Warming Up to the Idea of Cold Water Swimming
Whether you are looking for your next big swimming challenge or are about to embark on an adventure close to the poles, cold water swimming may be on your radar. Endeavoring into a glacial lake or an icy ocean is not for the faint of heart.
As you prepare to dive into your next water adventure, make sure to understand what exactly cold water swimming entails, how to do it safely, and what gear you need.
*DISCLAIMER: DIVEIN is not responsible for the actions of any swimmer or the accuracy of the information given. Understand the risks associated with cold water swimming, including, but not limited to, heart attack, panic attack, cold incapacitation, shock, hypothermia, or drowning. Be responsible for your own decisions and listen to your body.
What is cold water swimming?
It is exactly what the name implies – swimming outdoors in cold bodies of water, either during the winter months or geographically close to the poles.
When we say cold, we mean cold. These temperatures are far below the temperatures of a typical indoor heated pool. Most swimming, whether in an indoor pool or a temperate lake during the summer, generally occurs at 75-85°F or 24-29°C. Cold water swimming, on the other hand, occurs at anything below 70°F/21°C.
Cold water swimming temperatures can differ drastically, from a chilly lake (65°F/18°C) to an ice-covered pond (41°F/5°C). Just as the temperatures can differ drastically, so too can the activity. Taking a long, multi-hour swim in a chilly lake is feasible, whereas the activity associated with an ice-covered pond is usually a quick few-minute dip.
Benefits of cold water swimming
To most people, the idea of jumping into chilly waters does not sound very appealing to them. Understandably, cold water swimming may not sound particularly enjoyable on the surface, but once you dive deeper into the benefits, the appeal may grow.
One of the main ways people describe cold water swimming is energizing. The burst of cold water will release a bundle of happy hormones: endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine. Endorphins give you a euphoric feeling, serotonin balances your mood, oxytocin mirrors the feelings of love, and dopamine gives you the feeling of being rewarded.
Physically, cold water swimming has tangible health benefits, like improving your blood circulation, reducing inflammation, calming muscle tension, and boosting your immune system. The improved blood circulation is particularly helpful for people who suffer from chronic pain, arthritis, or migraines.
Cold water swimming also tends to be outside in nature, which has its own benefits for mental well-being. Although swimming outdoors has wonderful benefits, there are also inherent risks. Please read our open water swimming guide to learn more about the risks and tips associated with outdoor water activities.
Some of the most beautiful places in nature are home to avid cold water swimmers. Swim alongside glaciers in the northern territories of Canada or Patagonia Argentina, pair your icy dip with the customary sauna visit in Finland and surround yourself with the snow-capped mountains in Switzerland or Scotland.
And our favorite benefit, it is a very social sport! Connecting with others over a common interest and experience is a wonderful benefit of cold water swimming.
We recommend cold water swimming with other people when possible. It is safer, especially if you are new to cold water swimming and unsure how your body will react to the shocking temperatures. You can look for a local group on Facebook, or there are multiple associations around the globe that can help you connect with other adventurous swimmers:
- International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA)
- World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA)
- International Ice Swimming Association (IISA)
Tips and tricks for cold water swimming
The biggest tips for new cold water swimmers are:
- Go slowly
- Continue to breathe
- Bring the right gear. Making sure you have the right gear before, during, and after your cold water swim is essential.
Before you venture in, we recommend keeping all of your gear and clothing together in a waterproof bag. The last thing you want when you complete your cold water swim is to waste time collecting strewn clothing, or worse yet, have wet clothing from leaving them out in the elements.
You should also consider wearing sunscreen on any part of your body that is exposed. Even in the winter, sun rays can be strong, especially when they are reflecting off of the surface of the water, ice, or nearby snow.
As you get into the cold water, you want to slowly walk into or lower yourself into the water. It might be tempting to jump in to get over the initial shock faster, but the immediate temperature change could be dangerous. You want to ease into the water to acclimatize your body to the temperature change. Because you will be walking into the water, you may want to wear water shoes, especially if the beach is rocky or covered in sharp shells.
During your swim, it is important to stay warm. If the water temperature is less than 60°F/15°C and you plan on participating in a longer swim, we recommend a wetsuit. Even if you are just taking a quick dip, you may want to consider investing in neoprene mittens and booties.
