Staying safe on Scotland's waters
From beautiful lochs to rugged coves, racing rivers and sandy beaches, Scotland has some of the most incredible waters in the world. But open water carries risks too. No matter what activity you enjoy, or your experience, make sure you know what you’re doing before dipping your toe in. If you go in the water, it’s essential that you are fully prepared.
General safety in and around water
Whenever you go in or on open water, you are responsible for your own safety. For any activity based in open water, make sure to follow our top tips for staying safe:
Plan ahead: Check the weather forecast and local notices. Wind can make a big difference on open water, turning calm water to choppy in moments. Use our website to check where you plan to visit for any notices that could affect your plans.
Contact: Make sure to tell someone on land where you’re going, and when you’ll be back. And make sure to let them know you’ve returned safely. Have a way of raising an alarm if you need help, like carrying a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch.
Stimulants: Alcohol and drugs can impair your judgement and abilities. No matter your activity, don’t drink or take drugs before venturing into or onto the water.
Temperature: Open water in Scotland is very cold, even in summer. If you plan on being in the water for more than a few minutes, consider wearing a wetsuit. When entering the water, do so slowly and let your body adjust to the cold.
Surroundings: Open bodies of water can have variable depths. Even close to the shore, the depth can plummet. Be careful when swimming, and don’t jump in from a height in case the water is shallower than expected. Check for warnings signs in the area. Be careful on rocks, grass and mud around water as they can be slippery and unstable. Make a note of where you can get in and out of the water safely and easily.
Algae blooms: Dangerous algae, bacteria and viruses can be present in open water, especially in summer. If the water looks or smells bad, don’t enter. Look for signs around the water before entering, and check online to see if there are any notices at your location. Algae can be dangerous to humans and fatal for animals like dogs, so keep well away.
Keep a look out: Make sure to keep an eye on everyone in your group. Even experienced swimmers and paddlers can get into trouble on open water. Be vigilant, especially to any children in your group. Drowning is not the violent, splashing call for help that most people expect.
Float to live: If you fall in the water, or begin to struggle while swimming, lie on your back with your arms wide, and try not to panic. Your body is naturally buoyant, so stay calm and try to recover.
People or animals in distress in the water: If you see a person or animal in distress in the water, immediately call for help. Do not jump in after them. If there is no public rescue equipment nearby, throw anything that will float.
Emergency: In an emergency call 999 or 112, ask for the Police and provide your exact location.
Ice: Take extreme care around ice and frozen bodies of water. In Scotland it’s rare that ice becomes thick enough to support your weight. Make sure to stay off any frozen bodies of water and be careful with dogs (keep on a leash and make sure not to throw sticks or balls onto ice). If you see a person or animal in distress on ice, or who have fallen through, call for help but do not go in after them.
Kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding are wonderful ways to explore Scotland’s waters. As well as being great exercise, they allow you to get up close to nature. Following a few simple tips will help you enjoy these activities to the full:
Buoyancy vest: For all activities on the water, wear a buoyancy vest. If you should fall in to cold water, the shock can lead to hypothermia and put you in danger. A buoyancy vest will help keep you afloat.
Wetsuit: Open water in Scotland, whether on the sea or inland, is cold. Combined with the wind, even on sunny days it can feel bitterly cold on the water. If you plan to be paddling for a while, consider wearing a wetsuit to stay warm. This will also help you if you happen to fall in.
Whitewater: Canoeing or kayaking on whitewater can be very dangerous. Unless you are highly experienced in this sport, do not paddle in fast-flowing water. Seek out an instructor or adventure-provider.
Traffic: Be aware of power craft, boats and sailing boats. It’s not always easy to be seen on open water, so try to wear something bright and stay away from busy marinas or jetties.
Open water swimming
Recently there has been a rise in athletic swimming in open waters. Unlike a little splash to cool off on a sunny day, open water swimming means you could be in cold water for a long period of time. As such, there’s a few things you should do to stay safe:
Wetsuit: Even in summer, Scotland’s waters are very cold. A wetsuit will help keep your body warm, and provide buoyancy. If you plan on swimming more than a few minutes, consider wearing a wetsuit.
Distance: Swimming in an indoor pool is very different from swimming outside. You may not be able to swim as far or as fast. Be cautious with how far you plan to swim.
Visibility: When swimming, you are vulnerable to being struck by power craft, boats and sailing boats and may be hard to see. Wear a bright swim cap and consider towing a small, bright float to help others see you.
Partner: Try whenever possible to swim with a friend or in a group.
Afterwards: Have a hot drink ready for when you come out of the water, and have warm and dry clothes ready to change into. When home, clean your wetsuit and gear in clean water and dry thoroughly. This will help prevent the spread of invasive species or bacteria from one body of water to another, and help protect habitats throughout Scotland.