swimmers in a lake

Open Water Swimming Safety: Rules and Gear

There are few things in life as freeing as swimming in open water. Not only is swimming incredibly beneficial for your physical and mental wellbeing, energy levels, and pain management, but gliding through an ocean, lake, or river water can make you feel at one with nature. 

However, open water swimming comes with certain risks. That’s why we’ve put together this list of safety tips and considerations for open water swimmers, including the right equipment and gear to have on hand to increase your safety.

Is it safe to swim in open water? 

Swimming in open water can be safe; however, there are several risk factors and dangers associated with open water swimming that you don’t have to deal with when pool swimming. Adequately preparing yourself and others for your swim and being aware of potential dangers and how to avoid them can increase the safety of swimming in open water. 

What are the dangers of swimming in open water?

Drowning is the primary danger associated with open water swimming. In fact, 79% of all drownings occur in open water. Swimmers in open water risk becoming fatigued, experiencing a cramp, getting swept away by a current or riptide, and much more, which can result in drowning. Lifeguards are not typically present at open bodies of water, so professional assistance is not immediately available in a time of need.

Swimmers also risk injury while swimming in open water from floating objects or debris, other swimmers, marine animals, or watercraft like boats or kayaks. Water temperature and depth are also much different from a swimming pool. Open water is colder, which can cause hypothermia, cold water shock, or afterdrop if swimmers are not careful or wearing a wetsuit.

Many open bodies of water also pose a risk of infection. Open water is full of bacteria, so understanding when the best time to go to avoid infection and stay safe is critical. 

Open water swimming safety tips

1. Be aware of the water quality 

Checking the quality of the water you plan to swim in will help you avoid things like swimmer’s itch, infections, parasites, bacteria, and more. Municipalities or beach owner-operators regularly test many bodies of water and post results on designated local websites.

pristine versus murky water

If you’re swimming in water that doesn’t have the highest quality, consider using earplugs, nose plugs, goggles, and more to protect yourself from harm. Always avoid swallowing water, swimming with open cuts, swimming if you’re experiencing digestive issues, or jumping in the water 48 hours after significant rainfall. Shower directly after your swim and wash your hands before handling food.

2. Leave a trip plan 

If you plan to swim without a swim buddy, let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Send them a message before you get into the water, then another one after you get out to let them know you’re safe.

3. Be prepared in case of emergency 

Emergencies are unexpected events (like fatigue, cramps, heat exhaustion, cardiac incidents, etc.) that require immediate action. These can all be life-threatening in open water. 

swim buoy for water safety

It’s difficult to foresee an emergency, but being prepared for one takes minimal effort and could save lives! Investing in swim gear such as a whistle and an emergency flotation device is a wise decision. In an emergency, above all else, try to stay calm while assessing your next move.

4. Make yourself visible

Swimmers can easily go unnoticed in open water. Boaters, paddlers, and other swimmers may not be able to see someone swimming from their point of view. 

Make yourself visible by wearing a bright swim cap and swimming with a buoy to stay safe against others on and in the water. Stop to look around every once in a while for boat traffic if you’re swimming in an area with watercraft.

Pro tip: look for buoys with a waterproof slot to carry your phone and keys, so you don’t have to leave them on land or in your car.

5. Consider hazards & marine life

Remember: you’re swimming in the wild when you’re in open water! These natural bodies of water aren’t controlled like your local pool. There are hazard risks that come with the territory, including logs, seaweed, debris, and even sharks, depending on your location. 

Always keep an eye out for these hazards. Take breaks to scan your surroundings and ensure the coast is clear. Most beaches will close temporarily after a shark sighting, so look for signs or check local websites for updates when approaching the beach.

6. Understand the dangers of rip currents and riptides

Rip currents and rip tides are significant threats to open water swimmers. It’s crucial to understand currents and what to do if you’re caught in one to escape and stay safe.

diagram of a rip current

Rip currents are narrow currents of water flowing away from shore. They’re usually between 10 and 20 feet in width and occur primarily in surf zones. 

Riptides are powerful currents that result from the tide pulling water out from an inlet. When the tide goes out and mixes with the ocean waves, it makes for a small area of hazardous, choppy water. 

To avoid rip currents and riptides, look for them before jumping in and swim close to the shoreline. If you get caught in either a riptide or a rip current, you can escape by swimming perpendicular to the direction of the tide/current. Just remember to remain calm, don’t panic, indicate to a lifeguard if you’re in trouble, and swim parallel to the shore. Knowing how to breathe in choppy open water can help swimmers when they’re swimming out of a riptide. 

7. Know how far you’ve swam 

It can be easy to underestimate the distance you wish to swim in open water. Setting a goal of swimming to a specific landmark (for example, an island or a log) may seem within reach. Still, once you start swimming, the estimated distance may be much further than you initially anticipated. You may also get lost in the flow of swimming and not realize you’ve gone much further than planned. If you don’t have enough energy to get back safely, this puts you at risk for a safe return to shore. 

swim with FORM to know your time and distance

Consider investing in a waterproof watch or a pair of open water swimming goggles that display your distance swam on the lenses to solve this problem. That way, you can closely monitor your progress and ensure you don’t go farther than you feel comfortable.

8. Always have an exit point

know where you're starting and ending your swim

This tip applies to lake and river swimming. It’s easy to jump into the water for a swim, but muddy banks or sides can make it difficult to get out. Always make sure there’s a safe and accessible exit point for you to get out of the water.

9. Never swim at night or while intoxicated

This safety tip should go without saying, but nighttime swimming and swimming while intoxicated are extremely dangerous! At night, visibility is limited, if not completely lost. This minimizes your ability to see hazards and threats around you. As for drinking and swimming, 31% of drownings are directly related to alcohol each year. The best solution is to swim sober during the day and save your cocktails for the evening!