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Get winter weather wise: 12 simple safety tips for cold days at the coast

We do like to be beside the seaside and the rugged beauty of our coasts can be even more spectacular through the winter months. While stormy seas and big waves are breathtaking, we want to make sure you stay safe while you're enjoying them.

Family holding hands walking along a beach

Photo: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

It's a sad fact that 76% of people who die at the coast in the month of December never intended to enter the water. Not everyone can be saved, but the risks can be greatly reduced if you equip yourself with the right information.

Here's our advice for staying safe on your winter walkabout.

1. Do plan ahead

Check forecasts for tide and sunset times, as well as weather and wave conditions (try Magic Seaweed for tide and wave information).

Tide times and heights vary throughout the month and can easily catch you out if you haven’t checked them.

If you've followed the beach to another cove at low tide, or walked around an outcrop of rocks or over sand dunes, the water can soon block your way back as the tide turns. Deep inlets can form on a beach before the tide comes right in and before you know it, you're surrounded by water. If the patch of beach you're on doesn't have steps or access of its own, you could be in trouble.

If you’re going somewhere new, make sure you seek local advice and pick up a printed tide table. They are often available from tourist information centres, the Harbour Master or some local seaside shops.

For more information about things to look out for on the coast, read our Know the risks pages.

Newquay inshore lifeboat rescuing three people who had been cut off by the tide at Whipsiderry

Photo: Cornish Guardian/Terry Barnecutt

Newquay inshore lifeboat rescuing three people who had been cut off by the tide at Whipsiderry

2. Do dress smart

Soft, summer walking boots may not be suitable for your off-season hikes. Many coastal paths are rocky and get slippery in the rain and cold, so make sure you have supportive, well-fitting footwear to reduce your risk of slips and falls.

The wind in coastal areas can be biting and even woolly gloves can quickly let the cold through. Layer woolly base layers with wind-stopper outers, even on a dry day. If you get into trouble and need help, you’ll stay warm for longer wearing the right gear.

A group of people enjoying a walk along a coastal clifftop path

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Pack clothing for windy and wet weather

3. Do remember to pack essentials

Always make sure you take a phone with you to call for help if you get into trouble - and make sure it is fully charged before you set off.

If you have no signal with your network provider, emergency 112/999 calls may still work. Your phone will try to detect other mobile networks in the area.

Other things you might like to take:

  • Being out in the cold can quickly drain your energy. Pack snacks like flapjacks or trail mix and a hot drink in a thermos to keep you going.
  • A small torch - autumn and winter days are much shorter and paths can quickly get dark before the sun is even set.
  • If you’re going for a walk and the route takes you inland, having an Ordnance Survey map and compass (and learning how to use them) will help you keep your bearings. Losing your way on a shorter day can mean you also lose valuable daylight hours.
  • A whistle can cut through the noise of the sea if you need to get someone’s attention.
  • If you’re not expecting rain, waterproofs that are lightweight and packable can serve as a useful backup.
A winter sunset over Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset

Photo: Anna Burn

Pack essentials and watch the time to make sure you’re not caught out after dark

4. Do take a buddy

Go with someone to the coast and look out for each other. Whether you’re angling or hiking, photographing the sunset or watching the waves, if you’re heading away from busier areas, it’s best to go with someone else. Fewer people are on the coast in the colder weather, so if you do get into trouble you could find yourself glad you didn’t go it alone.

If you do go by yourself, make sure you let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back.

5. Don’t be a storm chaser or a wave dodger

While many people love to watch how the sea changes in stormy weather, never underestimate its power.

Every now and then, in rough seas, a wave can come along that is much larger than the previous ones. Convergent waves, sometimes referred to as ‘freak waves’ or ‘rogue waves’, easily catch people out. While there are many theories behind what causes them, the important thing to remember is not to underestimate the distance waves are travelling up the beach or harbour wall.

If you are watching the waves, give them a wider berth than you think you need to and stay on higher ground where possible.

