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How To: Open Water Swimming Tips

Nothing typifies relief from the dog days of summer more than splashing into a fresh-water lake, stream, or river. Conveniently, most of these natural backcountry-swimming holes are at their warmest come August, which makes it ideal for the rope swing, the air mattress, and the inner-tubes. But don’t forget that swimming in a natural body of water is different than in a pool. Uneven water temperature, currents, and rapids require more skills and energy than in a pool environment. Plus, quickly-moving weather can change conditions in seconds. Familiarize yourself with these tips before diving in.

Think Ahead
Most communities have inexpensive learn-to-swim classes based on age and ability. Learning to swim takes time. Don’t expect to learn to swim in one set of lessons or even one season — look at it as a lifetime sport with skills that you can hone from season to season.

Start in a Controlled Environment
If you are unaccustomed to swimming in natural bodies of water, start with an area that’s protected by a lifeguard. Most lakeside hotels and resorts and some state parks have swimming areas marked by buoys and ropes, with lifeguards who patrol the shoreline.

Don’t Get In Over Your Head
Know the swimming abilities and supervision requirements of everybody in your party. If anyone in your party is not a strong swimmer, use a U.S. Coast Guard-approved lifejacket. Avoid water wings, inflatable flotation toys, and air-filled swimsuits (for kids). They provide a false sense of security, and can deflate accidentally.

Look Before You Leap
Cliff jumping and rope swings are a blast, but always check the area for underwater hazards. Boulders, logs, and man-made objects move and shift with currents; what was clear the last time you visited may now have a tangled deadfall waiting just underneath the surface. Always scout areas for depth and underwater hazards (like beaver dams or a log jam) before you jump. Never go into the water head first unless you absolutely know that the water is deep and there are no objects you could hit.

Watch the Weather
Keep an eye out for severe weather, and get out of the water if there are signs of thunderstorms (or lightning). If there is lightning, stay in an enclosed area for 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder (if you are stuck outside, stay out in the open, away from trees, metal, or caves).

Be Aware of Water Conditions
In rivers, look for sudden drop offs and study the terrain before you arrive (through tools like Google Maps and rafting and swimming hole resources) so that you’re familiar with, say, a water fall that awaits just around the bend. And don’t forget that waves, currents, in or outgoing tides, and fast-moving water can make for unstable conditions — even in shallow water.

Never Swim Alone
If you’re in a group, designate swimming buddies — two or three people whose job it is to keep an eye on each other.


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