Winter Swimming

DisclaimerThis article is based on my experiences and does not offer any medical or scientific advice. Please consult a doctor if you have any underlying health conditions before considering winter swimming. 

Are you ready for smashing the ice or hibernating?:

The winter season will soon be upon us… and so I’d thought I post about safety as not everyone will have endured swimming through the darker months. While some swimmers will be hibernating during this time, I know others who are now truly excited with the prospect of smashing the ice and can’t wait to experience the cold water again… and others who are keen to know more about how to go about it. It is really important to know the dangers as I suffered badly from hypothermia once and never wish that upon anybody. 

Stick together: 

Of course, all the usual safety precautions apply to winter swimming as they do to swimming at any other time of the year. So, be mindful of the weather conditions and other factors. Ideally you don’t want to be swimming alone…   it is best to have someone keeping an eye out for you. Preferably someone who is not swimming -- because you can't risk endangering your own life to save someone else. 

Know your limits:

Firstly, remember that you really only need to be in the water for about 3 minutes to gain the proven health benefits… (roughly the time it takes your body to overcome the cold-water shock) so don’t feel you need to swim longer just because you see experienced winter swimmers staying in for silly amounts of time. Also, stick to your depth. There is no harm in just swimming parallel to the shoreline… that way you can quickly run back to your changing area if needed. If you are new to winter swimming then just try a few minutes on your first go.... and see how you feel afterwards. Just don't over do it.... it takes many swims to acclimatise. If you suddenly feel warm while in the water then you need to get out straight away.....   You really shouldn't be in the water for any more than 15 minutes even after doing it on many occasions without a safety team to support you. 

Don't panic!:

Secondly, before you enter the water have everything you need prepared for your exit - such as a hot flask of apple tea, extra jumpers and mittens and a hat. It’s best if you can form a rigid routine for how you get changed. Lay everything out ready for speed of getting dressed (or bundle them in your changing bag so that the first things you need are at the top). If the cold wind is really biting… just try not to panic – keep calm and follow your routine. If you start stressing while getting dressed you may miss putting on those extra layers or forget to put on your thermal socks. Just stick to the routine and tell yourself you’ll be OK. 

This is not a drill: 

Remember though, that the AFTERDROP is real and you only have about 10 minutes after the swim to get all your clothes back on before that coldness from your extremities transfers back to the core of your body. When that happens you’ll really struggle to function and will need help doing simple things -- so ditch those lace up boots in favour of easy to slide-on wellies and get rid of those trousers with umpteen buttons and have some with just one-button and a quick zip. Invest in some rechargeable hand-warmers and switch them on and place them in your socks, wellies or gloves before you go in the water -- so that they are toasty for when you exit. If your fingers can’t be persuaded to uncurl themselves when frozen then you’re not going to be able to easily dress yourself. It is best to do some exercise after your swim to get warm....  do star-jumps, go for a fast walk... but just don't drive anywhere if you are shaking uncontrollably. If you have been in the water too long you won't even be able to do anything....  this is why you shouldn't over do it...  If that happens and no-one is around to help you then you'll be in big trouble..... That happened to me in March 2021...  Read about it the bottom of this page.

Psych yourself: 

To be honest, anyone who isn’t apprehensive about entering cold water is a fool. You’ll always feel some anxiety mixed with excitement when you're about to do it. And no matter how many times you’ve done it before each occasion will still force you into a challenging state of mind. The only way you’ll get into that water is if you can tell yourself that you can do it. Enter slowly. Wade in up to your waist. Splashing some of the cold water onto your neck and face can help you to acclimatise. Do some ritualistic shuddering and give vent to some tribal incantations… or just tense up and curse.... but either way keep breathing.. you’ll find that some fast exhalations work wonders to prepare you. When you do go into the water only submerge up to your neck. At this point unless you have total fortitude of mind you may go into shock and could start hyperventilating. So, I always advise standing up again to test that you haven’t lost the ability to do so. If you are overwhelmed you can simply walk back out again… and get your breath back…. But if you’ve pushed yourself out into the depths of the water it might not be that easy… so do that test first. If you are in trouble at this point then just stay calm and fight your instinct to swim and thrash around -- instead, FLOAT ON YOUR BACK until you can control your breathing and call for help. But if all is good and you're excited to get on with it then just swim like mad for 1 or 2 minutes to overcome the shock that your body is experiencing. Go for it. Don’t stop. Breath rapidly and keep your head up. Tell yourself you can do it. Then once your inner core has been protected you can relax.... now it will be like swimming at any other time of the year (except you may feel cold hands and toes). Swim gently and with ease and enjoy the surroundings. This is the moment of zen. Enjoy it as not many people are brave enough to get to that point. 
You may now feel that you can stay in forever.. but stay safe. If you are hoping to build up to do long swims then do so gradually... try 3 minutes, 5 mins, 8 mins... before you attempt 10 mins. You need to know how your body reacts after each swim before you can push it further.... and as stated above unless you have a support team with you just don't try more than 15mins... 


