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(The Gear Loop) - Wild, outdoor and open water swimming has become hugely popular in the last few years. Recent research by Outdoor Swimmer magazine revealed that during 2020 and 2021, participation increased by 20-30 per cent.

In 2020, many people discovered outdoor swimming while pools were closed during the pandemic. Last year, open water swimming venue West Reservoir in Hackney had its busiest season yet, with 130,000 swimmers visiting between 1 June and 30 September. It was so popular, the owners kept the facility open throughout winter for the first time. 

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The most common reason for people starting was simply because they "just felt like doing it". If you fancy a dip too there are big benefits, with one in four men and one in three women living with a mental health condition reporting that outdoor swimming is a game changer for their wellbeing. 

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Unlike regular swimming in a safe, often warm and life-guarded pool, outdoor swimming takes some consideration. Where you swim can have a huge impact on how you swim, what you wear and what to take. A river can be fast flowing with steep sides, or an ankle-deep paddle with plunge pools. Depending on tide and wind, a sea swim can be relaxing and enjoyable or more of a challenge. The simple advice is that wherever you choose to swim, take some knowledge with you. A lot of it we will cover in the rest of this article.

So why has it become so popular? Well, outdoor swimming is a brilliant physical activity that provides a sensory experience and evokes childlike joy. Swimming uses all the muscles in your body, increases heart rate and can put you into a meditative state that is useful for stress release. Low impact, it is good for people at any age.

Breathing fresh air, being in natural daylight and engaging with nature are all things that have been scientifically proven to be beneficial to our overall wellbeing – being outside is like giving your regular swimming a boost. Nothing makes you stop and focus on your breathing, body and mind like a frigid dip. 

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What makes a swim wild?

Mud between your toes, weeds brushing your legs, swans looming over you, not being able to see the bottom or being pulled in a different direction to the way you intended all makes outdoor swimming a wilder experience compared to paddling in a swimming pool.

In essence, wild swimming is really just going for a swim anywhere that isn’t in a life-guarded pool. It could be a freshwater stream, in your local sea, a river or even an epic Loch up in the Highlands of Scotland. 

It may seem strange to say it, but before you plunge into any water, make sure you can swim. Consider, when was the last time you swam in a pool? Being a fit, healthy person doesn’t make you fit for swimming. Water fitness is different to land-based activity and being aware of your ability and limits is a good place to start. You should be able to float on your back, be able to tread water and swim at least 25 metres without putting feet down. 

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What do I need?

The beauty of swimming is that you don’t need much kit. A decent swimsuit and towel are a basic starting point. 

If swimming in open water, wearing a bright swim cap is recommended, as it will make you more visible to other water users. It also keeps you head a bit warmer in cooler months, avoiding the dreaded brain freeze. 

Goggles will make swimming better and more efficient, getting your head in the water and body aligned will ensure your stroke is stronger and less energy is wasted. To avoid stinging eyes, goggles are the way to go. But breaststroke, with your head out of the water, is just as good, as it ensures you don’t miss the beautiful surroundings.

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There is loads of extra kit that has huge benefits, like a tow float (we recommend one later in the article), which is a floating dry bag that can hold your dry kit, phone, and car keys while you swim.

They also help with visibility and there are a number on the market that come in various sizes for different needs. You can spend a lot of money on fancy swimming robes and jackets, but when you are starting out a decent jumper, weatherproof coat and a flask for a hot drink will be all you need.

Where to start?

Do you just want to go for an outdoor dip with mates on a hot day, or do you want to go for a proper swim? If so, there are plenty of great guidebooks with map co-ordinates, details of swim spot hazards and point to point directions. 

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Swimming spots that are further away from public facilities and parking will ensure your swim is quieter and less crowded. But be aware that these spots will have no lifeguard cover and may be hard to reach, so don’t swim alone. 

Even if a pal is just standing  at the water’s edge, it helps that someone is keeping an eye on you. Alternatively, if you want to swim in the comfort that someone with life-saving credentials has eyes on you, opt for  a lifeguarded beach or dedictaed open water venue

Another great way to get started is to join a group. There are plenty across the UK, and a simple search engine dive or social media query will throw up results in your area. Many are just like-minded swimmers who meet regularly. 

