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How to Stay Safe Swimming Outdoors in Natures Freshwater

Here in West Wales we are so lucky to have some beautiful freshwater beauty spots with our rivers, lakes and reservoirs, but don’t be fooled by these tranquil setting as not all of these spots are safe for swimming.

There are many things you can look out for and avoid which can make swimming in the wild not only an awesome experience, but also a lot safer and to help we have put together a list of some of them for you. However first off, it has to be said that there is one place that you should just rule out straight away and never even attempt to go swimming in as the potential dangers are just so extreme and that’s in reservoirs.


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Reservoirs may look like a fab place to cool off, but they are just full of so many hidden dangers that every year all our emergency services continually publish warnings to the public, as it doesn’t matter how strong a swimmer you are, the fact is that within minutes of a swimmer disappearing beneath the surface it is often too late for the emergency services to help.

We need to remember that a reservoir is a large, open area of water and its purpose it to store water prior to treatment, which means there is a lot going on under the water that you are unable to see.

Here are a few of the dangers and why you should never swim in a reservoir:

  • They can be very deep and underfoot can often drop suddenly, which you cannot see
  • They are mainly in isolated places, so no matter how quickly you call for help it will very rarely arrive in time.
  • There are many hidden obstacles beneath the water surface, such as machinery from the treatment works or even broken glass and sometimes rubbish which has been thrown in.
  • There are many hidden strong currents coming from the pipes which you cannot see or hear but will for sure affect your ability to swim as you normally would.
  • It can be very hard to get out once your in, this is due to the sides of reservoirs being very steep in places and can also be mud on the bottom making it slippery and sticky underfoot
  • They can be so extremely cold that they can take your breath away. The temperatures in reservoirs rarely get above 10 degrees, even on the hottest of summer days. This is cold enough to take your breath away, which is the body’s natural reaction, and can lead to panic and drowning. The cold water can also make your arms and legs go numb and out of your control. Reality is if you are in this cold water long enough it can lead to hypothermia which has serious consequences.
  • They sometimes have blue green algae at the water edge, the problem is this is not always visible to the naked eye but can produce toxins that cause skin rashes and stomach upsets. Washing in clean water as soon as you come in contact with it can lower your side effects.
  • There is a high potential of catching other serious illnesses such as Weil’s disease, which is an infection you can catch from animals such as rats and cattle. It is spread in the urine of infected animals, so if the water in the reservoir contains infected pee which is highly probable and you get the water in your mouth, eyes or a cut, then you will become infected and fall very ill.

Rivers and Lakes

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A peaceful walk with a picnic to a river or lake can be a perfect family day out and a nice change from a beach. However, it’s worth remembering that what starts as a fun paddle in what looks like shallow water can carry risks.

So here is some helpful hints and tips on how to stay safe when swimming in the wild:

  • Before getting into the water, make sure you know where you plan to get out
  • Sudden Drops – No matter how shallow the water is, it can become much deeper suddenly, if paddling why not walk with a branch checking footsteps ahead of you for depth. If swimming scout out an area you are comfortable in where you can touch the bottom.
  • Slippery Rocks – Be careful of slipping on rocks, you might find that going barefoot can give you better grip otherwise wear lightweight footwear with a rubber sole
  • Jumping and Diving – Believe it or not jumping and diving into water is one of the most common reason for people drowning in the UK. You should never jump or dive into water that you have not first checked how deep it is and don’t presume because you have visited a spot before that the water will be the same depth this time too. Also, aside from the depth of the water you need to be mindful of rocks, sand banks, rubbish or branches under the water that you could land on. As scary as it sounds the fact is one bad jump could break your neck which could paralyse you for life or worse, so a simply check beforehand could truly be lifesaving!
  • Moving Water – You don’t have to be in deep water for strong currents to knock you off your feet, even shallow sections of fast-flowing water can do it and the last thing you want is to be taken off your feet and sent hurtling downriver into the unknown. So before getting in the water think ahead, look down river for possible exit points just in case! A good thing to remember is the shallower or narrower the river bed is, the faster the water has to flow to pass through, and vice versa. If unsure why not throw a stick in the water to gauge how fast the water is flowing and avoid areas of the river that is moving faster than you are able to swim in.
  • Cold Water Shock – As mentioned above if the water is extremely cold then this can take your breath away, posing risks of panic, drowning and hypothermia.
  • Weeds – Easy to spot on the surface, but not so much under the water and can pose serious risk of entangling a swimmer’s legs. Obviously where you can try to avoid them, however if you do come across some its best to swim slowly and not kick harshly. If needed just float and use your arms to move away.
  • Cramps – Over doing it, dehydration or poor diet are the most common reasons for getting cramps in your legs and feet whilst swimming. As soon as you experience cramps shout for help and lie on your back and paddle back to shore with your arms.
  • Open Water – It’s really not advisable to swim on your own in open water, you should keep to a safe distance to the edge and it goes without saying don’t go swimming when drunk as your abilities will be impaired.
  • Illnesses – We have already mentioned about the risks of both Blue Algae and Weil’s Disease above, however another potential illness of swimming in outdoor freshwater is cercarial dermatitis also known as Swimmer’s itch, which you can catch from being in contact with little snails that live on the reeds around marshy lakes and stagnant ponds. You will experience intense itching, which can last up to two or three days. It’s more annoyingly uncomfortable than serious and there is no real treatment for it,  bar prevent it in the first place by staying clear of stagnant bogs.
  • Wildlife – Be careful not to disturb wildlife, aside from obviously upsetting the home of animals which is just not cool, you could find yourself on the end of a nasty bite, if they feel threaten or the need to protect their young from you.

Hopefully these little pointers are of some help to increasing your family’s safety, whilst you enjoy getting out and active this Summer in our Beautiful Countryside!




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