You may be asking why bother going through all of this....  why put yourself though all of that just for a few minutes in the water? Well, for me, I love the feeling afterwards while walking to warm up... My bones feel superhuman like they are made out of steel. The swim itself is totally blissful. I sometimes look back at the water and ask myself how did I do it. But, I can testify that since starting doing outdoor swimming in August 2020 and enduring 3 winters (about to do my 4th).... I already feel many health benefits. I am less stressed about trivial things; I feel that my mind has greater clarity of thought.... and I also have a greater connection to nature and have a deeper sense of my spiritual existence.  Not to mention keeping fit in the process. The only issue I have with Ice Swimming is that it is addictive. It provides such a natural high that is hard to express. I just want more of it....   

Other Safety Tips:

  • Ice can be very sharp and you won't feel yourself getting cut when cold -- so be careful. 
  • Use a mat to stand on while getting changed -- you can get frostnip from standing on the ice. 
  • The viscosity (thickness) of the water increases as it approaches freezing point -- making it harder to swim in. 
  • You'll need more layers of clothing than you imagine -- take extra jumpers. 
  • Don't consume alcohol prior to swimming -- it will impair judgement and will increase the likelihood of hypothermia. 


This was the first and hopefully the last time I'll experience hypothermia.

On the 1st March 2021 I made a silly mistake and found myself swimming to the main island at Gladhouse from a remote spot near Moor Foot Farm on a day when the air temperature was 2.0c and the water was only 4.9c. I'd got a fair distance into the water and thought I could easily manage the rest of the way to the main island - but it was a lot further away than it seemed. I ought to have turned around -- but then I'd gone past the point of no return and then felt that I needed to get to it just to rest. While I stood on the main island I wasn’t thinking clearly…. I thought of swimming to a nearer shore on the other side of the island but questioned how I'd warm up... plus I erroneously believed that it would have been embarrassing running 3k around the perimeter naked(as I was also skinny dipping) -- but that would have been safer! And so in my hazy state of mind it seemed that the only choice was to push my body to its limits and swim back the way I'd come past the smaller island and to the shore beyond it. I had seen some paddleboarders in the distance to my right and thought I could always call on them if really stuck.

As I re-entered the water I felt fear but remained calm by attempting to focus my mind. After a few minutes though my head began to droop to the right... I was struggling to keep it straight... My mind was not staying aware of its surroundings. I thought the only way to get through it was to count the strokes..... 98, 99, 100, 101.... It was just a numbers game now.... and a question of time. I kept telling myself... this is not the day I die... I couldn't believe that I put myself in this position.... What was also problematic was that I didn't have a tow-float. I could see the paddleboarders... but they were too distant now.... and I couldn't bring myself to shout.

I was thoroughly exhausted when I got to shore.... For the first time in my life I was sobbing uncontrollably. I could do nothing by myself. I could only utter the words Tea and Towel. My kids (then aged 11 and 13) pulled off my neoprene socks and got some layers on me. I remember just how serene it was -- like an out of body experience. I kept on telling them that I was sorry.... as I sobbed and shivered. I don't remember drinking the hot apple tea... but my kids told me I kept asking for more, long after it had gone.

After sometime I heard some other voices... a couple came over and put my shoes on. I couldn't see their faces. My mind was stuck in a narrow tunnel of grief. Eventually they got me on my feet and supported me like they were carrying a victim off a battlefield. I never remembered their names... but one said she was a NHS nurse -- they were both from Penicuik. I'd like to thank then again one day. My kids were so scared... and I think without that couple getting me moving I would have been stuck - as my car was over 1km away. I was able to work out afterwards that it took an hour for me to be dressed and helped back to my car. I had been in the water for over 30 minutes. I won't be trying to swim that far ever again in low temperature without others on standby in the water to assist. The experience was harrowing and it took me many months to build up the confidence to stay in the water for more than even 10 minutes. 

My son had been flying his drone at the time and so I had set-up a recorder 50m away from where I went in to add audio to his video... It picked up the sound of my return. It isn't pleasant to listen to... I am very embarrassed by this recording.. but I've kept it to remind me of what hypothermia really sounds like:  (I can't bring myself to listen to more than 10 seconds).

Lee Live: Photographer, Edinburgh