I am pretty much a newbie when it comes to wild swimming, or swimming in rivers and lakes having only went once or twice. However, I'm an avid swimmer and have participated in several swimming contests. I was wondering if that would be enough to swim in the wild and if there is any advice about the activity.

I'm currently living in Ontario, Canada and it'd be great if anyone had any locations they use for safely practicing wild swimming because a simple google search brings up nothing.

2 Answers 2


I did a lot of swimming in NW Ontario when I was a kid, and I've spent more time swimming in lakes and rivers than I have in swimming pools. I find the phrasing of this question curious, because I've never heard any one use the words "wild swimming" nor have I ever considered swimming in a mountain lake or a river "wild".

None the less, there are some serious considerations when it comes to swimming outside when not swimming at a public beach with a lifeguard:


Factors to consider when swimming in lakes:

  • Size & Depth
  • Temperature
  • Remoteness
  • Debris

Size and Depth

Small lakes with beaches are the best to play in, they're calm, warm, and very tame. You can pretty much treat such lakes as swimming pools.

Larger lakes are where you need to be careful. Bigger lakes are deeper, have bigger wave potential, and can experience more severe weather. When swimming in a big lake, you can stay close to the shore, or choose to wander out into the middle/try to cross the lake. The difference is you can't just get out of the pool if you get tired, get a cramp, or inhale a mouthful of water. If you're out in the middle of a lake, no one is going to come to your rescue, so it would be good for you to learn how do preform a survival float, or drown proofing.


Hypothermia is a real danger when swimming outdoors. Lots of lake swimmers such as triathletes swim in special wetsuits that have great mobility for swimming. Depending on where you are you can find lots of lakes that are warm enough to swim in for long periods of time without getting too cold, and what the temperature is outside with the sun will have an effect on the water as well, but being in the water long enough, especially while moving through the water will slowly cool your core. If you start to get hypothermia in a large open lake, then you're in trouble if you can't get back to shore quick.

There is also cold shock, if you've never experienced swimming in icy waters, cold shock can be a killer, I've seen lots of kids dive into cold water for the first time where I'm from and come up choked for air, frantically flailing their arms, and stumbling to get back out of the water. If you're not prepared for it, and don't have experience with it, cold shock can shut your respiratory system down and really make you panic.


How remote a lake is obviously affects how quickly you can get help if something goes wrong, but less remote lakes have their own hazards. Unless you're at a public beach that's roped off and has a lifeguard, then your number one concern is often other people, particularly yahoos in speedboats blasting their music, drinking their beers and all looking out the back of the boat at their buddies riding their wakeboards, not paying attention to whomever might be swimming in the water in front of them. Be cautious on lakes where motorboats are present.


Heard of drift wood? Well it comes from somewhere, and floating wood in still water is trouble depending on how big it is. Dead heads are trees that have mostly saturated with water and float vertically just below the waters surface. Aside from devestating the hulls and motors of small boats, they can also give you a wicked bonk on the head if you're moving along through the water and make cranial contact with one, so keep your eyes out for what's in front of you, don't just get into your stride and watch the bottom, I have video of swimmers not watching where they're going and head-butting the side of my canoe. You can't even shout at them to warn them of obstacles, because they can't hear you under water. Be alert and aware of your surroundings when you're in the water.


Rivers are far more dangerous to swim in than lakes for obvious reasons. Depending on the size and speed of the water, rivers can generate very powerful currents that can sweep you away, suck you under, bash you against rocks, pin you into a log jam, or throw you off a waterfall. It's important to know what hazards are present in a river before diving in and going for a swim. You also need to learn how to swim in a current. Getting back to shore isn't as simple as aiming for shore and paddling, because you are going to be moving with the current. You have to aim for a location downstream then swim perpendicular to the water's flow in order to reach the side, and try to time yourself so you reach the shore the sametime you're flowing past the point you're aiming for. If you miss your mark, don't try to swim back upstream to get to it, keep swimming perpendicular to the current until you can touch bottom. Swimming against the current is pointless and wears you out fast.

Large slow rivers also often have commercial and recreational traffic on them, so once again you need to watch out for boats, as well as weirs (drowning machines) dams, and flood gates.

. . . . .

I often go out with "accomplished swimmers" into lakes and rivers, and they scoff at me when I hand them a lifejacket for a float downstream or playing on windsurfers. It's easy to change their mind about wearing a lifejacket simply by asking them, "How well do you swim while unconscious?" In rapid rivers especially, it's sometimes wise to wear a life jacket for the off chance you take a hit to the head by log floating by, or you roll over a rock and get slammed to the bottom. Or an overhanging log clips you in the head while you float by. They also provide extra warmth, padding (for bouncing off rocks when going for a swim in an extra "wild" river) and they can help you if you get a cramp while out over deep water. I know it's a pride thing for swimmers, but this is "wild water" so maybe consider it for your first couple times out if you're swimming out somewhere exposed or remote.

  • To add to this answer, I am a good swimmer and have always been wary of river swimming in all but the most calm and clear rivers. Read a book on outdoor survival which explained that most deaths in fast rivers happen when your arms or legs get pinned by a rock or log, with the current then leveraging you under. He said this made being tied to a rope or lifejacket much less effective than expected in say a rescue context. And, IIRC, advised to keep your legs and arms as close to your body as possible, if you were to fall in such a river. Commented Dec 27, 2019 at 17:49
  • The book is about outdoor survival in BC, Canada and he pretty much reserved his sternest warnings, not about bears, avalanches, cougars, lightning etc... but about ill-equipped watersports activities on cold water lakes, telling you that you are putting yourself in significant danger of death. Nothing else in the book gets anything like that level of warning. Commented Dec 27, 2019 at 17:53

The way to get started is to swim in areas that are marked as generally safe. These will typically be a sandy beach on the shores of a small lake. Provincial Parks generally have one of these with float lines marking the "safe" areas. As you can see, you're free to swim outside the lines if you want to.

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From http://www.ontarioparks.com/park/mikisew

There may not be a lifeguard in these areas, but there are no sudden drop-offs, dangerous currents, or similar known hazards. It may be a little crowded, depending on the park you choose, but you can get used to things that make swimming in a lake different from swimming in a pool - waves, walking on a bottom that may be sandy, muddy, or stony until you get to deep water, and vegetation brushing your foot and scaring you a little. You don't need to worry about sharks, jellyfish, sea urchins, or coral scrapes in Ontario water, only drowning.

If you don't have a provincial park near you, investigate conservation areas - some are completely undeveloped, some have a beach and some amenities. Don't Google for "wild swimming" - that's not a common Canadian phrase. Google for "beach" or "swimming park" for better results. (Not that a swimming park is a thing, just that pages containing both words are likely to be about swimming in some kind of park.) We have some amazing beaches in Ontario but since it's bigger than many countries, you can't really ask for a list.

Once you're used to lake swimming you can evaluate whether it's safe to swim in a particular lake, such as in the backcountry of Algonquin where there are no lines of floats to tell you where it is safe. Don't swim in rivers with a noticeable current until you have a lot of lake experience, and never do so alone unless you are wearing a PFD.

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