Winter dipping – How do we do it right?

Winter open water dipping can be exhilarating and a wonderful way to spend time with friends outdoors. But it is not without serious risk, so it’s a good idea to get clued up before taking the plunge.

We’ve got a few tips below about what to look out for when planning your dip, what to bring and the best ways to enjoy the water when you’re actually there. There’s also a few hints of total ‘do nots’ at the bottom.

Planning your Winter Dip

Check the weather and tides

During winter on the island of Ireland your weather and tides check for swimming should focus on:

  • Air temperature
  • Wind speed, direction
  • Precipitation
  • Tide height and is it spring or neap

Check the air temperature so you know how many layers to bring – and watch out for ice on entry and exit points!

Check the wind speed and direction to make sure it won’t be too wavy to get in and out and swim safely. See: Winds: How do they affect swimmers?

Check precipitation to find out if you need to prepare to protect your things from getting wet – or bring suitable footwear for snow!

Check the tide height to find out if there is enough water for your swim, and check whether it’s spring or neap as spring tides can be really strong. See: How Tides Work

If there is a weather warning in your area, please heed the advice of officials like the Coastguard – no matter how strong a swimmer you are, the water is always more powerful and can always surprise you.

Interesting note to add: Water temperature in shallow locations can be way colder than deep locations in the winter as the ground is so cold. Particularly true in tidal waters. So be cautious with your time in the water

Book someone to come with you

After checking the weather and tides, you’ll know if today there is somewhere nearby that is suitable to dip in, and you’ll know at what times it’ll be good to go.

So book someone to come with you, even if they are only go to watch from shore and have the chats afterwards, and get packing!

(We always say it’s best to bring someone with you, because the water is large and unpredictable and humans are small land creatures. Better to be safe rather than sorry.)

What to pack for a winter swim in Ireland

The must-haves for any Irish winter dip

You’ve probably already got lots of this, and some you might never have thought of, but this is our must-haves for swimming outdoors in winter. You’ll thank us later!

  • Watch – to monitor how long you have been in the water.
  • Ear plugs – your ears absolutely hate cold water
  • 1-2 bright pink, orange, green or yellow silicone swim hat/s – to help keep heat in and make you visible
  • Tow-float – to make you even more visible and provide somewhere for you to rest if needed
  • Something dry to stand on – to keep feet off cold ground while changing
  • Changing robe – something to throw on straight away that you can get changed while still wearing
  • 1-2 extra body layers – you will definitely need them, no matter what you wore before swimming
  • Woolly hat and large gloves – get ones that are a size too big so they go on quicker
  • Neck warmer or scarf – keep protecting those body parts from the cold air!
  • Waterproof bag – to keep things dry on land while you swim (necessary even when not raining!)
  • Clear or tinted goggles – if you are going to put your head in and swim some strokes, pack a pair of goggles with clear lenses or tinted lenses depending on the position of the sun, and how much cloud there is.

That’s the essentials to bring, but we’d also recommend getting a hot drink or some soup and a high energy snack into you right after you are fully dressed, even if that means heading to a cafe. If that’s the plan though – double-check it’s open, so you’re not left hanging.

The fail-safe is to bring your own flask and snack.

About those winter dipping extra accessories

If that packing list sounded like your summer swim bag, don’t worry, that’s just the bare minimum we’d recommend! Here’s some other accessories we think you might love having for winter swims.

  • A wetsuit – a good quality swimming wetsuit will keep you warm in and out of the water.
  • Neoprene hat – this keeps your head warm, but remember to get a bright orange one, or put a bright silicone hat over it for visibility
  • Neoprene gloves – sometimes a bit tricky to swim in, but definitely helps stop stiff and frozen hands
  • Neoprene socks/boots – these have the added benefit of keeping your feet off the ground when walking to and from the water
  • Neoprene t-shirt – yes, it’s a thing and Decathlon recently had loads. If you’re only going in for a short dip, great alternative to the faff of a wetsuit
  • Swim shoes – alternative to neoprene socks/boots that don’t provide warmth, but do keep your feet off the ground and you’ll use them in all seasons
  • Hot water bottle – we don’t need to explain this

Many swimmers take big bottles of hot water with them to shower with, but we feel that this just delays getting dry and dressed, which needs to be prioritised over everything after a winter dip!

How to have your best Irish winter swim

Know the signs of hypothermia

Hypothermia creeps up slowly. It occurs when the body’s core temperature drops below 35C, and can first present in swimmers as persistent shivering, feeling cold, and having low energy. It’s a really dangerous condition and the best way to avoid it is to really limit your time in cold water and build up really gradually.

Always get out feeling like you could have stayed in longer.

Myth buster: There is a saying that you can stay in for 1 minute per degree Celsius. It’s rubbish. Please ignore and just listen to your own body on the day of each dip.

Understand that cold hands means no clothes

Once your hands claw up in winter in the water, you can no longer dress yourself, as they won’t thaw when you get out into the freezing air! So keep an eye on them, keep them moving and keep checking in that they are okay.

Pack your clothes in reverse order

And put your changing robe on the top of your clothes, so that when you get out you can throw things on super fast.

Acclimatise slowly to avoid Cold Water Shock

Cold water shock can occur in any body of water in Ireland at any time of year, so whether it’s July or January, it’s always best to get into Irish waters slowly, splashing your arms, face and chest before submerging.

Honestly, this is the best way. See: Cold Water Shock: The Facts.

Check your watch

So you know what time you got in. Better still, set the stopwatch going so you don’t have to remember the time.

Get moving and keep moving

Once you get in, get moving and keep moving – but don’t head away from shore, move parallel to shore, keeping your safe exit point in sight. If you do keep moving, after 1-2 minutes the stingy will ease to a lovely glow, we promise!

Prioritise dressing over everything!

When you get out, prioritise getting dry and dressed over chats, cake, everything. You can do those things in comfort and safety once you are fully dressed and have started the warming up process!

Time for tea and cake!

Once all your layers are on, your head is in a hat, your shoes and socks are applied and your hands are toasty in some gloves, then it’s time to buzz off your swim with your friends over hot drinks and snacks.

Be mindful of afterdrop

Your body continues to cool even after you get out of the water and will take a really long time to return to it’s pre-swim temperature so be mindful of keeping warm for a few hours. It can be handy to change base layers, like vests and socks when you get home. That can really help warm you up!

Okay, the BIG Winter Dipping ‘do nots’

We’ll keep this short and sweet, ’cause we know you already know these things!

  • Never swim alone – always bring someone
  • Never swim during a small craft warning – or any major weather warning
  • Don’t swim too far from shore – stay parallel and preferably where you can stand
  • Don’t ever swim in the dark without proper safety cover from experienced and trained personnel
  • Never break ice to go for a dip unless you are with highly-trained, experienced safety personnel

People do swim in the dark and people do break ice for a dip, but if you are planning to do it for the first time, please only go with certified expert guides who have been highly-trained to understand the risks, the area of the activity, and how to properly care for all people present throughout.

For more Winter Dipping advice:

RNLI | Top Tips for Better Cold Water Dips

Winter Dipping Safety in Ireland | Swim Ireland

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