Since the lockdown has been lifted a little bit I’ve made it a point to check out a wider range of open water and wild swimming spots local to me.
In fact I’m on mission to swim in a different spot each week which I’ve named “Wild Swim Wednesdays”
Along with some friends, from local swimming group Swim and Tonic I’ve been to a number of new places recently. They’ve mostly been in the river and I thought I’d share some of the things we do to keep ourselves safe.
We get local knowledge before we swim in a new place. This includes from local people, other swimmers, one of the wild swimming books, google and OS maps.
We go together and make sure someone knows where we’re going and how long we’ll be.
We take warm clothes! And food for afterwards!
We always have a mobile phone.
We all wear something on our feet until we know a location better. Either swim socks or swim shoes. This is because you don’t know what you’re stepping on or what’s underfoot……it’s nothing to do with the fact that we don’t like the feel of the mud on our feet.
Always check out entry and exit points carefully and thoroughly. It might be easy to get in at a particular spot but harder to get out. In particular a high bank and deep water can be impossible to get out. We’ve also experienced shallow water that has mud above the knees which would have been impossible to get out.
We assess the situation collectively and also with a stick to measure the water depth and mud depth. We test the situation with one swimmer first with other people on the bank ready to help them out if necessary. We’re considering carrying a rope and a stake with us as a safety measure or assistance strategy.
Check the current and how fast the water is moving and don’t underestimate this. Often the current in a river is stronger than it looks. We swim near to our entrance point for several minutes checking out the flow before going any significant distance. We will also be careful about swimming after heavy rainfall as this affects the flow of the river and there’s also the potential for pollution.
Use a tow float especially if there’s any possibility of boat traffic and wear a colourful swim hat as it makes you visible
Stick together within eye sight of each other
Swimmers itch is a hazard of swimming outdoors in the summer. The best way to manage this is to avoid getting bitten so we try and get some up to date local knowledge on the situation from another swimmer. While not life threatening if you react badly it’s not very pleasant and if you have 20 or 30 bites could make you feel under the weather.
One of our lakes had a particularly bad outbreak last year and a few swimmers ended up with infections that required antibiotics and time off work. For more information check out this blog from the Outdoor Swimmer magazine.
As someone who reacts badly to any insect bite I generally try and get dressed and make sure that I’m covered up. I always wear socks and shoes to walk to the river. I use insect repellent if I’m hanging around on the river bank for any length of time after a swim.
Upset stomachs from poor water quality are something to watch out for. I carry some anti-bacterial hand wash in my bag and try and use this on my hands after exiting the river and before eating anything.
We’re careful about swimming after there’s been any amount of rain fall because water pollution can be higher from sewage outfalls and farm land run off. The Canals and Rivers Trust have created an interactive map where you can look up potential swim spots sewage spots and discharge points.
It’s also worth checking to see how high the river levels and you can do that here. Keeping an eye on this for your regular rivers so you get a feel for what your river does and it’s typical water level. If the river levels are still rising after rain then be more cautious about pollution and river flow. If river levels are anywhere near the orange line (when low lying land will flood) then again don’t swim. You can also check what your river looks like with river cameras here.
Be on the lookout for swans and areas where swans live or are nesting. Give them a wide birth and plenty of respect. They can be quite angry and attack people particularly when they have cygnets.
Be careful of a field of cows or a bull on the way to your swimming spot. On one of our recent swims a swan aggravated a herd of cows which started a stampede towards us and our swim spot. We made a hasty exit out of the field and found another spot. I’ve since seen lots of incidents of walkers being injured by cows and looked up some advice on how to deal them. There are some great tips here.
Giant Hog Weed is poisonous. Due to floods earlier in the year this is appearing more often in the UK particularly on river banks and it’s worth checking out the plant tracker. No one in my swimming group had ever heard of this before until it was in the media during the lockdown. We’ve educated each other and have a picture and information about it on our phones in case we spot something and aren’t sure. We’re also keeping an eye on swimming groups for information from other swimmers.
Weils disease is rare but dangerous and swimmers need to be aware of it. You should make sure that any open cuts are covered properly with waterproof dressings. Avoid swimming in stagnant water and look out for cold and flu like symptoms developing with 1-3 weeks. Check out this fact sheet from the outdoor swimming society.
Lyme disease is caught through tick bites and is most common in woodland or heathland areas but can be found all over the UK. Although it’s not hugely common in the UK the longer you spend in the outdoor industry the more often you meet people who have had it and been horrendously ill with long term limiting health implications. Several well-known triathletes have been affected by the disease including world Xterra champion Lesley Patterson. The main thing to look out for is a tick bite and a bull’s eye rash. More information can be found here.
There’s a lot here to think about but it soon becomes automatic and if there’s anything I’ve missed please let me know.
The main thing to say is that river swimming is fun. There are some stunningly beautiful locations and we’ve never had any major incidents but have had some wonderful experiences.
As we say in Swim and Tonic “do scary shit…but do it safely”.