Wild Swim and leave no trace

Wild Swim and leave no trace

I’ve never been one for exercise. I’ve always gone through passing fads of taking out gym memberships, signing myself up for blocks of HIIT classes or Yoga/ Pilates classes, the occasional ‘jog’ around my village, I even signed up to Krav Maga for a while until I sustained a knee injury (which still clicks every time I walk upstairs – 7 years on). But nothing has ever really grabbed my attention or stuck with me. I’ve never excitedly thought ‘yay exercise!’ That is, until I found wild swimming.

Wild swimming or open water swimming takes place in outdoor bodies of water such as oceans, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. I had my first taste of open water swimming in September 2019 at Rother Valley Aqua Park, it was hilarious, exhilarating and so much fun. I didn’t outdoor swim again until August 2020, when some lockdown restrictions had lifted. It was great being out in the sun with friends, outdoor swimming in nature. We chose to visit Dale Dyke reservoir on the borders of Sheffield/ Barnsley, this was partly recommended by a friend who regularly swam there as well as listed as one of the ‘approved and safe’ swim spots on a Facebook group I joined called SOUP.  

Sheffield Outdoor Plungers is a friendly and informative group, offering advice on all things wild swimming, including where to avoid for sewage/ pollution (which unfortunately hits a lot of our rivers thanks to our current government) as well as places to avoid or not publicise due to the delicate eco-systems or bird nesting seasons. Since joining this group, I feel at ease with outdoor swimming, especially when I try somewhere new or solo swim. It’s nice to see other likeminded swimmers and just enjoy a peaceful swim on the water without being bothered or bumped into.

It's important to mention that although these swim spots are ‘approved’ and frequented regularly by swimmers, not every swim spot is legal. In fact, the majority are still signposted with ‘No Swimming’ signs or other equally ludicrous warning signs about dangerous machinery… None of which have ever been seen, but you do find that with all water companies, they often prefer to deter swimmers with scare tactics rather than invest in providing safe swim information for those who find themselves in the water without the experience or knowledge of how to deal with cold water shock. So many outdoor water related injuries or deaths stem from people who did not intend to swim, but rather got themselves in trouble through teenage dares, alcohol or just accidentally finding themselves falling in. These deaths are extremely sad and could be prevented through correct signage and support. Every swim spot and every swim are talked about with ‘swim at your own level’, by understanding the risks and knowing what you are capable of, the Soup community supports one another.

The right to swim is legal in most Scottish reservoirs as the Land Reform Act was changed in 2003 to accommodate the ‘right to roam’. This, however, has not been rolled out across most swimmable areas in England and Wales due to water company ownership, private land entry points or other reasons mainly associated with not being able to insure it against any accidents. Outdoor swimming is also legal and widely accepted across most European countries, where the UK is trailing far behind.

MS Diagnosis and open water

I had my first Multiple Sclerosis (MS) episode in late 2016, with an eventual diagnosis last year in 2022. Wild swimming is one of the only ways to rid myself of my chronic aches and pains. Being in the water, floating along in the sun beneath the trees is relief for my body and for my soul, I did this whilst I was pregnant with my little boy Erik, and it was truly a blessing on my spine and on my bump.

The peace and quiet is amazing, the strain being taken off my shoulders and spine, equally so. This is important to mention as I’ve always found gym memberships hard to keep up with purely because I have so much fatigue and no motivation (this is regularly seen as laziness) but with outdoor swimming, I find it so much easier to motivate myself and get in the water. A lot of the approved swim spots give information on entry points and easy access for people who are not as able bodied, though this is not me, just yet it’s good to know how I can get in the water without stumbling or hurting myself.

Currently, I am a summer-only wild swimmer, purely because I don’t have the constitution for winter swims, the cold water is lovely in short doses, and I fully understand why people enjoy cold dips so much, but until I invest in a full wetsuit, then I’ll just continue as is.

Last year the water temperature was so lovely it was like being on holiday, this our summer has been abysmal and therefore not as warm, but once you get over the initial gasp of breath leaving your body, the water does feel soothing, and again it’s all about what you can handle: don’t push yourself too hard, stay in the water for too long or swim too far out, if you’re not confident in your swimming abilities.

My current swim kit is:

  • Neoprene swim socks and gloves
  • Swimming costume/ long sleeved bikini
  • Shortie wetsuit (when July/ August/ September water is cold!)
  • Bright orange tow float for my keys/ phone. This is a great little float for when you need a quick rest in the middle of the open water. It also alerts people on the water to your presence, so if you do get into any difficulty – you’re easy to spot.
  • Towel poncho for easy drying without flashing everyone. It’s an affordable alternative to a dryrobe (the dream outdoor swimmers towel)

When leaving any swim spot, myself and other swimmers clean up after ourselves and go with the mantra of ‘leave no trace’. We’re already skating on thin ice with water companies by ignoring their signage, we don’t want to pollute or destroy our local beauty spots, so we make sure to try and clear up litter even if it’s left by others who are less considerate.

 Lower Redmires

With all exercises there are pros and cons, I think I’ve clearly detailed all the pros above, but to give a snapshot here they are again:

  • Freedom to swim in beautiful spots
  • No bumping into people chatting in the lanes like you would find in a local swimming pool
  • Peace and quiet
  • Boosts your mood
  • Increases your swimming abilities through knowing your limits and pushing yourself when you can
  • It’s also free to do, other than paying for your swim kit and float, it’s something people from all backgrounds can enjoy

There are not many cons for me, I’d say the main ones are imposed by the government and councils on their lack of respect for pollution and not allowing the ‘right to roam’ in England and Wales to cover swimming. The only other major con I can think of would be when swimming in places that others have previously visited and finding they have not respected the area or environment. It’s disheartening to see litter/ charred remains from previous BBQs or even vandalism to centuries old walls and reservoir banks.

We see so much pollution in the world so it’s important to want to preserve what we have and look after it. I’d love to be able to support sustainable brands offering swim kit or clothing from recycled waste so I’m excited for what Lauren and Ben have to offer in the future.

My next goal with open water is to try paddle boarding or kayaking but that is something for summer 2024 for me to look into.


(1325 words)

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