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Overhead shot of two open water swimmers, wearing wetsuits and brightly coloured swimming hats, towing brightly coloured swim floats

Top tips: Open water swimming for beginners

From rivers to reservoirs, to the sea itself, thousands of us are discovering the benefits of wild swimming. Our open water swimming tips for beginners will help you make the most of your cold-water dips.

Why would you want to swim in cold water?

People report varied benefits of open water swimming which, in the UK and Ireland, usually means cold water swimming. From fitness and community to improvements in mental health and happiness, there are many motivations for getting into open water swimming.

Is open water swimming hard?

That’s partly up to you! Open water swimming could be anything from a quick cold water dip to a swim. A lot of the same principles apply in all scenarios, including the need to acclimatise to the cold water and warm up well when you get out. Plan a dip that suits your current level of ability and experience to make it safe and enjoyable.

Do you need a wetsuit for open water swimming?

Yes, we recommend that you always wear a wetsuit. It’ll help you stay warm and can increase your buoyancy, so you can stay in the water for longer before tiring.

A smiley open water swimmer in front of the sea, wearing a wetsuit and brightly coloured swimming hat

RNLI/Nigel Millard

What equipment do you need for open water swimming?

Make sure you’re visible while swimming or dipping:

  • Wear a brightly coloured swimming hat.
  • Take a tow float – we recommend choosing a fluorescent-coloured one with a waterproof pouch to safely stow your phone for use in an emergency. Some tow floats also come with useful accessories such as whistles and glow sticks.

Always carry a means of calling for help, such as a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch and a whistle to attract attention.

And make sure you can warm yourself up carefully when you get out – have plenty of warm clothes and a warm drink with you for afterwards.

Here’s former BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin talking to the RNLI about her love of open water swimming, what kit she takes for a dip, and her top safety tips:

What do you need to know before going open water swimming?

Know the area and know what conditions to expect. Check the weather forecast and sea conditions before you set off from home and be prepared to change your plans if the forecast is unsafe. If in doubt, don’t go out. No matter how much preparation you do, or how experienced you are, if a swim doesn’t feel right there is no shame in getting out of the water straight away, or not entering.

  • Check Met Office (UK) or Met Éireann (Ireland) for an inshore waters forecast. 
  • Find tide tables and surf reports for the UK on the Met Office or Admiralty EasyTide.
  • Speak with local swimming groups and beach lifeguards to find out about the local conditions if you’re visiting a new place.
A group of open water swimmers gather by the sea. Sea swimming for beginners is best done as part of a group such as the Frosties in Skerries, Co Dublin

RNLI/Anna 'Nudi' Burn

Do you need to swim with a buddy?

We recommend always swimming with someone else and avoiding swimming alone. Remember that cold water will seriously affect your swimming ability and things can change quickly in open water. If you’re with someone else, or a group, you can look out for each other.

Before you set off, tell someone exactly where you’re going and when you plan to be back.

Find your open water swimming family by joining a local group – it’s safer and can be fun! You can find an open water club near you with Swim England and join open water events with Swim Ireland.
Two open water swimmers enter the water slowly, acclimatising to the cold, this is an important open water swimming technique

RNLI/Nathan Williams

How do you acclimatise to the cold water?

  1. Assess the conditions. If it’s too rough for swimming, don’t get in. The colder the air and water, the quicker you’ll cool down and the less time you should spend in the water.
  2. Walk into the water slowly. Never jump or dive in as this increases the risk of cold water shock.
  3. Try not to hold your breath. Wait until your breathing is under control until you take a step deeper.
  4. Splash some water under your arms and on your neck, and wet your forehead.
  5. Tap the exposed parts of your body – it takes away the cold water shock response.

Get more tips on acclimatising to cold water with the Outdoor Swimming Society.

Two swimmers cut through the water in front of a beach. A flutter kick keeps your legs near the surface and conserves energy when open water swimming

RNLI/Nathan Williams

What are some good open water swimming techniques for beginners?

First, know that open water swimming is not like swimming in a pool; it’s not a controlled environment and you’ll tire much more quickly.

  • Stay shallow and close to the water’s edge, swimming parallel to it so that it’s easier to get out and you know more quickly if a current or tidal movement is taking you off course.
  • Use whichever forward stroke is most comfortable – but avoid backstroke as it’s harder to keep track of where you’re headed.
  • Keep your legs high in the water to conserve energy – try a flutter kick.
  • Breathe on whichever side is most protected from any choppiness, practice both.
  • Swim in a straight line and use a reference point to help you do this.
  • Sight your reference point frequently – lift your head straight up and forwards after taking a breath to check you’re still going in the right direction. Do this every few strokes.
  • Practice in the swimming pool – getting confident in a pool will help you transfer your skills to open water.
RNLI Water Safety Lead Nick Ayers and Louise Minchin walk down a sandy beach wearing Dryrobes. A weatherproof changing robe can help reduce afterdrop following open water swimming.

RNLI/Harrison Bates

How do you stop shivering after swimming in cold water?

When you first get out of cold water you may feel fine, so what follows can take you by surprise.

After you leave cold water, your core body temperature will continue to drop by as much as 4.5°C – this is known as afterdrop, and is due to conductive cooling.

Here are some steps to look after yourself after your dip or swim:

  1. Time your dips to allow about 30 minutes for warming up before you head for home. 
  2. On exit, dry quickly, removing all wet layers. A weather-resistant changing robe is useful in preventing heat from leaving your body as you dry.
  3. Dress quickly in warm clothing with a windproof outer layer.
  4. Sip a warm drink and have a bite to eat.
  5. Do not drive in the first 30 minutes, until afterdrop has subsided.

Learn more about afterdrop and how to warm up with the Outdoor Swimming Society.  

What should you do if you’re tired or in trouble while open water swimming?

If you or someone else is tired or in trouble, first float to live: rest by rolling onto your back and holding on to your tow float. Then you can call for help, if needed.

For help while open water swimming, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.

For more safety advice

visit our open water swimming page