The Rise Of ‘Wild Swimming’

A beginners guide to total immersion, by Laura Owen-Sanderson

Photo: Llyn Gwynant, Snowdonia National Park

Photo: Llyn Gwynant, Snowdonia National Park

What is it that has drawn so many people to swim all year round in lakes, oceans, rivers and ponds?  Before the rise of chlorinated tanks we used to simply call it ‘swimming’. I remember my mum teaching me and my sister to swim and by the age of three we were bobbing down rivers and throwing ourselves into waves across Snowdonia. Being outside, exposed to the elements was all part of the joyous fun of swimming outdoors.  The health benefits are well documented and I am confident that once you take the plunge you will not look back!

This little guide will hopefully give you the confidence to immerse yourself in wild Welsh waters, reconnecting with nature and your inner child;

  1. Find yourself a watery friend or even a local wild swim group.

Not only is there safety in numbers but it's flippin good fun! It’s important that someone always knows where you are or can send for help in the rare event of an accident. There have been quite a few swim groups popping up all over Wales. If you want to find a local group check out the Outdoor Swimming Society website and look for one near to you. If you are in Snowdonia I run a free local swim group with Meg called Wild Swim Snowdonia. Anyone living locally can join. We alternate between lake and sea swims and it's always good fun.

Harlech beach. Laura with one of her ‘watery’ friends.

Harlech beach. Laura with one of her ‘watery’ friends.

2. Is it safe? Educate yourself.

I have heard many a tall tale about critters and cold water shock. Like anything you do, swimming outdoors requires a little bit of knowledge and a great big dollop of common sense. Acclimatising yourself throughout the summer and continuing through the winter is the best way to get used to the colder winter months. Jumping in can be gloriously good fun but jumping into unknown water is more than foolish. Just apply the same common sense and planning you would to do any activity. Always plan an entry and exit point especially when swimming in quarries and lakes. The sea is by far my favourite place to swim, not just for the energy and force but for the unpredictability. For this reason it is important you take your time to understand rips, waves and chop and always swim parallel to the shore. Head over to www.outdoorswimmingsociety.com and read the ‘Survive’ section to educate yourself about possible hazards.

Photo: Blue lagoon, Pembrokeshire.

Photo: Blue lagoon, Pembrokeshire.

3. The right kit

Swimming outdoors can be done in just your birthday suit! But ‘cold’ water swimming is just that and in wild Wales you're unlikely to find warm waters even on a sunny day. Cold water reduces your body temperature quickly so here are my top tips for the right kit:-

I always recommend wetsuit shoes or boots. You will often find (even in the most idyllic locations) sharp rocks & objects. Shoes will not only protect your feet but also keep you warm.  Extremities are the first part of your body to feel the cold. A good pair of wetsuit gloves will mean you can stay in for longer. I love swimming in a costume so I can feel the sensations of the water on my body but for anything more than a quick dip I always wear a swimming wetsuit. Another great tip is to wear a hat! If i'm not in my swimming hat you will quite often find me in my bobble hat! I recently swam 26 km from the top of Snowdon to the sea wearing a bobble hat.

Photo: Nantmor, Afon Glaslyn, Snowdonia National Park.

Photo: Nantmor, Afon Glaslyn, Snowdonia National Park.

4. Finding a swim spot

In Wales we are blessed with a plethora of lakes, quarries, rivers and beaches. There are an abundance of swim spots all over Wales just waiting for you to explore. Where you go will depend on your confidence and experience. Some of the beaches in the South have lifeguards, always opt for these beaches where available. You can find great swim spots on the crowdsourced swim map www.wildswim.com. This is a great website by Kate Rew and it allows you to upload your own favourite swim spots as well as read other reviews and recommendations.

Photo: The three lagoons, Moel Tryfan.

Photo: The three lagoons, Moel Tryfan.

5. Getting in

Now you have the right kit and you know where you are going, the next step is to get in! Make sure you have located a safe and accessible place to get in and more importantly out. Then breathe...walk in slowly and calmly. Breathe deeply and make sure you are in control of your breath. When you are calm and in control the fun begins. How long you stay in for will depend on many factors but the one key piece of advice is to listen to your own body and don’t stay in longer than is necessary. When you have been swimming for a while you will begin to acclimatise and you will naturally build up endurance.

Photo: Cwm Bychan, Rhinogs.

Photo: Cwm Bychan, Rhinogs.

6. Getting out

When you get out make sure you have a wooly hat to pop on straight away, a warm flask of tea and a towel. Trying to get out of wet clothes on the shore is not as graceful as it sounds. I recommend a towel robe to save your blushes!

If you are still not confident to ‘go it alone’ then you can join one of our guided swims with www.wildswimsnowdonia.co.uk

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Laura is a qualified open water lifeguard, co-founder of www.wildswimsnowdnia.co.uk and a team member of the Outdoor Swimming society.