Open-water safety tips for swimmers

June 9, 2015

By Guila Muir

Photo at right: A swimmer practices safe swimming techniques in Langlois Lake in King County, Washington.


The sun is shining and from shore, you watch kayakers and other boaters having a blast. Your nearby lake beckons and you want in! Not so fast.

Although open-water swimming ranks as one of the most refreshing of sports, it is inherently dangerous. To stay safe, take precautions against its biggest challenges: water temperature and lack of visibility to watercraft.

Although it looks tempting, cold water can kill. It robs the body of heat 32 times faster than cold air. Follow these three swim-smart steps for your open-water plunges.

1. Acclimate

Be patient. Immerse yourself for a maximum of three minutes your first time in the water. Next time extend that to five minutes, then 10. Never jump or dive into any body of water early in the season. What looks “shiny and friendly” may turn into an avoidable emergency.

2. Wear appropriate gear

A swimmer’s wetsuit (not one for scuba, surf, or other water sports), allows easy shoulder movement. Typically made of 3–5mm thick neoprene it provides warmth but very limited buoyancy. Keep in mind a wetsuit is not a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)—it will not keep you afloat. Triathlon stores offer professional wetsuit fittings.

Neoprene cap, booties and gloves. available at dive and surf shops, also help protect you from cold. Tip: Pull a bright latex or silicone cap over the neoprene cap so boaters can see you better.

Although silicon earplugs can mute important sounds (like boat motors), they help to protect your main “computer”—your brain. If your brain starts to feel sluggish, get out of the water immediately. Your computer is going down, and if it does…you do, too.

Use a Swimmer Safety Device. Often, swimmers can see boaters, but boaters cannot often see swimmers. Buckling around your waist and trailing behind you, a swimmer safety device is a bright orange inflatable bag that will help make you more visible in the water. Like wetsuits, they are also not meant to be used as PFDs.

3. Swim with experienced paddlers

It’s best to swim with a group, but even better to swim with a trained kayaker following in their boat. Your kayaker must carry an extra PFD, should know CPR and carry a mobile phone in case of emergency.


United States Search and Rescue Task Force, “Cold Water Survival:”
Swim Safe Code, Open Water Swimming Club:
Safe Swimmer:

Guila Muir is the Swim Excursion Leader for Say Yes! To Life Swims LLC, a non-competitive, small-group swim excursion business.