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How to enter open water safely

One of the joys of swimming outside is the opportunity to indulge your wild side and explore new locations from the water. However, swimming in new and unsupervised locations increases the risks. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t swim in these places (in fact, there are some amazing spots, and we’d recommend getting one of the many guides out there to help you find them) but you should always take some important safety precautions before entering the water.

One of the first things you should do is assess your entry and exit points for ease of use and safety. Take into account currents and tides, waves, the depth of the water, the steepness of the riverbank or sea floor, and ensure sure that you have a plan for where you will get back out of the water, especially if that’s different from your entry point. Pay particular attention to where the sea has a wide tidal range: your planned exit point could be deep under water or high out of reach if you get your timings wrong. In rivers, be aware that the current may sweep you past your planned exit point and could be too strong to swim against. Consider an emergency second exit point further downstream as a back-up.

Don’t even think about jumping or diving in for your first outdoor swim, and never do it in water where you can’t see what you’re plunging into. If there is a beach, wade in slowly, taking care where you place your feet. Be careful if entering the water over slippery rocks or stones. Consider shuffling in on your bottom rather than risk slipping. It’s inelegant but better than a broken bone.

When entering deep water off a bank or pontoon, first sit and dangle your feet in the water. You can also test the water with your hands and splash some on your face and neck. When you’re ready, slide in feet first while keeping your hands on the pontoon. Keep one hand on the pontoon until you’re ready to tread water or move away slowly using head-up breaststroke.

Waves can be great fun to play in, but they also have the power to smash you into rocks or dump you on the sand. Try to get a feel for how the water moves you, and use it to help you rather than trying to fight it.

Remember that you may feel dizzy or lightheaded when you stand up after swimming, especially in cooler conditions, so don’t rush this. Also, muscle strength decreases when you are cold, which may make exiting the water more challenging than you expect. Choose your exit point accordingly. Finally, if you’re not sure what’s underneath or you’re worried about sharp objects or weaver fish, consider wearing neoprene socks or booties to protect your feet.

​Top tips for staying safe in open water:

  • Think before you swim. Check your entry and exit points and take into account currents and tides
  • Don’t mix swimming and alcohol
  • Swim with other people – ideally that know the area and have swum in open water before
  • Don’t jump in.
  • Enter the water slowly to reduce the impact of cold water shock
  • Let people know where you are and what you’re doing (e.g. inform beach lifeguards or even the coast guard if planning a long coastal swim)
  • Make sure you’re visible in the water. Wear a brightly coloured cap and consider using a tow-float
  • If someone gets in trouble, don’t put yourself at risk but call for help – dial 999 or 112
  • If you find yourself in difficulty FLOAT TO LIVE

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.