Lakes & Lochs – Ice Swimming (Brrr!) in the UK

Adventure Is Calling

There’s nothing quite like the high you get after an ice swim – and the more you do it, the more addictive it becomes, pushing your body in an ultimate test of endurance.

Meet the Author!

Daisy Atkin: I am fortunate enough to live in beautiful Devon, England. Together with my four-legged best friend, I split my time between wild swimming, trail running, hiking and wild camping on the moors. I am passionate about opening up the outdoors to everyone, regardless of financial situation, ability or background. When not outside, I’m usually found baking in my kitchen or planning my next adventure!

Guide At a Glance

- Price Range:
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- Physical Difficulty:
3/5
- Time Required:
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Your Next Quest

What you need to know before you go!

I’m standing on the shore of a frozen lake; in the middle I can see a dark patch of water that hasn’t quite frozen over yet, the dark waves lapping at the frosty edges all around it. My feet are sinking into the mud as my body heat thaws the frozen ground, and in my right hand I’m brandishing a small hatchet.

Anyone approaching me now would think I had gone completely mad, and in some ways I have to agree. Who in their right mind smashes through ice for a swim?

I am one of many ice swimmers across the globe who indulge in the ultimate chilly activity – cold water and winter ice swimming. We refer to ourselves as “polar bears,” a term which originated with the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, the oldest in the world and founded in 1903 by Bernarr MacFadden. Many countries now host their own winter Polar Bear Challenges, where swimmers compete to swim a certain distance or amount each month between November and March.

There’s even an International Ice Swimming Association (IISA), who host the annual Ice Swimming World Cup, and are the official body for approving Ice Mile and Ice KM attempts.

Here’s the thing though – you don’t have to be an elite athlete or mad to join in (although the latter undoubtedly helps) – the beauty of cold water swimming is that it is open to everyone, from all walks of life. It is as cheap as you want it to be, doesn’t require any specialist kit, and is supported by a global community of amazing people.

(Did I mention we don’t wear wetsuits?)

How do you go ice swimming?

Ice swimming, or cold-water swimming (in some parts of the world it can take quite a bit to get ice to form!), is the act of submerging yourself into cold water in nothing but a swimming costume, swim hat and goggles, and going for a swim. Pretty simple, right?

There is no single definition for how cold the water has to be, although it is generally accepted that ‘Polar Bear Season’ runs between November 1st and March 31st in the northern hemisphere. Most water starts off around 55F in November (sea water), and can dip to well below freezing across the season.

Contrary to popular belief, the coldest months for ice swimming are usually February and March, particularly for sea swimmers, as the sea takes longer to cool down than freshwater does.

The ice swimming community is made up of all sorts of people, from all walks of life. The beauty of this community is that it is united by a single love of cold-water swimming, and all barriers are broken down when you enter the water. Take it from me – anyone can do this.

But why would I want to go ice swimming?

You’re probably wondering – and for a good reason – why anyone would want to plunge into the icy depths of a lake, or run headfirst into the salt and spray of the winter ocean.

Despite years of doing this, I still believe that it is almost impossible to describe the feelings which come with ice swimming – I firmly believe that you have to experience it for yourself to understand.

Some people think that because the water is so cold, your body reverts to survival mode, and so you have no choice but to focus on the here-and-now, to get through those first five minutes of agony as the cold cuts through you, before you relax into it as your body releases adrenaline and endorphins, giving an amazing natural high.

Others do it as a way of managing chronic health conditions, both physical and mental, and the health benefits of cold-water swimming are well-documented. Whatever your reason is, feeling you get from being in the water is incredible.

Teach me your ways!

The great thing about cold water swimming is that it is very simple, and very cheap to get started. If you can swim, you can ice swim. More often than not it is a question of mind over matter, and convincing yourself to keep walking into the water as it gets deeper and deeper never gets any easier. You need nothing more than:

  • A swimming costume (although arguably, that is negotiable),
  • Swim hat.
  • If you plan on doing any ‘serious’ swimming, then some goggles.

Need some inspiration?

Check out the icy exploits from Wim Hof, “The Ice Man,” internationally renowned cold water swimmer and hiker!

Still undecided?

PROS

CONS

Inspire

Where and When to Go?

Biome

If you’re adventurous enough, and understand weather patterns and cooling patterns, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be able to find a chilly swim spot. Invest in a cheap bath thermometer and watch those temperatures plunge!

However, if you know where to look, then you can find the perfect ice swimming spot, even in the (relatively) mild South of England. The key is to look for smaller bodies of water, which will warm up quickly in the summer, but also cool down quickly in the winter. Ideally you want somewhere which is quite deep, as this won’t be able to retain the summer heat as readily. Freshwater almost always beats saltwater when it comes to the race towards ice temperatures, and we definitely don’t get any frozen seas around here – the coldest I’ve known the sea in the UK is 42F after a big snowstorm … which we get about once every 10 years!

