When most of us go outside in the winter, they bundle up in a big coat, cover their hands with gloves and drape a scarf around their necks. The ultimate goal is to stay warm in the frigid temperatures. However, some people who are looking for a bit of adventure strip down to their swimsuits and jump into the ocean. For many folks, it’s almost time for their yearly polar bear swim.

Of course, we’re talking about the popular polar bear swim events, often called “plunges,” that happen annually throughout the world. Let’s take a closer look at this tradition, as well as the risks involved. Naturally, we’ll also learn about how participants can stay safe and enjoy themselves!

Polar Bear Swim: A Yearly Tradition

In the Netherlands, they call it Nieuwjaarsduik; in Korea, thousands participate in the Haeundae Polar Bear Festival. Here in the United States, the earliest polar bear swim on record was in 1904 in Boston. So these events have been going on for quite some time! They continue to take place in icy weather throughout the country every year, typically on or around New Year’s Day.

Cold Water Shock: Know the Risk

Plunging into the freezing waters of the sea can be quite a shock to your system. This can be exhilarating for those thrill-seekers out there – what an adrenaline rush!  However, it is very important that you understand what will happen to your body when it is submerged into the icy waters.

We’ve discussed cold water shock in the past.  Basically, when you jump into the cold water, your body goes into shock, which can cause you to hyperventilate.  This will make your heart rate rise, and your blood pressure increase drastically.

You see, this cold water shock will make you gasp.  If you’re underwater, this will cause you to swallow a lot of water, which can put a strain on the heart.  After all, your body will be working overtime to retain heat.

Take These Safety Measures

The realities of cold water shock can sound pretty scary. However, in measured environments a polar bear swim can also be a lot of fun. Take note of these precautions you can take to stay safe:

  • First, make sure to get the okay from your doctor. If you have a family history of high blood pressure or heart attacks, or if you get panic attacks, you may want to sit this one out.
  • Don’t organize one of these events on your own. Instead, be sure to participate in a controlled, sanctioned event where lifeguards are on duty. The presence of a lifeguard can literally mean the difference between life and death. After all, it is their job to spring into action and assist anyone in need.
  • As with any time you go swimming, it’s a great idea to use the buddy system. As long as someone knows that you are planning to take the big plunge, you will always be accounted for.
  • Have a towel and dry clothes on hand as soon as you come out of the water. Make sure you know where they are located so you can quickly warm up once you’re out of the water.
  • Speaking of warming up after the swim, you should warm your body up from the inside by sipping on some hot soup or tea.

Swimming For a Good Cause

The adrenaline rush isn’t the only reason these swimmers subject themselves to such frosty temperatures. Many of these events are all in the name of a good cause. That’s right, most organized polar bear swims are intended to raise money for charity!  For instance, Plungapalooza, the country’s biggest polar bear plunge event, raises funds for the Special Olympics. That’s a great way to have fun and give back – just make sure to do so in a smart and safe way!