10 best winter swims

The temperature might have plunged – but so can you.
By Susanne Masters

Think outdoor swimming is just for the summer? Think again. Winter swimming is gaining popularity and we’ve found the best swims at home and abroad.

However, before you jump in, beware. There are risks associated with swimming in cold water – and also with warming up when you're back on dry land. So start small and in the company of experienced winter swimmers. But as long as you're staying safe, go on and take the plunge… How cold can it be?!

More: 10 of Britain’s wild swimming spots

1. Big Chill Swim, Lake Windermere

Selling point: A wild swim in the largest natural lake in England

What to expect: A 30-metre breaststroke race (with heads above water) earns a place in a sauna and hot tub to warm up. Serious swimmers prove their mettle in longer races of 450 metres or one kilometre.

How cold? The clue is in the event’s name – the Big Chill Swim. Depending on the weather, the water is around 5 – 7°C. Cold water, combined with extra chilling from the cold air and wind, means that participants in the longer races need previous cold water experience. You should have swum a minimum of 900 metres in water under 6°C before the race.

2. Icy Swim Hootenanny, Parliament Hill Lido

Selling point: A small and friendly swimming event in the heart of London

What to expect: A beautiful, ethereal pool in winter, the stainless steel lining of the Parliament Hill Lido turns this patch of London into a silvery-blue infinity As the Icy Swim Hootenanny is a competition for experienced winter swimmers you have to be invited. Failing that, fill out the query form and get chatting with organisers. They may let you enter if you've taken the plunge elsewhere. Sitting in an ice bath doesn't count.

How cold? Brace yourself for this one; the pool is outdoors and unheated. The water will probably be below 5°C, unless January is unseasonably hot.

3. The English Channel, Bournemouth

Swimmers in the winter at Bournemouth beach, United Kingdom.
We don’t think the red legs are down to sunburn © Susanne Masters

Selling point: Miles of beach to swim out from

What to expect: Bournemouth is turning into an outdoor swimming mecca. Local sea-swimming groups are found at several spots along the seven miles of sandy beach that stretches from Hengistbury Head to Sandbanks.

How cold? Well, we are talking about the English Channel here… Find some local swimmers accustomed to braving winter waves to help ease you in.

Sign me up: On Sundays at 11am from October to April members of Bournemouth Spartans Swimming Club meet for a dip. Join them at the changing rooms on the east side of Boscombe Pier at 10.45am.

Just Swim meet all year round at the bottom of the cliff lift at Fisherman’s Walk, Southbourne, at 9am on Sundays.

4. Loch Morlich, Scottish Highlands

Selling point: It looks warm...

What to expect: A golden sandy beach at Loch Morlich gives you the temporary illusion of being somewhere warm. However, dip a toe in the dark water that is chilly even in summer and the illusion is shattered. Fear not though, there is a warm après-swim nearby; Glenmore Shop and Cafe runs a sauna that can be booked in advance.

How cold? Loch Morlich is 300 metres above sea level in the Scottish Highlands, and this freshwater loch sometimes freezes in winter. It's fair to say that it's pretty chilly.

Sign me up: Pop along to Glenmore Shop and Cafe who will point you in the right direction – and get the sauna fired up for you! Tel: 01479 861253.

5. Grisedale Tarn, Cumbria

Selling point: A great swim for outdoorsy types

What to expect: Cumbria offers a selection of tarns, or mountain pools, that are chilly even in summer. Not much of a surprise given that they are high up in the foothills of some of England’s highest mountains. At the junction of three valleys, Grisedale Tarn has scenic views. Ice climbers on their way to the infamous Helvellyn ridge will laugh at you!

How cold? In winter, the pool is above the snowline. However, do remember that there is a trek to get there – and, more importantly, a trek back down to a warm place. This is a challenging swim best left to experienced cold-water swimmers.

Sign me up: Park in the layby at Dunmail Raise on the A591. Hiking up to Grisedale tarn will take over an hour in good weather conditions. Follow advice on winter hiking.

