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Wild swimming

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Wild swimming: top tips for a natural dip

Laura Sevier and Kate Rew

17th August, 2010

Forget the chemical depths of your local swimming pool: wild swimming is the more refreshing, natural way to cool off this summer

The mercury is soaring, you're desperate for a dip to cool off, but 20 lengths in a tepid, indoor chlorinated pool just isn't going to hit the spot.

At this time of year, outdoor wild swimming has an enticing appeal. While you may have to travel further to get to a suitable river, lake or cove - and, of course, there are things to be wary of, such as strong currents, getting too cold and so on - nothing beats a cool dip in natural water surrounded by beach or grassy banks and wildlife.

Before you wade in, Kate Rew, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society and author of Wild Swim (£12.99, Guardian Books) has these 10 tips:

1. Find somewhere local. Use the map on the Outdoor Swimming Society website - people recommend spots and add them to the site - or buy Wild Swim. Local advice is really important, so the best thing is to ask around locally.

2. Go with other people. When you swim you're alone, but companionship makes it so much more enjoyable. That way you're sharing the adventure and you have more security than if you were alone, so you're more free to enjoy it. If you don't have friends or family in the area, look up our Facebook group. People get together and publicise outdoor social swim events around the UK.

4. There are many types of swim. Whether it's long lakes, downstream rivers, waterfalls or the sea, there are lots of different ways to do it. Lakes are a good place to start. They are nature's swimming pools and there are no currents. You can usually stay within your depth and not swim far from the shore, so it's safer.

5. To begin with, build up the time you spend in the water gradually. People can get into trouble when they try to cross a lake without realising how far across it is, then find after 30 minutes in the water that they're getting cold. It's common sense really. Slowly get used to what your body can handle.

6. Swim differently. Outside has much more to offer than an indoor pool. Get in and take a moment to register that you're floating. Look around. Don't chat. It's not about doing front crawl for 30 lengths. Breaststroke with your head up is the best - that way you can see where you're going and listen to the birds.

7. Wear a brightly coloured swimming cap. You'd be amazed at how little people can see you in the water - if it's choppy or wavy it's easy to lose track. This way boats can see you, too.

8. Don't swim when drunk!

9. If you're river-swimming do your own risk assessment, even if someone has recommended it to you. The conditions might have changed - the water may be deeper after lots of rainfall, for example. Make your own call and don't let anyone else tell you. Look for tranquil water and avoid hazards such as weirs.

10. In fresh water, cover open cuts to avoid the risk of infection or Weil's disease [bacterial infections mainly caught when open wounds come into contact with animal urine]. No one ever seems to get it, but people worry about it. You could go to the Environment Agency website section that rates UK river quality. Obviously avoid it if it looks filthy.

Lastly... have fun! Wild swimming is a chance to step away from normal life. Appreciate being in the present moment.

For more tips on outdoor swimming tips click here.

Other useful sites:

Wild Swimming - contains lots of information and an interactive map of good spots.
River and Lake Swimming Association
Environment Agency: Inland Water Quality
Environment Agency: Coastal Water Quality
• To find out more about campaigning for healthy rivers, visit the WWF site here. For more background information see Blueprint for Water coalition and the Association of River Trusts.
• To join the campaign for pollution-free seas visit Surfers Against Sewage.

The next best thing... (if wild swimming isn't an option)

Eye-stinging, skin-drying and strong-smelling it may be, but chlorine is put in swimming pools for a good reason: to kill bacteria and viruses, and to prevent the water from going green with algae.

The problem with chlorine in pools is that it mixes with a range of other human pollutants - cosmetics, urine, sweat, sun tan lotion - creating potentially hazardous byproducts that end up in the water and air. For instance, trichloramine is a gas formed when chlorine and nitrogenous wastes (such as urine) react, which then accumulates in the air directly above the water. There has been a lot of research into the adverse health effects of these byproducts, particularly in relation to asthma. Recent research from a university in Brussels links breathing trichloramine to childhood asthma. Chlorine pools may also aggravate eczema.

Over the years there have been some serious chlorine chemical incidents in swimming pools around the UK, both private and public. Chlorine is a strong alkali, so you need to add acid in order to lower the pH enough to make it bearable for human skin. It can be hazardous if the two are accidentally mixed outside the pool. Recent incidents occurred in Edinburgh, Birmingham, Staffordshire and Macclesfield to name but a few.

Another issue with chlorine is the way it is made. Some chemical plants still use mercury in its manufacture. Oceana, the Ocean Conservation Group, considers chlorine plants 'major, overlooked source of mercury pollution'.

Although chlorine is used as a disinfectant in most swimming pools, viable alternatives do exist.

Natural pools

A cross between a swimming pool and a garden pond, 'natural swimming pools' use micro-organisms and aquatic plants to filter the water. Picturesque, low-maintenance and low-energy, they are popular in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France and Italy, where thousands have been built (both private and public). Thanks to the filter system and pump, the water is clear, clean and algae-free to swim in without the use of chlorine or chemicals. In the UK, natural pools are still pretty rare but various companies offer to build them, including Woodhouse Natural Pools and Aqua Landscape Design Ltd.

The experience
All the joys of outdoor swimming in a pond-like setting but without the green slime.

The downside
Unless you build a natural pool yourself, know a friend who has one or are travelling in Europe, you'll be pushed to find one.

A chlorine-free pool?

You may have heard of or swum in pools that use Ozone or ultraviolent (UV) disinfection systems. Ozone is made from ordinary oxygen molecules (O2) that are converted either through electricity or ultraviolet irradiation (UV) to ozone (O3). Although these systems do use some chlorine, the doses are lower than in traditional pools, so these pools are a better option for swimming - if you can find one near you.

An entirely chlorine-free but rarely used system does exist in the form of Pool San. Based on the ionisation of various metals (copper, zinc, gold, aluminium and silver), which are then kept in liquid form to dose the pool with, the system was devised 15 years ago in South Africa and, after several years of testing in the UK, is now being used in approximately 20 pools in London and the South East.

The experience
It's like swimming in mineral water: there's no smell, no taste and the water feels silky soft. The surrounding air is odourless too. Good news for asthma and eczema sufferers, and anyone bothered by red eyes, dry skin and bleached swimsuits.

The downside
The cost of adapting the pool (chlorine is very cheap). Pool staff need to be specially trained to dose at the right levels. However, unlike chlorine, overdosing is not dangerous and will only cause a temporary blue tinge.

Laura Sevier is a freelance journalist

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