How to find a safe swim spot and other safety questions

Risk management is about common sense. As a swimmer ask yourself certain questions before getting in:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. Am I safe?
  4. Is it legal?
  5. Will I get too cold?

 These questions are covered here.

At the beginning of most peoples open water adventures - the times where theystart wanting to take the plunge into waterfalls, explore downstream from river pools and strike out across lakes, comes the question: is it safe? We hear so much in the media about the dangers of wild swimming that it would be easy to paint of picture of death being imminent the minute you step into open water, with swimmers disabled by icy water, unpredictable currents and shopping trolleys.

The truth is not quite like: swimming in open water is much like every other outdoor sport - climbing, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking. There are risks, but they can be moderated. Like anything in the great outdoors, wild swimming is only reckless if undertaken recklessly. Most OSS members appreciate this, and their need to do their own risk assessment before getting in.

Is it clean?
Is it clean?

Rivers in the UK are cleaner than they've been for 150 years.

Most swimmers rely on looking at the water rather than data to judge it: it's not infallible, but the water looks appealing, it probably is clean and clear enough for you, and if it looks unappealing (scummy or cloudy), then your instinct to stay out is a good one.

More scientifically, the Environmetn Agency website can give a rating for the stretch near you by entering your postcode into their site

Ratings for cleanliness go from A (the only water likely to reach this standard is on the top of places like Dartmoor and Snowdon), through B and C (biologically and chemically pretty pure - there is low risk of stomach upsets and other infections), right down to D and E. Swimming in D and E is not recommended.

There are two particular hazards swimmers need to be aware of, although both are generally misunderstood and therefore overstated on safety signs and in the press.

1. Blue green algae. Blooms of blue green algae can spring up on warm still water over summer. Swimming in algae can cause skin rashes and allergic reactions, and is harmful to dogs. However, even where there are algae blooms, they are clearly visible to the swimmer, and are often swept to one side before commercial swims begin, and it is often possible to get in just around the corner.  A pdf of blue-green algae advice for swimmers from the Love Your Lakes campaign can be downloaded here.

2. Weill's disease. There is much public fear concerning Weill's disease. The risk of contacting Weill's disease is small but cover cuts with waterproof dressings, and if flu-like symptoms develop within 1-3 weeks of swimming see your doctor. It is most likely to be picked up on the banks, while entering and exiting a swim.

Finding swim spots: is it safe?
Finding swim spots: is it safe?

There are two steps to finding safe swim spots - finding a good place that others swim, and checking the swim spot out on the say (conditions will change from day to day, with weather and rainfall). To find your local swim spot:

  • Check out the OSS online swimming map, a guide by members, for members to swim spots around the UK. While not infallible (conditions change with the weather and rainfall) these are recommended by other swimmers. 
  • Ask in the area about where people swim. It's amazing how many locals - whether they swim or not - will know where others swim. Teenage boys are a particularly rich source of information, being geographically restrained to one area most of the time and keen on having a good time.
  • Read Wild Swim, by Kate Rew (OSS Founder), which has hundreds of wild swims around the country, plus a complete directory of lidos.
  • Email with any swim spots you know. The OSS is a volunteer-run collective: we are only as good as the people in the network. Once you've benefitted from others swim spots, please share the love.

When you're standing by a potential swim spot, look at it and use common sense before you get in. Things to consider include:

