What you need to know before taking the Polar Bear Dip

polar-dip-in-Canada Photo by CHPStock/Shutterstock

Because Canadians are a surprisingly contrary bunch, one of our yearly traditions is to strip off our clothes and plunge into icy cold water in the depths of winter. 

Of course, we’re not completely reckless: this year, New Year’s Day Polar Bear events were cancelled in Toronto, Oakville, and Grimsby because of extreme cold and dangerous beach conditions.

Nicely, the Toronto event, a charity event organized by the Toronto Polar Bear Club, has been rescheduled for January 14, but will now take place at the world’s largest indoor lake, located at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum. And to truly get into the spirit of the event, the temperature of the lake will be lowered to a polar bear-worthy 5 degrees Celsius.

To encourage participants to raise money for BOOST Child and Youth Advocacy Group, the sponsor, swimsuit manufacturer Bather, will reward the first 100 participants to raise $100 with a free pair of men’s swim trunks.

On the whole, polar bear dips are reasonably safe for most people, if a little uncomfortable. OK, more than a little uncomfortable. Before you strip off and plunge in, though, follow these tips to make your experience a fun one.

Don’t participate if you have a heart condition

The shock of immersing yourself in ridiculously cold water will cause your heart rate to increase, often to rates more than double your usual resting heart rate. If you’ve got a heart condition, if there’s heart disease or stroke in your family, or if you’re just not used to your heart rate accelerating, then a polar bear plunge isn’t a good idea. A heart attack is bad enough, but the danger of drowning if you run into trouble is an added danger. If you think there’s any risk of reacting badly, consult a doctor before participating.

Don’t just cut a random hole in the lake and jump in

You’re at the cottage, you’ve had a couple of beers, and you think it would be an awesome idea to see just how cold the lake water gets. Don’t do it. For one thing, getting out of a hole in a lake is a lot harder than approaching water from the shore. Also, because there’s some risk involved with jumping willy-nilly into icy water, it’s better to test your cold-water mettle with an event that has on-site first aid available just in case things go wrong.

Alcohol and cold water don’t mix

You may feel like a little liquid courage may help you stay warm. Not a good idea. Alcohol widens your blood vessels, making you lose heat faster than you would if you were sober. Plus, if you drink too much, you may have trouble getting out of cold water. That shot of alcohol will just make you colder, so save the celebration for after the freeze-fest when you’re warm and dry.

Know how your body will react

The shock of plunging into very cold water will initiate a “cold-shock” response in your body, which will feel like your breath has been taken away, only to return with a large gasping inhale. This reaction is involuntary, so it’s important not to be underwater when it happens. If you eventually submerge yourself, you may find you get a headache. Regardless of whether you go all the way underwater, your heart rate will increase, and your extremities may feel like they’re burning, then become numb and hard to move. Expect to feel pretty uncomfortable for about two to three minutes, after which you may actually start to get used to the water. Once you’re out, dried off and warmed up, you may feel invigorated and euphoric, a nice leftover effect from the adrenaline surge you experience when you hit the water.

Go prepared

Make a list of everything you’ll need. This will include what you’re going to wear to get wet (and just so you know, wetsuits are totally not in the spirit of a polar bear dip), what you’re going to change into (something warm, comfortable and easy to pull on — your fingers will be numb) and how you’re going to dry off (a large, warm towel is a must).

Envision how the event itself is going to go: are you going to leap in all at once, or ease your way in? (Experts tend to recommend jumping in and getting it over with as quickly as possible.) How long will you stay in the water before you run out? (No more than 15 minutes is preferable, although you might be happier with much, much less.) And be warned: hypothermia may set in after about half an hour, so be snappy with getting dried off and dressed in warm gear.

Consider acclimating yourself to cold water beforehand

This might take away a little of the fun, but if you’re nervous about how you’re going to react to the sudden cold, try taking a few cold showers prior to your plunge. It won’t be quite the same, but you’ll at least be able to practice the mental preparation it’s going to take not to freak out when that icy water hits your bare skin.

Have you participated in a polar bear dip? How did you prepare?

Featured Video