6. Reykjavik, Iceland

Warm up with friends – Nauthólsvík beach and hot tub in Iceland.
Warm up with mates at Nauthólsvík beach © Susanne Masters

Selling point: Cool down – then warm up

What to expect: Iceland’s advantage for swimmers who just want a little icy dip is its abundance of geothermally heated water. If in Reykjavik, Nauthólsvík beach has a hot pool that is 38°C within a short sprint of the icy sea.

How cold? Winter swimming starts early in Iceland. Even in summer the sea might only get up to 11°C.

Sign me up: Winter opening hours for Nauthólsvík beach run from August 16 to May 14.

7. Jinan, China

Winter swimmers in Jinan, China.
They usually wear more clothes on the red carpet © Susanne Masters

Selling point: Feel like a celeb

What to expect: Jinan’s winter swimming festival delivers top-notch treatment to competitors. A red carpet to prevent swimmer’s bare feet from sticking to frozen ground is practical as well as adding a touch of celebrity. Then there are the thousands of spectators who come to cheer you on – or to mock.

How cold? Jinan is the "city of springs". There are more than 100 places where fresh spring water wells up through underlying rocks. This makes the temperature of Daming Lake a relatively warm 8°C, though freezing air temperatures ensure it is definitely winter swimming.

8. Tyumen, Russia

The winter swimming championship in 2014 in Rovaniemi. Igor Lukin
The winter swimming championship in Rovaniemi '14 © Igor Lukin

Selling point: Cut through ice before you swim

What to expect: In March 2016, the Winter Swimming World Championship will be in Tyumen, Siberia. Organisers are expecting more than 500 Russian swimmers and about 700 international swimmers to compete. With an ice-pool for dipping, and competitive races from 25 metres to 450 metres, there are a range of options for anyone who can brave stripping down to a little bit of lycra in Siberian winds.

How cold? The swimming pool will be cut out of the ice that covers the Tura River...

Sign me up: March 8-12 2016 Tyumen, Siberia, Russia. Contact the International Winter Swimming Association for more.

Hit up the International Ice Swimming Association if you want to find out more about ice swimming.

9. Cape Town, South Africa

A swimmer in the water at Camps Bay, Cape Town, South Africa.
Keep an eye out for sharks © Myles Axton

Selling point: Swim in a city with incredible views

What to expect: Of all the unheated pools around Cape Town, the best views are from the sea pool at Camps Bay. Big waves and sharks may be out in the untamed sea but within the walls of the pool, which is refreshed by high tides, only the odd little fish joins swimmers. Table Mountain looms in the background and the water is cold enough to warrant warming up at a La Belle Bistro and Bakery, a nearby cafe endowed with a fireplace and superb cakes.

How cold? Despite plenty of sunshine, the sea around Cape Town doesn’t get that hot in summer. Cape Town winter is June to August and this is when sea temperatures drop below 16°C. Even in summer they only get up to about 18°C.

Sign me up: Just hop in! But book a spot in La Belle Bistro and Bakery for after your dip.

10. Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina

A swimmer sits on ice at the Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina.
Don’t get stuck to the ice © Unir el Mundo

Selling point: Swim around glaciers

What to expect: August might be hot in Europe but in the southern hemisphere winter swimmers will be getting together to race in South America’s icy tip. Sparsely populated Patagonia is a chilly and wild wonderland and home to Argentina’s winter swimming festival in 2016, designed to showcase the country’s landscape. One of the highlights will be racing with the Perito Moreno Glacier as a backdrop.

How cold? Spectacular icefalls from the glacier as it moves help to keep the water suitably cold at 0-2°C.

Sign me up: August 2016. Contact Swim Argentina Open water and winter club for more information.

Susanne is a scientist and writer. She has adventures with wild swimming and orchids while working on distillery projects and conservation science. Follow her on Twitter @Ethnobotanica.

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