, when done safely and responsibly, taking to the great outdoors can be a truly exhilarating experience.

You will find three sections of Frequently Asked Questions covering, ‘Before,’ ‘During,’ and ‘After’ your swim; top tips; and a handy checklist.

BEFORE

  • How do I choose a lake?

As a swimmer, you have two choices. Finding a body of water that is freely available for public swimming, or, visiting a commercially operated, supervised venue. A quick online search should produce a list of nearby options. Both Swim England and Outdoor Swimmer have directories of locations. Contacting an outdoor swimming group on social media can also give you a good insight into the venues that will best suit your needs.

  • What kit do I need?

A brightly coloured hat, tow float or dry bag, and light (if swimming in the dark) are essential for all lake swimmers. The rest is up to you! Some swimmers are happiest in just ‘skins’ (a swimming costume), whilst others prefer a wetsuit too. For winter swimming, neoprene hats, gloves, and socks are a wonderful way to add extra warmth. A small safety whistle can also be attached to your tow float for peace of mind.

  • How is a lake different to a pool?

If you are accustomed to clear smooth water, lane ropes and markers, and walls to rest on, then swimming in a lake will feel quite different at first. In open water, you need to be mindful of weather conditions, water temperature and surface conditions, reduced visibility, vegetation, and wildlife for whom the lake is home. Going little and often is a sensible way to begin.

  • What water temperature is best?

You can swim in open water all year round but getting acclimatised to the water temperature, especially in the colder months, can take time. Enter the lake slowly, splash some of the water on your face, and let some into your wetsuit (if you are wearing one). This can help prevent a cold water shock response. The key is slowly building up time in the water and getting out as soon as you need to. There is no ‘right’ length of time, or distance, to swim for and your safety should always come first. Cold water shock and hypothermia can affect even the most experienced swimmers, so it’s important to recognise the symptoms and find your limits through experience.

DURING

  • Can I jump straight in?

Before you enter the water, assess your surroundings. The advantages of a commercial venue are that all water sports will have their own designated areas, a life-guard will always be present, and water quality and weather conditions are continually monitored for safety. Some lakes may also require you to undertake an induction before you swim there.

If you are swimming in an unsupervised lake, look for signs that state if swimming is permitted, or warnings about sudden drop-offs, strong currents, or other dangers. Ensure that the water looks clean, and you know how to recognise blue-green algae. Take care to enter the lake slowly; there could be sharp or slippery rocks, and the water could get very deep after just a few steps. Be vigilant if other activities are going on, e.g., fishing, sailing, paddleboarding etc. These may be visible to you, but not the other way around, so having the right kit is vital, to ensure you can be seen.

  • Can I swim alone?

Unless you’re in lake with a designated swimming area and a lifeguard on duty, don’t swim by yourself. You should always have a buddy with you in open water.

  • What stroke should I do?

There is no right or wrong method when it comes to lake swimming. You can swim using whatever stroke you are comfortable with, so long as you are mindful of those who may be swimming at the same time. For front crawl you’ll need to practise sighting, to ensure you’re going in the direction you intend to!

  • What route should I take?

A commercial venue will usually have different length courses marked with buoys, so you can choose one that suits you best. If you are in a public lake, then using visual landmarks will help get your bearings. Rather than swimming straight out into the middle, keeping parallel to the shore can help guide you. In wind and waves you may fatigue at a faster rate, so if your venue does not specify a direction for travel, swimming into the waves at the beginning, and back with the waves behind you, is best.

  • What do I do if I need help?

This is where your tow float comes in to its own. In the event that you need to stop, you can rest on it anytime. A supervised venue should let you know the best way to signal for a lifeguard’s attention, and if you are somewhere unsupervised, let your buddy know that you need to stop. A waterproof bag for your phone (and valuables) is an excellent addition to your swim kit, so that you can use it whilst you are in the water.

AFTER

  • What should I do immediately afterwards?

As soon as you exit the water, let someone know that you have done so. If you are at a supervised venue, they are likely to have a system of logging swimmers in and out.

  • How do I warm up again?

Ensure that you bring a warm change of clothes to put on after your swim. To prevent heat loss from your head, a bobble hat is a must, and can be put on as soon as your swimming hat comes off! A thick towelling changing robe, or coat-style changing robe are also a fantastic way to keep warm whilst taking your wet things off, as you can get changed underneath them. Bring a hot drink with you in a flask, if your venue does not have any food or drink facilities.

  • How do I clean my kit?

To maintain bio security, it’s important that your kit is washed carefully in-between visiting different lakes, so that invasive species are not transferred from one body of water to another. If possible, hosing your kit outside in the garden, rather than washing it in the bath/shower, is advantageous so that the dirty water goes into the soil, rather than straight into the water system.

Remember our ‘SECURE’ Top Tips

  1. SITE: Look online to find the right venue for you.
  2. EQUIPMENT: A bright hat and tow float are essential.
  3. COMPANY: Don’t swim alone. Always use a supervised venue or bring a friend.
  4. UNDERSTAND: Assess the water temperature and conditions, and be flexible with your plan; it may need to change at short notice. 
  5. REACT: Know how to signal for, or have the means to call for, help when you or others need it.
  6. ENJOY: Be an ambassador for open water swimming. Have fun and encourage others to try it!

Checklist

Have you packed your:

  • Swimsuit/wetsuit
  • Tow float or dry bag
  • Bright swimming hat
  • Goggles
  • Swim socks, gloves, hat
  • Towel or changing robe
  • Phone and waterproof bag
  • Light and whistle
  • Warm layers for afterwards 
  • Hot drink and snacks

 

Thanks to Lins Buck (@lakelife_lins) for writing this guide and Colin Hill (@Colin_hill_Swims and @Ullswater_Swim_Place) for his valuable advice and input. 

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