Season

Depending on where you are in the world will depend on how and when you are able to go about ice swimming.

Although the Northern hemisphere runs their Polar Bear season between November and March, some Southern hemisphere countries (New Zealand, South Africa) run their seasons between May and September, so it truly is a sport to be enjoyed across the world.

Regions

The great thing about ice, or cold water swimming, is that it can be enjoyed pretty much anywhere, by anyone!

England

In the UK, our water temperature starts to dip from November onwards, usually starting between 55-57F (luxurious!) and ending up anywhere between 44 and 34F, depending on where you swim. I swim in a mixture of freshwater and sea, and the sea stays warmer for longer (great for getting distances in) but there is something magical about watching the thermometer plunge each time you go to the lake or river, and it seems to get colder with each swim.

Naturally, the further north you get, the more quickly you are likely to see the temperatures of the water drop. I live right in the South of England, in Devon, and so it can actually be quite a struggle to find water which dips below the magical 41F, which is when the temperature is low enough to qualify for an ‘ice’ swim.

Scotland

I have travelled up and down the country searching for cold water swimming spots, and my travels have taken me north into Scotland, where the water temperature inland typically stays around 50-60F year-round. The mountain lakes and huge, wide lochs rarely get above 65F, even in the summer, so you’re pretty much guaranteed a decent ice swim during Polar Bear season.

Eastern Europe and Russia

In Eastern Europe and Russia, many rivers and large lakes will regularly freeze over during the winter. Here, where ice swimming is something of a national pastime, authorities will actually cut a ‘swimming pool’ in the frozen surface to unlock the water underneath. Many of the IISA World Championships are held in these parts, because you’re pretty much guaranteed very cold water across the season.

Essential Outdoor Skills

What outdoor and survival skills should I master before embarking?

Whilst anyone who can swim can ice swim, there are a few outdoor skills I would recommend you making sure you know:

  • Good first-aid knowledge, including spotting and treating hypothermia and after-drop.
  • Navigation, particularly if heading off the beaten track to find a swimmin’ hole. Have a map and compass to hand and know how to use them.
  • Make sure you understand how to get yourself warm after swimming, and know when enough is enough – don’t swim longer than you can handle.
  • Know the signs of exposure/cold water shock and how to treat them.

Numbers to remember

until hypothermia sets in during freezing water!
0 min
Fahrenheit and below classifies as cold-water swimming.
0 deg
people make for safer, funner swimming!
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Safety & Risk

Is this adventure for you?

Although open water, and especially cold open water, comes with risks, if you are sensible and understand how to mitigate these and stay safe, then ice swimming is a very enjoyable and safe sport.

DO'S

DONT'S!

Wildlife

What animals can I expect to encounter?

Depending on where you are in the world, you can expect anything from jellyfish to salmon, to curious otters and beavers.

In the winter, many animals will be hibernating and so you’re unlikely to come across anything particularly dangerous on land.

Seals have often been spotted in cold seas, and whilst they may look like wet Labradors, they do like to nibble your feet, so give them plenty of space.

  • Jellyfish
  • Salmon
  • Otters
  • Beavers
  • Seals

Fitness & Training

What is the recommended level of fitness?

Take it from someone who is definitely not an elite athlete – you do not require a particularly high level of fitness for ice swimming! It is all about fun and endurance, so whether you fancy a bob around in the shallows or are training for an ice mile, the sport caters for a huge range of fitness levels.

You should however, be a confident swimmer and be able to swim at least 250m unaided. There is a difference between a ‘strong’ swimmer and a ‘confident’ swimmer – the key is always not to panic, so you need to be able to keep a cool (no pun intended) head under pressure. Make sure you can swim out of your depth, and know when you’ve reached your physical limits.

Training and preparation exercise regimen

Ice swimming requires a different mindset to standard swimming, and particularly during the winter when seas are rough and rivers are high, you must be able to exercise a good level of judgement and sense. It is so important to know and understand your own limitations, so you don’t risk putting yourself or someone else at harm.

The most important training you can undertake to get yourself into Polar Bear mode is to swim regularly from the summer swimming season into the winter swimming season. This gradual and regular acclimatization is really the only way you are going to be able to cope without having some serious cold water shock. There are people who dive in mid-season, but they are more often than not completely thrown off course by how cold the water is. Regular swims – at least weekly – will help your body to gradually adjust to the changing temperatures, enabling you to swim further and for longer.

Heads-Up Breaststroke

Many ice swimmers practice the ‘HUB’, or ‘heads-up-breaststroke’ – simply because it’s too cold to put your head underwater for crawl without getting major brain freeze. 

Hyperventilation Breathing Training

Woman Doing Butterfly Swim Move

Hyperventilation does two things. It front-loads your system with oxygen, and it teaches you how to control the hyperventilation response to frigid waters.

