As temperatures plummet across the UK, swimmers continue to plunge – or at least tentatively lower themselves – into the country’s lochs, lakes, rivers and coastlines. Ice swimming is defined as swimming without a wetsuit in water below five degrees centigrade. It’s not for everyone, but if Instagram feeds of rosy-cheeked, defiantly-smiley, woolly-hatted ice swimmers have made you reconsider your seasonal swimming habit, here’s our potted guide to dipping your toes, legs, and – go on, you can do it – torso into swimming in really cold water…..
Tips for getting in and – just as crucially – getting out of cold water from two of the OSS team’s serial chillers, Calum Maclean and Owen Hayman, and Barbara Hernandez Huerta.
“A heavy, blunt implement is good: sledgehammer or similar,” says Calum. “Ice axes are no use: the hole is far too small. If the ice is very thick, maybe wear a wetsuit – at least on your legs – to break it until deep enough to swim.
“Ice is sharp! Either use gloves or an implement – snow shovels are good – to scoop the ice out of the way.”
“Before entering the water, I would recommend deciding the area of water to swim in, have support out of the water, and use ear plugs,” says Barbara. Keeping cold water out of the ear canals enables the body temperature to stay higher.
Calum and Owen also swear by warming up as much as possible beforehand. “I find the best way is by wearing a lot of clothes and exercising gently: walking to the start of my swim,” says Calum. “Press-ups are good. I warm up very quickly, some others take longer.”
“Wear something on your feet – there’s nothing worse than stumbling out on hard rocks, or even cutting your foot and not realising because you’re so cold and have lost feeling! Neoprene socks are your friend. Gloves can also be good, I’m not so keen.”
Then, the moment of truth. The specific methods for each of our experts vary on this point. “Once you enter, acclimatise,” says Barbara. “This means going into the water little by little and never with your head underwater, starting maybe only with a few minutes and gradually staying longer.”
On the other hand, Calum advises: “Just get on with it! Mentally, getting into the water is much tougher in winter and everyone has their own way but there’s a lot to be said for just toughening up and getting in. Talk to yourself out loud – I talk to myself anyway – but I find during swimming this helps me get in, to vocalise what I’m feeling. Swearing helps. Take 90 seconds to walk in to full immersion.”
Owen adds: “Take your clothes off and get into the water as quickly as possible. Enter up to waist deep and splash your face and neck with water, to get used to the temperature and calm your breathing. Then enter the water fully. Focus on the surroundings and calm your breathing until the initial discomfort passes. Relish the moments that follow.”
Don’t expect to spend very long in the water initially – the aim is to gradually enable your body to get used to the shock of the cold. “Know your limits – in winter I don’t usually swim out far: more along the shore if I want to do some distance,” says Calum. “Understand how your body feels – this allows you to build up over time, and increase your distance, and time in water.”
“Change out of the wet swimsuit quickly and dry yourself,” says Barbara. “Be sure that you have enough warm clothes and mobilize the body to help the circulation of the blood and thus get warm.”
Before getting in, both Calum and Owen lay their clothes out in the order in which they will put them on; dry off immediately; and get all their clothes on as soon as possible.
“I’ve lately been pouring warm water from a flask on my feet – heavenly!” says Calum. “Not hot warm, but warm. I like to get layered up and get moving: a gentle uphill is ideal for me, to get me warmed up. I’m not a fan of sitting about immediately after, though some to like that!”
Owen also takes a flask of warm water with him. “I pour luke warm water over my hands and feet, being careful not to heat them up too quickly,” he says. “Or I put the water in a bucket and stand in it. Sip a warm drink. Gentle exercise is good but don’t overdo it. Warm up slowly.”
Barbara has the final word: “And most importantly, enjoy the experience!”
BARBARA HERNANDEZ HUERTA specialises in glacier swims; one of her most memorable being swimming alongside the O’Higgins Glacier in Chile when it began calving. Between October 2016-November 2017 she swam in six of Patagonia’s glaciers, in water ranging from 0-5 degrees centigrade. This summer she aims to conquer the comparatively balmy waters of the English Channel. In 2019 Barbara was voted one of the World’s 50 Most Adventurous Women in Open Water by World Open Water Swimming Association (WOWSA)
CALUM MACLEAN. Calum started swimming all winter around three years ago. “I just got into it more as a personal challenge – to see if it can be done!” says the Inverness-based OSS Ambassador, outdoor instructor and TV presenter. “Scottish water is never exactly warm, so sticking at dipping regularly just became a natural extension. It’s a different experience to swimming the rest of the year: I do it mainly for the shock and exhilaration that comes after.” Insta: @caldamac