Breaking Ice – A Winter of Wild Swimming

This article was written by Ali, founder of Always Swimming Wild, for Outdoor Provisions and originally published on Jan 26, 2021.

Total immersion

There is nothing quite like winter swimming. The burn, the wild weather, the absolute joy that comes from complete and total immersion in something. It’s as much about the psychological challenge as it is the physical.

Okay, i’ll admit, it’s waaaay easier to swim in the summer. Shorts, flip flops, walking home wet. Feeling like you need to swim just to cool off after a run. But that amazing feeling swimmers talk about afterwards is one million times more intense in the winter. The after-buzz is addictive and the smiles are bigger too. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

Hot chocolate and hammers choice

Let’s talk about kit. My winter kit isn’t extensive but you do have to think about more than just a change of shorts and flip flops. I don’t normally wear a wetsuit but sometimes I feel the need and that’s amazing too because I can stay in for longer. If you have a big enough bag / don’t mind the extra weight then you can even carry it up to the mountain tarns.

I work for Alpkit and they kindly let me have one of their Haven Robes. It’s mega. Something warm, waterproof and big that I can chuck on over my layers. Essentially, anything that is going to make me warm will be great, the more the better. Underwear is overrated, trust me.

I have been using an ice axe to break the ice when getting in but after a conversation with the ice queen Gilly McArthur I think a blunt end like a hammer would be better. Come back to me on that one.

I love my Batoko swimsuits made from recycled ocean waste and in the winter neoprene socks really help with those first few minutes where the cold is hardest to deal with. And a wolly hat – warm head is important.

To help me warm up afterwards I have a hot drink ready – always hot chocolate. OP bars and butters in my pocket for instant snacking needs. That’s all there is to kit really. Everyone will swear by different tricks and tips but I just like to keep it simple with minimal faffing, especially when I’m hiding from winter winds halfway up a fell.

First time breaking ice

This has been my first season actively looking to ‘break ice’ in order to swim and it has been fantastic. Watching other amazing swimmers from around the UK do it for the past few winters has been pretty inspiring and I finally got my chance up at Scales Tarn, in the shadow of Blencathra. A cold snap in between lockdowns was perfect timing and conditions couldn’t have been better. I don’t know what to say really. It was cold. The people watching thought I was bonkers (as per) and I couldn’t wait to do it again. Essentially, it made me very happy!

I also swum in the snow again this year. I woke up, threw open my makeshift curtain, that is an old bed sheet that I tie-dyed 6 years ago, and ran down to the lake where even the jetty had 4 inches of snow on the ground! Jumped in the lake before work and back home for a shower before most of Keswick was awake. It was an incredible morning, so quiet and the snow was colder than the water so after a quick roll-around on the floor I was ready to go!

Best laid plans

It’s not all magic and snow though. Let’s be realistic for a moment. My second ice-breaker attempt at Bowscale Tarn was more of a paddle with more playing on the ice than swimming in it. Still fun though.

Now we are in lockdown number 3 and my vision of swimming in some of the Lake District’s iciest tarns with friends over the winter season has been very quickly shattered. Please don’t let this be the only really cold winter for a while. I have been swimming though – I am so lucky to live 15 minutes from Derwent Water in Keswick have found new little pools to dip in all within 10km of my front door. I am on furlough for the third time in a year and although very lucky to still have a job, it’s difficult to process sometimes. I’m finding it helps to admit that I’m not always okay. Which is okay too.

I just read that last bit back and it’s a bit sad so here are some things I am looking forward to:

  • Swimming with friends again
  • Tarn dips in new tarns
  • Days so hot that I just have to go for a swim in whatever piece of water I can find
  • Starting swim guiding right here in the Lake District [Excited to hear more about this! – Ed.]
  • Swimming in Scotland and Wales again.
  • Roast Potatoes. Always.

Well, thank you for reading my little rambling about winter swimming. I hope it inspires you to go out adventuring for a dip and I’m always more than happy to give little tips and tricks to anyone that will listen!

Keep safe and happy swimming x

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