For safety reasons, you should try to choose brightly-colored gear so that you stay visible. Visibility is necessary just in case you need help from the people in your group, a lifeguard, or even an unrelated onlooker. A brightly-colored cap is the easiest way to stay visible. Caps are helpful for keeping your head warm and keeping your hair out of your eyes, but more importantly, a brightly-colored cap can help alert the people nearby if you are in danger.
Warm clothing is essential after your cold water swim. Get dressed immediately after exiting the water, starting from the top of your body to avoid after-drop, which is the lowering of your internal body heat even after exiting the cold water. A cozy hat, thick robe, and large towel will help keep the shivers at bay. We also recommend a hot drink to warm you up from the inside.
Know your limits when cold water swimming
As we discussed above, how your body reacts to cold water swimming has multiple mental and physical health benefits. However, your body’s initial reaction to cold water swimming may not be all sunshine and rainbows; swimming in icy water can be uncomfortable and even dangerous, so knowing what to expect is important.
Be prepared to feel a little uncomfortable when you first start cold water swimming. The initial shock response will make your breath and heartbeat speed up rapidly. A sharp intake of breath is normal, just make sure that first gasp isn’t while your head is underwater. You may struggle to breathe for a minute or two, but if you can’t catch your breath after a few minutes, get out. Practicing calming breath work prior to your cold water swims is always a good idea.
After the initial shock, your body may feel extra clumsy. That is because the cold is affecting your muscles and nerves. To protect and keep your core warm, the body restricts blood flow to the limbs, which also causes your arms and legs to feel less dexterous and move slower. Make sure you are always aware of your exit so that you can quickly get out of the water if your limbs start to lose function.
Other serious risks include cold incapacitation, asthma, high blood pressure, heart attack, panic attack, and hypothermia. If you have high blood pressure or other heart condition, or if you have asthma, it is important you discuss your cold water swimming plans with your doctor before you take part.
It’s important to know the signs of hypothermia, which is the lowering of your core body temperature. It has similar symptoms as inebriation, such as slurred speech, confusion, slowed reaction time, shivering, and exhaustion. Because of this risk, we recommend swimming with others who can identify those changes. We also strongly recommend not drinking alcohol if you choose to go for an icy dip. If untreated, hypothermia can lead to a loss of consciousness and heart failure.
The more frequently you swim in cold water, the more your body will adjust to the extreme temperature. You can also read our Cold Water Diving Guide, which includes a handy section on “Managing Cold.”
Although cold water swimming may be slightly uncomfortable, it should not be painful or scary. Know your limits and don’t fight Mother Nature (you won’t win). Each body will react to extreme temperatures differently; water that feels freezing cold to one person may feel mild to another. Listen to your body and respond appropriately.
If you want to learn more about cold water swimming, try these books, or even a movie based on true events:
Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 Days a Year by Simon Griffiths.
Chill: The Cold Water Swim Cure by Dr. Mark Harper
“Could cold water hold a clue to a dementia cure?” from BBC News
“Cold Water Swimming – Benefits and Risks: A Narrative Review” by Knechtle et al.
The Deep directed by Baltasar Kormákur
Water Shoes to Keep You Warm – NRS Men’s Kicker Remix
Cold Water Wetsuit – Northern Diver 7mm Rear-Entry
Changing Robe – Gill Marine Aqua Parka
Most Comfortable Beach Towel – Cotton Craft Oversized
Water Bottle for Hot Drinks – YETI Rambler
Frequently asked questions
Each person is different and has a different tolerance level. For example, most people start to get uncomfortable in water that is 70°F/21°C. However, some people can handle more extreme temperatures. There was an Icelandic fisherman named Guðlaugur Friðþórsson who swam for six hours in 5°C water and then proceeded to hike in freezing weather for another three hours. If you are interested in his incredible story of survival, there is a film based on the true events called The Deep.
Don’t try to be as superhuman as Guðlaugur. Start mild and work your way into colder water if possible. You can read all our tips here.
It depends on just how cold the water is and your comfort level. The general rule of thumb is: you can stay in the water for as many minutes as the water temperature in celsius. That rule is a good starting point but only makes sense up to about 20°C, or 68°F. In Temperatures about that point, swim as long as you want! Of course, always listen to your body and know the signs of hypothermia, which will indicate that you should get out of the water.
For all of our advice for cold water swimming read our full article.
In order to become accustomed to the cold water and acclimatize your body to the extreme temperature, we recommend cold water swimming at least once per week. However, you will still reap the benefits if you do it less frequently.