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Even if you don’t swim in the group, joining them on a social media will provide locations and advice. If you want more of a wild swim with support, there are a number of swim guides who can help like Suzanna Swims in the Lake District, Viv Rickman in North Wales, Dip Advisor around London and South East or Swim Wild in Scotland. 

What are the risks?

Outdoor swimming is a risk, and it is up to you to mitigate that risk. Varying water temperature depending on the body of water, location, season and weather, as well as your body’s response cold are going to be the main factors.

Even in hot weather, the water will be cooler than your body temperature, so get in slowly but consistently. Once acclimatised, you can leap in where it is safe to do so.

Luke Chesser/UnsplashWhat is wild swimming? photo 14

Understand what cold-water shock is and learn about the signs of hypothermia. Once you are out of the water - dry off and put on dry, warm clothes.

Water quality is another risk to consider. There are various apps that can tell you the bathing quality at popular swimming spots, but a lot can be said for our senses. If water doesn’t look, smell or taste right (you can sometimes taste bad water in the air) don’t get in!

Don’t swim after heavy rainfall, cover cuts/grazes to the skin and try not to take on too much water.

Vladimir Fedotov/UnsplashWhat is wild swimming? photo 15

Weather will massively impact your swimming, so check the forecast! A sunny day can still be breezy, and the weather can change quickly. Don’t swim in a thunderstorm and check high, low tide times when at the coast. Similarly, learn about rips and hazards in the sea in general. Look out for lifeguards and start off with a trained life saver keeping an eye on you if unsure.

Wind can cause chop and make swimming difficult and hot dry weather can cause more weed and algae to grow. Wildlife, flower and fauna can all put you at risk, from a mild stinging nettle rash to weaver fish, so be careful. Wear water shoes and if your instinct tells you not to swim, trust it.

Have fun!

While it may seem like a lot to consider, if you have put a little thought into where you want to swim and what you might need, you can have a lot of fun. Swimming adventures can take you all over the world, can challenge you to take part in events and become a regular part of your routine.

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Nothing else improves mood and sense of strength like an open water swim. The ritual of it. The childlike glee of discovering a new place to swim or the belly full of fear you feel from launching into icy temperatures – you can’t beat it, so why not plunge in too?

Now get the gear

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Swim Secure Tow Float Elite

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The Tow Float Elite is a great system for remaining visible and keeping safe in the water, acting as something buoyant to hang on to when you need a rest and doubling up as a handy stash back for keys and snacks.

This version is designed to hold nutrition, a small water bottle or those all important jelly babies. It also features a perimeter rope to make holding the float easier while accessing the contents of the mesh bag. The hydrodynamic shape results in virtually zero drag and the air valves are high up the float to further reduce friction. 

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Zoggs Predator Flex Titanium

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Available in two sizes, so you can get a great fit, the Zoggs Predator Flex Titanium goggles have been adored by outdoor swimmers for years.

This is because a titanium lens makes them ideal for high levels of light, meaning you can swim with no bright distractions. With a bunch of added features like anti-fog being impregnated into the curved lenses, it makes it easy to admire your beautiful swimming surroundings.

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Soul Cap Swim Cap

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Soul Cap offers the most inclusive range of swim hats on sale in our opinion. The small business was founded to solve the problem of large hair in the black community. Now they offer something for everyone, and the quality is exceptional. 

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Gul Petrel GBS Swim Wetsuit

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A neat option for those looking to dip a tentative toe in the wild swimming waters, or for those on the hunt for a reliable triathlon suit that doesn’t break the bank, the Gul Petrel packs some decent performance features and will be warm enough for most.

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Deakin and Blue Essential Swimsuit

Deakin and Blue is a favourite brand of swimsuits for women. Stylish and supportive, the London based brand uses sustainable fabric, which is durable and brilliant for outdoor swimming. Try the Essential Swimsuit, which comes in three colours and in an inclusive size range.

Writing by Ella Foote. Editing by Leon Poultney.