  1. Entry and exit points. If you are doing a downstream river swim, then identifiy your exit point before you get in, and walk upstream on the bank to the start point. This way you can see the whole stretch of water before you get in it.
  2. Currents. These are not always predictable, and are likely to be stronger after higher rainfall. If you can not swim upstream, then you will be unable to swim out of the way of objects downstream (eg bridges and trees).
  3. Tides. Check tide timetables, and be aware swimming will generally be calmer on a slack tide (an hour either side of high or low water). And that on an outgoing tide, it will be harder to get back to shore. See the BBC website for tide tables and detailed coastal forecasts.
  4. Underwater objects and jumping. If you can see the bottom, don't jump, it's too shallow. If you can't, don't jump - there could be anything underneath. Basically: step in. If you do want to jump, get in and test the depth of the area and whether it is clear of objects first.
  5. Wind and rain. Wind creates waves. It is harder to swim into a wind, than it is away from it. Rain will raise water levels in rivers and lakes, and may lead to a drop in water temperatures. High mountain streams and rivers will respond fast to heavy rain, lower more mature rivers may not see an increase in volume for a few days. Untreated sewage may be released into rivers in times of flood (in the UK, our drains and sewers are connected).
  6. Reservoirs. There is a lot of public misinformation about reservoirs, so the swimmer is left with a confusing picture - on the one hand, many reservoirs have held mass swims and triathlons which indicates swimming is safe (for example Roadford, Wimbleball, Alton Water, Rivington, Kelder). And on the other hand, most reservoirs are festooned with signs warning of imminent death and prosecution. The latter is a good enough reason to swim somewhere more welcoming. As for the former, reservoirs are deeper and colder than lakes, which makes them more dangerous, some have overflow walls, which the swimmer could tip over, and many have steep banks which drunk people sometimes jump in from, not realising they can't climb out of them. Hydroelectric reservoirs may also have machinery that creates currents. So there are a number of reasons to avoid them.

Are you safe?
Are you safe?

In the same way snowboarding into an avalanche area without knowing anything about snow, hiking up a British mountain without a map, or sailing without a weather forecast is silly,  embarking on a wild swim requires common sense.

The most important thing is to swim within your limits, which include your experience in open water, strength as a swimmer, resilience in cold water and what you know about the swim spot.

General pointers to keep safe:

  • Wear a bright coloured hats so boats and other swimmers can see you. Try the OSS red hat: silicon (warm - thicker than latex) and easy to see. Black, green, white, silver and blue hats will not be easy to spot in the water.
  • Acclimatise to cold water gradually. Don't push your time in cold water if you're unused to it and always take warm clothes to put on afterwards (yes, even in summer - it's amazing how fast you get cold). You will feel colder when you get out.
  • Wetsuits add buoyancy and warmth which makes them a good safety measure in places you don't know. See the OSS wetsuit Q&A vbefore you buy.
  • Become a stronger swimmer. The OSS run fitness courses designed for open water, for example, and swim clinics.
  • Always swim with somebody - either in the water, or watching you from the shore. This also often makes it more pleasurable. Find swimming friends on OSS facebook, and join other members on peer led social swims.
  • Consider swimming with boat cover - particularly if you want to swim further than 100 metres.
  • Always go in sober.


Is it legal?
Is it legal?

In Scotland swimmers have a clear right to swim, that goes alongside their right to roam. This means you can swim freely in open spaces.

The law about swimming outdoors is unclear in England and Wales. In 2009 the Welsh Assembly looked at creating clearer laws about Inland Water Access, which the OSS gave evidence at, but until the law is clarified, as long as you are not trespassing, then you can swim in most public places and open spaces.

Here are some useful facts:

  • It's legal to swim in any 'navigable' waters, which means waters that are open to boats. If you swim in them, then wear a brightly coloured hat and look out for them.
  • If you walk across private land, you will be trespassing, so always find ways into and out of the water by public paths.
  • The land owners either side of the river officially own half the riverbed. They do not own the water. Angling clubs who own the fishing rights to a stretch of water, own the fishing rights only - they do not own the water. It can therefore be assumed
  • The Environment Agency, Department of Health and local councils are beginning to recognise the health benefits of allowing greater access to inland water, and the tourist income that can come from it. This is good for outdoor swimmers, who may soon see the clear rights of access, riverbank clubs and inland beaches enjoyed in other European countries.

Please support our campaign for clearer legal access by becoming a member of the OSS and spreading the word to others: the more members we have, the greater our voice.

Always being polite, courteous and non-confrontational to other water users and landowners. The fact the law is grey may lead them to presume they can forbid you swimming, when they may not - a non-heated explanation will do far more good than confrontation. 

Will I get too cold?
Will I get too cold?

The primary risk to a swimmer of an outdoor adventure, is that you might get too cold far from the shore.

When the body gets cold blood shunts to the core, weakening arms and legs, which then lose strength of power.

If you are unable to get out (ie you're in the middle of a lake), you could get into trouble.

There are various ways you can reduce this risk:

  1. Wear a wetsuit
  2. Swim close to the shore
  3. Take boat support for crossings
  4. Increase your time in open water gradually