How to Choose Safe Open Water Swimming Locations (2024)

Choosing an open water swimming location

Whether you’re training for a triathlon (especially longer triathlon distances) or just looking for a new way to stay fit, open-water swimming can be a great way to change up your routine. However, choosing the right open-water swimming locations for your training is incredibly important.

There are additional dangers you should be aware of in your open water swimming locations. Let’s discuss some of these things athletes should consider when swimming outdoors.

Water Quality

Open Water Swimming Locations - beware of polluted sea water

The first thing to consider when choosing an open-water swim location is the quality of the water. You want to swim in water that is free from pollutants and safe for swimming.

You will ingest some water naturally during your breathing and enough polluted water will make you sick. Getting sick from a swim is never a good thing.

So how do you know if the water quality is safe?

Research Online

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has water quality tests available online for many US bodies of water.

Start by gathering information about the lake from local environmental agencies, government bodies, or research organizations. They may have conducted studies or regularly monitor the water quality of lakes in your area. Look for reports, data, or any available information about the lake’s water quality.

Google “Lake Name water quality“. See if anything or anyone has questioned the water quality previously.

Google “Lake Name depth“. Shallow lakes (5 feet deep or less) are not great swimming locations. The silt and bacteria resting on the bottom of the lake are easily stirred up and can make you sick when swimming near them.

Physical Observations

open water swimming locations - avoid polluted areas

Look for signs of pollution such as excessive algae growth, floating debris, oil slicks, or foul odors. Do you see any dead fish floating or onshore? These indicators may suggest poor water quality.

Test Kits

If you really want to be sure about the water quality, consider using water testing kits specifically designed for this purpose. These kits can measure parameters like pH levels, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, and the presence of common contaminants such as nitrates, phosphates, and bacteria. Test kits are available for purchase at many hardware stores or online.

Ask Around

See if anyone else has swum in the location and if they would recommend it.

Do your research before heading out to a new location. Check with local authorities to make sure the water is safe to swim in.

Water Temperature

female swimmer in a wetsuit

If the water is too cold or too warm, it can be dangerous for you to swim in. Cold water especially should be approached carefully. You will probably need a wetsuit or other gear to help regulate your body temperature. Even with one of the best wetsuits, it can take a minute or two to get your breathing under control. You should mentally prepare to avoid shallow breathing.

Also, did you know that cold water can impact the equilibrium in the inner ear? I have felt this many times when I try to exit a lake after a cold swim. I’m literally unable to stand up without falling over. I have to sit down for about five minutes and wait for my balance to recover.

I found a solution and mention it in this open water swimming gear article.

Water Clarity

open water swimming locations - clear lake

This one is easy. From safety and navigation to enhancing enjoyment and providing a closer connection to nature, clear water plays a pivotal role in ensuring a memorable and satisfying swim. As open-water swimmers, we should strive to explore locations with good water clarity, prioritize safety, and cherish the privilege of swimming in nature’s pristine waters.

Visibility and Safety

Clear water allows swimmers to see and navigate their surroundings effectively, reducing the risk of collisions with submerged objects, rocks, or other swimmers. Good visibility enhances situational awareness, helping swimmers avoid potential hazards and ensuring a safer swimming experience.

Orientation and Course Navigation

In open water races or long-distance swims, maintaining the correct course is crucial. Clear swimming water not only facilitates proper navigation but also prevents swimmers from veering off course, which can lead to longer distances and increased fatigue.

Personally, I find it difficult to gauge speed or forward progress when my eyes can’t see it go past in the water. Ironman Arizona has notoriously bad visibility in its swim location. I found it difficult to enjoy the swim as your mind starts to wander when it doesn’t have anything to stare at for so long!

NOTE – Some of the best smart swim goggles can help aid in navigation.

Confidence and Mental Comfort

When a swimmer can see beneath the water’s surface, they feel more at ease and can concentrate on their stroke technique and rhythm. I feel that clear water enhances the overall experience, making swimmers feel more connected to their environment and providing a sense of freedom and serenity.

Wildlife and Marine Life Observation

Who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of the underwater ecosystem such as fish, plants, and other aquatic creatures? Plus if you’re in a saltwater environment you definitely want to see that shark coming, right?

Water Depth

deep water

This is not always easy to find out, but if you Google “Lake Name depth”, you may get lucky.

Shallow Open Water Swimming Locations

As mentioned previously, shallow lakes may get easily stirred up which will ruin visibility. Shallow lakes have a higher probability that any harmful bacteria is closer to the lake surface as well.

If you’re swimming in shallow water that has poor visibility, you might come across a rusty fishing hook or underwater obstruction.

Deep Open Water Swimming Locations

However, extremely deep lakes or oceans kind of freak me out too. I don’t want to swim in 300 feet of dark water. I mean, what’s down there? Deep water typically means larger marine life.

Whatever you choose, just make sure you’re comfortable with the size and depth of the water.

Water Currents & Waves

Did you know that rip currents are responsible for 80% of beach rescues? And what’s more, many ocean swimmers are unaware when they get caught in one. They are a very real danger and you should try to avoid an open water swimming location with bad rip currents.

Choosing an open water location - rip currents

When you’re swimming in large lakes, waves stirred up by the wind can also pose a challenge. Waves make breathing challenging at times since they crash into your face routinely. Be aware of this challenge, especially if you don’t breathe on both sides of your body.

Also, waves make sighting buoys and landmarks more difficult, especially if they’re far away. When you’re in the trough of a wave, you’ll be lower than the water surface.

A quick tip would be to try swimming parallel to the shore and picking tall, easily visible landmarks as reference points. It’s an easy fix if you find yourself in this situation.

Dangerous Wildlife

open water swimming locations - hippo in water

Depending on where you want to swim, there may be wildlife in the water. This can range from harmless fish to more dangerous animals like jellyfish or sharks. Take the time to research the local wildlife and make sure you’re prepared to handle any encounters.

Lakes often contain turtles and snakes as well as fish. Make sure you understand where they typically make their homes in order not to disturb them.

Oceans have many animals with teeth. They’re fun to look at, but try not to annoy them.

Open Water Swimming Locations Summary

Open water swimming can be a great way to challenge yourself and stay in shape, but it’s important to choose the right location. Keep in mind factors like water quality, temperature, wildlife, accessibility, and distance when selecting a location. With a little research and preparation, you can find a safe and enjoyable place to swim. Good luck and happy swimming!

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