Going for a swim in natural ponds and waterfalls can be tempting, but is it safe? With these insider tips, you'll know how to pick the best spots for a dip in the wild
Bathing under waterfalls, floating in natural pools and swimming against a backdrop of nature’s finest landscapes – images of wild swimming often paint an idyllic picture. But a lack of knowledge on where to find the best spots and how to stay safe in the water can put people off taking the plunge. Go armed with insider knowledge though and an al fresco dip needn’t be stressful.
Wild swimming takes you out into nature to explore rock pools, rivers, lakes and seas, immersing you in a landscape that, more often than not, you will get all to yourself. “It brings a frog’s-eye perspective to the world,” says Daniel Start, author of Wild Swimming. “You can see more wildlife, too – animals are less frightened of swimmers than walkers.”
In some countries, wild swimming can even provide an insight into local culture. Regions such as Scandinavia see the pastime as an intrinsic part of their summer calendar, meaning you can blend in like a local.
And, aside from the obvious rewards of being in the great outdoors, wild swimming has potential health benefits, too – especially in chillier areas. “It is great for your health,” enthuses Daniel, “adapting to the cold is known to help strengthen your immune system and mental wellbeing.”
Woman floating in natural pond in Gredos mountian, Spain (Dreamstime)
Before you strip off, it’s worth searching for telltale signs of a good (and bad) site. “Check for up-to-date weather conditions online before you go and be aware of any changes during your swim,” advises Sally Tertini, co-author of Wild Swimming Sydney Australia. “Be prepared. Tides, river depths and currents can change suddenly and make a great location unsafe.”
If you don’t feel confident in judging a secluded location, start with designated and established areas for your first swim. The country where you’re headed might have an online resource with local outdoor swim spots. For example, the Outdoor Swimming Society maps swim spots across England and Wales, as well as parts of Europe and North Africa.
For more of an adventure, the deep pools above and below weirs and dams are popular with swimmers looking for off-radar sites. Keep an eye out for old bridges, adds Daniel; they were often built at natural gorges, where rivers usually narrow and deepen, and can make for fun, accessible locations.
Changes in depth can signal a good spot. Waterfalls often have deep plunge pools, although this is not always the case. If you prefer river swimming, head for the river’s bend – the water will always shallow to a beach on the inside and deepen on the outside, offering a delightful spot.
“It sounds obvious, but use common sense,” advises Ben Love, author of Wild Guide to Scandinavia. “Take into consideration the water temperature – it can be much colder than you might think, especially in Scandinavia. In rivers, rapids can be larger than you would expect, too.”
Having found your spot, be sure to stay safe. “Never swim alone,” advises Daniel. “Keep a constant watch on weak swimmers, and if you’re a weak swimmer yourself, know your limits and stay close to the shoreline.”
Before you or any of your party take the plunge, make sure that you know how you’re going to get back out of the water. And if you’re thinking of jumping in, always check the water depth and look for obstructions. Avoid leaping from large waterfalls, as strong undercurrents can often pull you down.
People in front of waterfall in Croatia (Dreamstime)
Many worry about dangerous wildlife, says Sally, who claims to have rarely encountered any beasties while swimming around Sydney. If you do bump into a snake or a similarly dangerous creature, remain calm and slowly retreat until it moves on, she advises. Direct contact with blue algae is also best avoided.
Medically, those with heart conditions should avoid rapid entry into cold water. If you have any cuts, it’s also best to apply waterproof plasters before getting in. And should you develop any untoward symptoms afterwards, make sure you see a doctor.
It goes without saying that you should try to leave any swimming site in the state that you found it – or better. Take any rubbish with you, and bring a spare carrier bag to pick up any litter you might find. Also honour any restrictions you might find in national parks or other areas. Be aware of where you are swimming, adds Sally.
“Some flora and fauna are especially sensitive, so it’s critical to ‘swim lightly’ and reduce your impact.”
Finally, if you’re caught short and there are no toilets nearby, dig a 15cm deep hole at least 100m away from water, before doing your stuff and filling it in afterwards.
You’ll be surprised by the variety of places you can swim. Sydney is a haven, with Pittwater’s The Basin lagoon, set in Ku-ring-gai Chase NP, perfect thanks to its calm waters and preventative shark net, while Dunns Swamp in Wollemi NP is ideal for a lazy dip.
If you prefer chillier surroundings, Ben recommends the Ice Age-formed Nissedal ‘potholes’ in Sørlandet, Norway, with its smooth granite sides heating up to warm the water on hot days. The Ullån River, near Åre, in Sweden also has natural granite slides and deeper pools downstream, he adds.
The Bimmah Sinkhole in Oman, the milky Kuang Si Falls in Laos or the many lochs of Scotland – particularly Loch Caoldair in Laggan – are all good for debut wild swims, but keep your eyes peeled and look out for tell-tale signs wherever you are: there are so many potential wild swimming havens out there. Just you and nature – ahh, bliss.
People bathing in natural thermal pools in Portugal (Dreamstime)
Reader and novice wild swimmer Alice shares the story of her first outdoor dip…
Why did you decide to try wild swimming?
My family and I were travelling through Tennessee on a road trip and fancied a change from hotel swimming pools. After speaking to locals, they told us of many great places in the Tennessee river for a dip in the water – so we set off to explore.
Did you have any concerns?
My main concerns were safety-related, such as hidden rocks and strong currents that even a good swimmer like myself would struggle with, as well as what wildlife we might come across. In the areas in which we swam, there were warning signs about snakes everywhere, so I had that in the back of my mind. I also explained to my children that wild swimming must be done with an adult who has fully researched the trip – I didn’t want them heading off alone in a few years’ time and getting into trouble through an example that I had set.
How did you find the right spot?
We were lucky that the locals we met offered lots of great advice and guidance on where to swim. Wild swimming is much more ‘normal’ in these parts of the US than it is in somewhere like the UK, so most of the places we visited had at least one other family swimming there that we could get hints and tips from.
Did you enjoy it?
We loved it – so much so that we bought a guidebook on wild swimming spots in the UK when we got back. The sense of freedom that came with it was fantastic, and it showed the children another side to American life and culture that they may have otherwise never experienced.
Would you recommend wild swimming to others?
Yes. It needs to be well-researched, especially if you are wild swimming with a young family in tow, however the rewards are so worth the effort. I can’t wait to get back in the water again.
Main image: Ravana Falls in Sri Lanka (Dreamstime)