Swimming is not recommended in cold water survival situation as it increases heat loss. Why is that?

miklcctmiklcct London, United KingdomMem​ber
edited February 2019 in Beginner Questions

I've asked the question in a Q&A site about why isn't swimming recommended in survival situation. The answer is that swimming increases heat loss, which will lead to hypothermia faster.

However, in marathon swimming, swimming FAST actually keeps you from hypothermia. What's the rationale of these two seemingly-contradictory sayings?



  • angel55angel55 Granada (Spain)Member

    In both cases you are loosing heat: if you are swimming hard you lost heat faster because your muscles are spend in heat a 70% of the energy that they produce. This fact make you feel better because your body is generating heat but your are losing your fuel (Carbohydartes or fat). In a "controlled situation" (p.e. a race) you have the possibilty of refuel but in a survival situation you must economize your fuel, so it is better stay calm.

  • bobswimsbobswims Santa Barbara CACharter Member
    edited February 2019

    "Physical exercise such as swimming causes the body to lose heat at a much faster rate than remaining still in the water. Blood is pumped to the extremities and quickly cooled. Few people can swim a mile in fifty degree water. Should you find yourself in cold water and are not able to get out, you will be faced with a critical choice - to adopt a defensive posture in the water to conserve heat and wait for rescue, or attempt to swim to safety.

    Should you find yourself in the water, avoid panic. Air trapped in clothing can provide buoyancy as long as you remain still in the water. Swimming or treading water will greatly increase heat loss and can shorten survival time by more than 50%."


    Although their survival tables seem way off.

    For a great technical discussion of heat loss in cold water immersion:


  • evmoevmo SydneyAdmin

    Thermogenesis from swimming requires swim skill and fitness that the general public lacks - hence the recommendation. A skilled swimmer can sustainably generate heat from controlled exertion; in contrast the average unskilled person will tire quickly and end up worse than if they had just remained still.

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    I'm reminded of a perilous situation a couple of my friends found themselves in. They were in a small boat that sunk in Puget Sound during winter. Up in San Juan Islands. Neither one of them are swimmers, but at least they knew how to swim. (Sort of). The husband of the couple is very well insulated. She is definitely not. I know the area that they sunk and so based on the story he told me, they might have been a quarter to a half mile away from shore.

    They stripped down to underwear and started swimming elementary backstroke towards the closest shore. He told her just to follow along and he would navigate. He kept telling her they were almost there and she just kept paddling until they finally got to shore. They scrambled up a bank, both barely able to move or speak, they were so cold. They broke into a house and called for help.

    I'm pretty convinced they would have died if they didn't go for it. I'm also convinced that she would have died if he didn't keep telling her they were almost there. So while doing the dead man's float out in the middle of nowhere might be a good survival method. Sometimes you just have to go for it and gut it out.

  • BridgetBridget New York StateMember
    edited February 2019

    One old lifeguard skill that might be useful in the sudden immersion curly mentioned is inflating clothes. Some air will be trapped in clothes, and holding the neck close around can let you blow air down into the jacket- not a PFD, but could help in the instance of elementary back- at least for a while. Different textiles will respond differently, so it could be a fun training thing in a non-emergency. ;)

    This is not to in any way second guess the couple who went for it and got to safety- you do what works in the moment.

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