Front Crawl

Being able to swim front crawl confidently will increase the distance you are able to go. It is the most efficient stroke for long distances.

Gear Guide

What gear do I need for this trip?

I personally favor the most outlandish swimming costume I can find – but any old cossie will do! If you’re into that sort of thing, then you don’t even need one of those…

Other than a swimming costume and towel, you will be amazed at what a simple silicone swim hat can do for you. Your head has the greatest concentration of capillaries in the whole body, which is why we lose so much heat through it. A swim hat will keep you warm(ish) and allow you to acclimatize much more easily.

Invest in a tow-float – a brightly coloured float which bobs along behind you and allows you to be seen.

If you are in serious Polar Bear mode, then you might want to consider upgrading your kit list to include a Dryrobe™ or similar waterproof changing robe. Whilst these can be pricey and are definitely not a necessity (I did two winter seasons without one), they are great for changing under in inclement weather and keeping you warm.

Required Gear

  • Swim costume
  • Towel
  • Silicone swim cap
  • Tow-float

Supporting Gear

  • Swimming goggles
  • Crocs / water shoes for getting in and out
  • Hot drink / thermos flask
  • Changing mat / towel for the ground
  • Warm clothes which are easy to get on after a swim
  • Cake and/or snacks!

Accessories & Apps

  • A wooly hat for afterwards – preferably one with a big bobble!

Finances & Budget

What are the costs associated with this adventure?

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Gear & Products

Price:    

1/5

The best thing about ice swimming is that it can cost you as little or as much as you like. If you have a swimming costume and a towel, and some warm clothes, then you’re good to go. However, I would recommend a silicone swim hat ($10) and a tow-float ($20-$40) as a minimum. If you want to add a snazzy changing robe to your wardrobe, then these currently cost around $200-$250. Don’t spend huge amounts on goggles – the cheapest $10 pair will be perfectly fine!

Food & Nutrition

Price:    

1/5

Aside from your cake and snack budget (very important), I would recommend investing in a good thermos flask or insulated travel mug; these usually cost between $20 and $30. They keep your drinks hot and for after swimming, which is really important for rewarming your core.

Transportation

Price:    

2/5

Depending on where you live, you may find yourself having to drive quite a way to find a chilly swim location. If you’re lucky, you might have a pond, lake or creek out back which you can dip in, but for many people a decent swim location can involve a 30 minute to hour’s drive.

Accommodations

Price:    

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Unless you’re planning a multi-day swim extravaganza, there’s no accommodation costs involved!

Miscellaneous

Price:    

5/5

In the UK, most coastal locations are accessible with no permits or landowner requirements. Inland waters however may require landowner permission or permit access, for example if a river bank is owned by the British Canoeing or a fishery. If you’re parking in a pub or café car park to access a swim spot, consider leaving a small donation or buying a drink from them.

Savings Tips

  • Hitch a ride! Many swimmers will rideshare to swim locations and share the fuel costs.
  • Borrow a float – seasoned swimmers usually have a spare tow float and hat lying around, and won’t mind you using them.
  • Bring a drink – this saves you having to buy a hot drink afterward, although diving into a café for a hot chocolate is a great treat.

Insider Tips

Here's what most people don't know!

  • It’s always cold. Even the seasoned Polar Bears will squeal and shout when getting in the water! It doesn’t get any easier, and you will always ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  • You will make friends for life. The ice and wild swimming community is uniquely fabulous and supportive, and you will often end up discovering loads of things you have in common aside from swimming.
  • Unless you’re swimming to IISA regulations for a ratified ice swim, feel free to wear neoprene boots and gloves if it helps protect your extremities. Leave the full wetsuit at home though! That’s cheating 😉

What does no one tell you?

 There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to ice swim! As long as you have fun and enjoy yourself, then that’s all that matters.

FAQ

Of course! They will want to laugh at you freezing your bits off, and can offer vital shore-support for safety.

Definitely not. I’ve swum with 90 year-olds and 9 year-olds!

If the water seems suspiciously warm all of a sudden, then I can probably hazard a guess as to why! Otherwise use the bathroom as you would on any hikes or outdoor activities, and live by the Leave No Trace principles.

See Notes on transportation in the Finances & Budget section.

See notes in the “Where and When to Go?” section.

Whilst there aren’t many guided tours, individual groups quite often organize informal trips, particularly if very cold water is hard to find near you. They might organize a weekend away, or a group outing for a chill swim. You’ll often find that certain Polar Bear groups meet regularly in one spot, such as a beach or lake, throughout the season.

Very cold. You’ll never feel as cold as you do when ice swimming. You’ll hate me for even suggesting the activity. Then the initial 2-3 minutes of agony will pass and you’ll realize that this is the Best Thing you have ever done.