Whatever you're doing, always keep one eye on the sea. Just 15cm of water can knock you off your feet. Don’t take risks.

A massive wave crashing against a lighthouse and harbour wall.

Photo: Ian Thomas

Don’t venture onto harbour walls and piers to get closer to the waves

6. Do consider your activity

If you’re angling from the shore or a boat, wear a lifejacket.

If you’re surfing in the winter, learn from the experts.

If your dog gets into trouble when out on a walk, don't put yourself in danger by trying to rescue them. Move to a safe place and call your dog, or call 999/112 and ask for the coastguard.

Our safety pages have advice for how you can enjoy the coast safely, whatever you’re using it for, based on our research and rescue experience.

7. Do tread carefully after a storm

Every year, storms change our landscape through coastal erosion. Some cliffs form an overhang which may not be obvious when walking along the top of them.

Pay attention to any warning signs all year round, but especially after storms. Tempting as it may be, don't leave designated paths to peek over the edge or take a clifftop selfie.

Look out for warning signs of cliff collapse and stick to the paths

Photo: Shutterstock/Peter Turner Photography

Look out for warning signs of cliff collapse and stick to the paths

8. Don’t discount sunny days

When the weather is stormy, it’s easier to understand that the sea is a risk and plan accordingly. It’s the calm sunny days, when you’re not paying attention to the risks, that can really catch you out.

British and Irish waters are dangerously unpredictable. Keep safety in mind, whatever the weather.

9. Do enjoy photography safely

Poor weather can make for some of the most stunning photography, but keep safety first and foremost in your thoughts so you’re not distracted from the conditions around you.

Don’t push limits just to get a slightly better angle, and make sure you keep an eye on the time and tides. If you’re using a digital SLR, be aware of your surroundings; it’s easy to lose your footing when you’re looking through a viewfinder.

If you’re heading out in the rain, consider a rain cape or waterproof casing for your camera so you can spend less time worrying about water ingress and more time shooting!

A winter sunset framing the West Pier, Brighton

Photo: Anna Burn

Winter sunsets can be the most beautiful

10. Do know what to do if you find yourself in the water

British and Irish waters are dangerously unpredictable and most people who drown at the coast each year in the UK and Ireland never intended to enter the water. If you get into trouble, remember these three things.

Flip: Cold water shock can affect us at 15ºC and our average sea temperatures are around 12ºC. The initial effects of cold water shock pass in less than a minute. Don't try to swim straight away, instead flip onto your back.

Float: Floating on your back allows you to regain energy and assess the situation. Stay calm and catch your breath. If there is something nearby that can help you float then try to get hold of it. Once you are floating, call for help even if you think you can make it out by yourself.

Follow: If you are safely able to, swim on your back, following the safest route out of the water. This may not be the same place that you entered the water, if you were swept off rocks by a wave or dragged in by a rip current.

11. Do know what to do if you see someone else in trouble

If you spend time on the coast in all seasons, make sure you’d know what to do if you see someone in trouble.

Stop and think. Do not escalate the situation by entering the water and risking your own life.

Call for help. Call 999/112 and ask for the coastguard.

Throw them a line. If you have something that could help them float, throw it to them.

'Don't go into the water,' says Mechanic Ian Cubitt from Sunderland RNLI. 'Quite often people don't intend to go into the water and something may happen that means they do end up in the water. Phone for help and ask for the coastguard, throw a lifering if there is one - but don't go into the water.'

Choppy winter sea

Photo: Anna Burn

Cold water shock can kick in at 15ºC; know the risks, know what to do

12. Do share safety advice and stories of near misses with others

Our research shows that young men are one of the most at-risk groups. So please consider sharing this article with the ones in your life.

As a charity, we are every bit as concerned with drowning prevention as we are with rescue. We believe we can learn from each other and help to prevent future fatalities by sharing advice and stories.

Whatever you’re planning on the coast this winter, we hope you’ll do it safely. For more information on keeping safe at the coast, head to our water safety pages.