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10 Do's And Don’ts for Polar Plunges

The pool may be covered, but swim season is far from over.

It was New Year’s Day 2012 and Danielle Martinetti was on a New York beach in a vintage-style one-piece, lipstick, and a flower-printed bathing cap. “My only thought was ‘this is gonna be cold,’” Martinetti said.

Martinetti signed up for the plunge as a thrill-seeking alternative to traditional New Year’s celebrations. Instead of buying another new dress and going out on the town, she “decided to be adventurous and head off to Coney Island.”

But she wasn’t swimming alone. Martinetti’s New Year’s adventure is part of a polar plunge wave that’s growing every year.

Each winter, long after the traditional swim season ends, hundreds of thousands of Polar Plungers dive into almost-freezing lakes, oceans, rivers, and even backyard pools. There are dozens of polar bear plunges around the United States. The largest, Plungapalooza in Maryland, involves around 12,000 swimmers raising funds for the Special Olympics. The Coney Island New Year’s plunge alone has been afloat since 1903 and boasts 1,000+ annual participants.

Larry Andersen, who took the plunge in Chicago’s Lake Michigan in the late 1990’s, said the harshest part of a plunge can come post-dive.

“Once you’re in the water, it’s not as bad as you’d think,” Andersen said. “It’s when you get out. The wind is blowing, and you’ve got 30 degree water on you with 30 degree air temperature.”

And for some, a quick dip isn’t enough. YouTube adventurer and former Olympic rower, Patrick Sweeney, participated in a 200 meter polar swim in Geneva, Switzerland in 2014.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time training for it and wasn’t sure how my muscles would respond to a 200 meter swim in 40 degrees,” he said. “But I swam fast.”

If you’re planning to extend bathing suit season this winter, here are some cold dip tips on what and what not to do when you're going to polar plunge.

man jumping in icy water

Polar Plunge Prep: 10 Do's and Don’ts

1. DO take an ice-cold shower to prep for the plunge.

Every participant interviewed recounted how the cold water “took their breath away,” a reaction caused by hyperventilation. So it’s best to be prepared for that moment before you’re in over your head.

Sweeney prepared for this part of the plunge at home.

“I took a shower and made it as cold as possible for 30 seconds, then warm for 30 seconds, to get used to it,” he said.

2. DO bring Vaseline and a multi-colored bathing cap.

"It won’t do much in the way of keeping you warm, but you may be able to convince a cold compatriot to look silly in a cap and Vaseline," said Andersen.

3. DO NOT try to warm up with alcohol.

Alcohol lowers your body temperature, though it may make you feel otherwise.

4. DO NOT stay in the water for more than a few minutes.

Cold water incapacitation can begin within 5 minutes of entering the water. However...

group jumping in icy lake

5. DO NOT chicken out for fear of hypothermia.

The friend that invited Andersen to plunge stopped just short of entering the water. “And I hold it over his head to this day,” Andersen said.

Yes, it’s cold, but hypothermia is not likely for the average adult unless they’re immersed for 30 minutes or more.

6. DO meet random strangers for good times afterward.

Dana Humphrey, who also did the Coney Island, New York plunge in 2012, lost contact with her friend after the plunge, so she partied with a group she’d met at a pizza joint on New Year’s Eve.

“I was standing dripping wet on the boardwalk for two hours dancing,” she said. And she did eventually catch up with her friend. Humphrey also plunged two more times before the end of the day.

“I figured I was already wet, so I may as well do it again,” she added.

7. DO consider wearing a (waterproof) costume.

Sure, a bathing suit in January feels like a costume in its own right, but many polar plungers go the extra mile, dressed as their favorite superheroes or cartoon characters.

8. DO bring a towel and arrange a meeting place with friends beforehand.

For her dive, Martinetti brought a fluffy robe, towels, thick wool socks, and heavy sweaters for the ride home. She even reserved post-plunge brunch plans.

group of people jumping into icy water

9. DO NOT overthink it. A polar plunge is just another adventure.

Even if you aren’t doing the 200-meter distance, Sweeney maintains that plunges are a great way to do something healthy and adventurous that doesn't require training and preparation.

“You can literally jump right in,” he said.

And finally...

10. DO act like you enjoy the plunge.

Even if you have to freeze a smile in place. Remember, it's for a good cause.

In The Swim makes every effort to provide accurate recommendations based upon current ANSI/APSP/ICC-5 2011 (R2022) standards, but codes and regulations change, and In The Swim assumes no liability for any omissions or errors in this article or the outcome of any project. You must always exercise reasonable caution, carefully read the label on all products, follow all product directions, follow any current codes and regulations that may apply, and consult with a licensed professional if in doubt about any procedures. In The Swim assumes no legal responsibility for your reliance or interpretation of the data contained herein, and makes no representations or warranties of any kind concerning the quality, safety, or suitability of the information, whether express or implied, including, without limitation, any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose.