I went wild swimming for the first time in my 40s and now I'm hooked - here's how to get started

Charlie Hooson-Sykes reveals how she started wild swimming, plus everything you need to get going

Illustration of a woman lying on her back wild swimming in the water with mountains and green trees above
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Before I started wild swimming, I went on a bit of a journey with fitness. Distance running, lifting, yoga. All very sensible things, but since 45 is getting closer in the mirror, I’ve begun branching out a bit and doing the stuff I never thought I would. Indoor climbing - not so bad, but not for me. Canyoning – I loved the swimming and abseiling bit, not so much the jumping off cliffs into the water. 

Open-water swimming is my latest adventure and I don’t mind admitting, I’m a bit hooked. Open sky, cool water, and in my case, surrounded by green and birdsong. It didn’t matter that it was late autumn and cool and there were clouds overhead when I first started, it was soft and soothing. 

And I’m not alone in finding it addictive. Studies in association with the University of Portsmouth are showing that it improves mental health (as well as physical), can ease feelings of anxiety, and PTSD and even the breath work required can help with mindfulness. Very recent research suggests that green light can even ease physical pain. Of course, all that is ignoring the social side of things. There’s a great open-water swimming community just waiting for you. 

So if you’ve ever fancied having a go and just don’t know where to start, let me guide you through all the things that I’ve learned along the way - and maybe you can join the thousands of us who’ve discovered the benefits of wild swimming and a love for all things open water.

Do I have to be a good swimmer to try wild swimming?

It helps, obviously, but I would be the first to confess to not being the most confident in the water. It’s probably why I put off going for so long. I was worried about not being good at it and finding it too difficult, so I took my time. Initially, I stayed close to shore and to the shallow spots, so that I could still touch my feet to the floor if I felt uncomfortable. 

Since my first swim, I’ve spent time strengthening my technique and have only gotten better, stronger, and more confident. If you’re unsure, build your competency in the pool first or you can learn how to swim as an adult by taking lessons.

Charlie Hooson Sykes wild swimming

(Image credit: Charlie Hooson-Sykes)

How to get started with wild swimming

1. Pick a spot

There are plenty of choices. For beginners, and especially if you’re unsure or are worried about not being a great swimmer, I’d recommend one of the many centers or groups across the country that offer tutorial sessions. My local water park offers a beginner's session with their experienced tutors, as well as more casual sessions for just a few pounds if you’re a bit more confident in your swimming ability. You can also head to one of the many stretches of water across the country that are accessible to open-water swimmers. 

As you can imagine, this is one hobby that you really need to do in a group for safety. I began my journey in a reservoir in Yorkshire with a fantastic group of women who go twice a week, but you can find groups of swimmers on social media, as well as searching on Google for a specialist center near you.

2. Decide how you feel about very cold water

Different times of year offer a different experience. You can swim any time of year, with the right kit and the right weather (for example, thunderstorms are not recommended as the water is super conductible, and you might want to avoid snowy and icy conditions), but if you're giving it a go for the first time, you might want to wait for warmer weather. 

Typically, the ‘season’ lasts from March til October, although plenty of people swim outside these months if they have the equipment to do so. 

3. Suit up

In the summer and early autumn months, the weather is perfect in most parts of the UK for you to just throw on a swimsuit. Outside of this time, as you can imagine, things get a little bit cool for that alone. If you get the bug for wild swimming, I can absolutely recommend investing in a wetsuit.  I picked up my own shortie (a short-sleeved and short-legged wetsuit) for under £50, but you can find full suits for around £70 if you want something a little cozier. And if become really invested, you can spend even more. But that's one of the many benefits of swimming, it doesn't have to cost a fortune.

But a suit isn’t everything you’ll need. You also definitely want a pair of aqua shoes as rivers, ponds, and reservoirs can be rough, rocky, or even muddy. Save yourself the discomfort of stepping on something in bare feet that you shouldn’t and pick up a pair.

4. Invest in the right kit

I can also recommend a tow float. In fact, for many open swim centers, these are essential items. The tow float is not only there for you to hold on it if you get tired, but most also offer waterproof storage inside, so you don’t have to leave your phone or keys on the shore. They’re also bright enough to catch attention if you do get into trouble.

And then there are the accessories. I have brightly colored hair so a swim cap is a must for me to keep my bleached locks protected, and my short-sightedness means goggles are too. The same as I’d use in any swimming setting. I know some in the winter who prefer a woolly hat to keep their head toasty and neoprene gloves to keep their hands warm too. Oh, and some take a waterproof phone case so they can use their phone even while in the water.

5. Be prepared for when you get out of the water

While you might pop your swimming costume on under your clothes on the way out to the water, you definitely don’t want to on the way back. Nobody wants a soggy bottom, after all. That’s why most swimmers opt for a dry robe. Big branded versions are available for £100+, or you can get yourself more basic options for around £30. 

I have one of the cheaper versions, and though in colder months I might have to be a bit quicker getting changed, it does the job with minimal flashing. 

Have I tempted you to give wild swimming a go? I really hope so. As for me, I might not be entering any races, but you’ll find me splashing around whenever I get the opportunity. 

Charlie Hooson-Sykes

Charlie Hooson-Sykes is a blogger and writer from Manchester who has spent the last ten years (or so) talking and writing about anything and everything. A firm believer in movement being good for both mind and body, she balances out her lifting and cardio with cooking and writing about food and drink.