Scandinavians have known it for centuries – plunging into ice-cold water is good for you. Here’s how it feels to take a dip in the ice in Arctic Sweden – and where you can try this tinglingly fun form of swimming yourself.
Taking the plunge – trying ice swimming
Last time I was in Finland I spent most of the long summer days swimming in the country’s beautiful lakes, which are delightfully warm under the midnight sun. But the Finns told me I’d have to come back to Scandinavia in winter to prove my inner sisu – the Finnish concept of grit and stoic determination – by swimming outdoors in ice and snow.
Lakes in Lapland can be frozen for up to seven months of the year, so perhaps it’s no surprise that swimming in icy cold waters comes naturally for the locals. And this isn’t just a bravery test – studies have shown that cold water immersion is also very good for us. It increases blood flow throughout the body, which in turn helps improve circulation. Regular cold water swimmers have less respiratory infections than normal, and Scandinavian athletes even use cold water swimming as a form of cryotherapy for pain relief and recovery. You get a mental as well as a physical boost from a chilly swim, too – cold water helps us to release stress and gives us energised feeling of being really alive. Time to see if I could take the subzero temperatures.
After completing the Fjallraven Polar 2019 we arrived, sweaty, dirty and tired, at the Fjellborg Arctic Lodge, a cluster of wooden cabins and lodges 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. After a week of wild camping in the snow, it looked insanely luxurious, especially the lodge’s traditional wood-fired sauna.
The ritual of a Scandi ice swim begins with a baking-hot wood-fired sauna, taken naked – once you’ve really heated up, you rush outside to jump into icy water, then back into the sauna and repeat. Once we were warmed through we ran full-pelt through the pines to the iced-over Torne River, invisible under a thick layer of snow, where a swimming hole had been carved out of the thick ice. The water was an ominous inky black, with shards of ice already reforming around its edges. Standing around thinking about getting in slowly isn’t an option when you’re stuck in the snow in just a bikini – there was nothing for it but to take the plunge.
Jump into water this cold and your body barely knows how to register what’s happening to it. As the water enveloped me I felt hot and cold tingles running all over my body. Once I’d clambered back out of the water, though, I surprisingly warm. And it’s true – an ice swim really does make you feel incredibly awake and alive. Perhaps I have a bit of sisu, after all.
How to try ice swimming
Jump in at Fjellborg Arctic Lodge, Sweden
Take an ice-fringed dip as part of an Arctic adventure at Fjellborg Arctic Lodge – the lodge offers skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling and husky expeditions in Swedish Lapland, all ending with a dip in the river and a sauna session.
Chill out near Stockholm, Sweden
Hellasgarden, a 20 minute hop from Stockholm, makes a magical winter retreat from Sweden’s capital, complete with hot sauna, ice-fringed swimming pool and cosy cabins to rent.
Do laps in Lapland, Finland
Do as the locals do in Rovaniemi, in Finland’s Arctic Circle, by jumping into an ice hole – a great way to find your inner ‘sisu’, the Finnish art of courage. Visit Rovaniemi list ice swimming events and places to stay where you can take the plunge. Once you’ve warmed up again keep an eye out for the northern lights come nightfall.
Fjord swimming at Aurora Basecamp, Norway
At the Aurora Basecamp near Tromsø in northern Norway you can swim in the icy waters of Lyngenfjord, then scramble into their lovely sauna cabin on wheels to warm up again.
Swim in an urban sea pool, Helsinki, Finland
Try an ice swim right in the city centre at the Allas sea pool in Helsinki’s harbour, where the water is the same temperature as the Baltic Sea. Allas also has three lovely saunas and a heated pool.
Head to a winter swimming event
Obsessed with cold water swimming? Take part in the Scandinavian Winter Bathing Championship held each February in Skellefteå, Sweden, or closer to home, the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships each March, where the weather is often cold enough to class as ice swimming. Silly hats encouraged at both events.
Stay safe when ice swimming
Getting into cold water swimming? Practice at one of my favourite wild swimming spots in Britain, and follow my top safety tips for wild swimming. Chill Swim list great safety tips and kit essentials for cold water swimming.