OSS Swim Safety Summer Guidelines
OSS Swim Safety Summer Guidelines

Date: Monday 27th June 2016

Every summer there are tragic deaths in water - some from swimming, some from jumping and diving, and some involving accidents happening on or near water. No activity is free from risk, and swimmers wouldn't want their water free of the variables in nature - but knowing more about the risk factors involved in swimming outdoors will help safety 

The Water Incident Database (WAID) counts a total of 381 water-related deaths in the UK in 2013. Of these, 59 were swimmers, 18 were jumping or diving into water, while 126 were classed as “walking or running”.

Here are some basic common sense guidelines on How to Swim Safely. 

  • Swim sober. Alcohol and drugs impair your judgement, your swimming ability and your ability to regulate body temperature.
  • Check there’s a suitable exit point before you get into any water. In rivers, be particularly careful as currents are often faster than you think.
  • Stock warnings of freezing water in high summer are untrue and swimmers know this; water warms with the air temperature and sun. However, cold water has an effect on the body and can incapacitate the swimmer, weakening arms and legs. Increase your exposure to open water gradually, and swim along the banks (rather than across) lakes, for instance, so that you can exit the water when you feel cold. 
  • Jumping into water at less than 15℃ can cause an uncontrollable gasp. This means water enters your lungs and you could drown. Following the gasp reflex, you might start to breathe very quickly or hyperventilate. This response isn’t under conscious control and lasts for 1 - 2 minutes. Get in slowly and ensure your breathing is under control before you start to swim.
  • Cold: You can’t become truly hypothermic for at least 30 minutes and probably much longer in summer, however the cold will affect your swimming and your coordination, so you might find it difficult to get out.
  • Reservoirs, lakes and rivers are tempting for swimmers to try to cross. Even strong swimmers can get into trouble because the cold weakens their arms and legs as the body tries to stay warm by diverting blood to the core. If this happens you can find yourself in trouble far from safety. Swim close to shore if you're not certain you can make the distance outdoors.
  • Ask the locals about the best places to swim. The presence of a swim spot in a book, newspaper freature or website (even our own, wildswim.com) is no guarantee of it's safety that day - conditions change, rain falls, rivers rise, currents quicken, temperatures fall, and the safety of all locations depends on the ability of the person in the water. Do your own risk assessment before getting in. Include yourself and your experience and abilities in it.
  • Be aware of and honest about your own swimming fitness and ability outdoors. Swimming in open water is not the same as swimming in a pool, so stay within your limits.
  • Be careful of sudden changes of depth. It’s easy to stumble outdoors and find yourself out of your depth.
  • Check the depth and what’s in the water before you get in - Don’t dive or jump in unless you know it’s deep enough and there are no obstructions.
  • Don’t try to rescue someone in trouble unless you’re an expert. Drowning people will drag you under. Throw a swimmer in trouble a line or a ring, or use a stick to pull them in if you can. Raise the alarm at once.
  • Be alert to weather and it's effect on your swim. Rainfall can drastically alter the risk profile of a river swim. For example, high rains can bring faster currents, pollution, and change a river from one where it was possible to swim back upstream to a getting out point to one where you are swept along by the current. Lower rains bring shallower water, which can make jumps which were previously safe dangerous, as rocks are exposed. Lower rain can be linked to pollution too, as toxins are not diluted. Other weather can have an effect: swimmers can become engulfed in mist and sea fog. Wind can stir up chop, and increase chill. 
  • Find a safe area for children to play in and watch them all the time. It’s easy for them to fall in.
  • It’s best not to fall in, but if you do, try to float calmly on your back rather than swimming. If you get swept downstream turn so that you are feet first on your back. Shout for help.
  • Avoid Weirs. Many people swim in the pools upstream from them which is usually safe enough in low flows. The big danger area is at the bottom of the falls where circulating currents can trap swimmers and hold them under the water.


  •  If you’re unused to swimming in the sea, stick to lifeguarded beaches. Obey the flags.
  • If you get into trouble, signal for help by raising an arm or leg.
  • As a general rule, it’s safer to swim on an incoming tide so you won’t be pulled out to sea.
  • Beware waves if you can’t swim well. You can be knocked over and pulled out of your depth quickly. If this happens, float on your back, raise and arm or leg and shout for help.
  • Be especially careful around river mouths where there can be strong currents including rips.
  • On many beaches, especially those with surf breaks, there may be rip currents that pull you out beyond the surf. Rips often appear safer to swim in as the water looks calmer. 
  • Rips also form along reefs pointing out to sea, piers, and groynes, so avoid these areas.

 If you get caught in a rip, stay calm, they won’t drag you under. Don’t try to swim against it. Instead:

  • Stay afloat, stay calm.
  • Swim calmly towards white water (the foam from the surf).
  •  If you feel panicked, stay with the rip. Many rips will return you to the shore. Rips do NOT drag you under, they just flow out to sea returning water that’s been forced onto the beach by waves.
  • Surfers will always help if you can’t get back in, ask them.


Swimming outdoors used to be widely accepted in the UK, including in towns and cities, before the pollution of our watercourses and the building of heated indoor pools brought swimmers indoors. Now outdoor swimming is making a comeback, and the Outdoor Swimming Society’s membership has grown from 300 in its first year (2006-7) to 27,000 today. 

Knowledge of how to swim outdoors safely is emerging within the community, and we have begun to capture this knowledge on this site under the section 'swimming outdoors', with categories of information involving understanding riversunderstanding lakes and quarriesunderstanding the sea, and cold. There is even a section to answer that perennial summer media question: is the water really freezing

Like any outdoor activity, there are ways to swim safely, with respect for nature, your own limits and the surroundings, and ways to endanger oneself. Our ethos is that people be free to swim, but carry the responsibility for doing so safely. We believe there should be more education to enable swimmers to make sound judgements, and that scare mongering may endanger rather than save life, however well it is intended.

The Outdoor Swimming Society wants swimmers to develop common sense around water. This means arming swimmers with sound, factual knowledge to help them make their own judgements. Where there are dangers, these should be understood and signposted. It’s experience and knowledge that will help swimmers to understand the water, and the knowledge will spread. Those who are used to conditions outdoors are more able to cope when they fall in accidentally (18 people died in water after playing by the waterside in 2013).


We all know the movie and tv version of drowning: shouting, waving, maybe screaming for help.

This is not what happens in reality.

People who are drowning:

  • Are usually silent: they are trying to gulp air and can’t shout.
  • Their mouth will bob above and below the surface of the water, and will be open as they try to gulp air.
  • Their head is often tilted back as they try to keep their mouth above water.
  • Their arms might be extended straight out sideways, and appear to be flapping as they try to push themselves up using the water surface.
  • They might appear to be doggy paddling or treading water, as though climbing an invisible ladder.

This drowning phase lasts for 20-60 SECONDS.

  • Call for help - don’t attempt to save a drowning swimmer unless you know what you’re doing. They will grab you and try to climb up you, thus pulling you under. 
  • Try to give them something to grab, or approach from behind.
  • Learn Basic Life Support. You could save a life.
  • If you’re a strong swimmer, learn rescue.

This is an incomplete but hopefully still helpful guide to increasing safety in the water. 

June 2016