Is ‘winter bathing’ the key to wellness?

From cycling to foraging, doing things the Danish way typically involves an abundance of the great outdoors, but none is so bracing as the coyly named Vinterbadning – or winter bathing. Katie McCrory shares her love of the life-altering properties of this Scandinavian ritual.

At the tip of a popular beach in Copenhagen sits a bright aquamarine jetty, a pleasing colour-pop against the steely winter sky in backdrop. It plays host to some of the city’s most ardent outdoor swimming fans who flock here between September and May for a handful of saunas and the clean, brackish waters pooling between Sweden and Denmark. The winter bathing ritual is simple – cold and heat, on repeat. There are a few rules but the most important of all is the state of dress – or, rather, undress – given that winter bathing here must be undertaken entirely in the nude. Getting naked with strangers in sub-zero temperatures isn’t something I ever anticipated listing as one of my leisure activities, and yet, here we are. Tits to the wind, the lot of us.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to take you back to the summer of 2015, when my husband and I dug out the strained roots of our life in London and replanted them in the Danish capital. I mean, I say “summer” but the Danes joke that there are only two seasons; Green Winter and White Winter. Green Winter tempered our good humour for weeks at a stretch until suddenly the sky would crack open to reveal a cerulean blue and we’d scuttle out to the beach just 15 minutes bike ride from the centre of town. But even as we rolled around to White Winter, and the crowds thinned out, I’d still head to the beach for the novelty of it all. It was during these times that I first saw them, with their flushed pink bodies, trotting down the steps and into the frigid waters. I didn’t know what was going on but, like all inexplicable ideas, it had taken hold before I could stop it. Winter bathing was calling.

Much has recently been written on the increasing popularity of wild and cold-water swimming, like this piece in the Guardian. And you don’t need to look very far to find the growing communities of people who will tell you about the rejuvenating effects of diving into their nearest rivers and reservoirs, and how it has all but cured their depression, anxiety, stress, fatigue, physical and emotional pain. Theories abound about why cold water could help reduce inflammation and sooth tired muscles (just picture those elite athletes sitting in an ice bath…). But there is almost no clinical evidence for this much deeper level of healing that regular winter bathers avidly talk about. There are just groups of fanatics who skinny-dip between sea and sauna during the coldest months of the year. Again, and again.

Jetty in Denmark
The jetty in Copenhagen

Let me give it you straight. Your first winter bathing rotation places you firmly out of your comfort zone as you gingerly peel off your clothes and contemplate which nightmare creatures must be swimming beneath, but the immediate sensory reflex transcends everything. For nothing can fully express the seduction of chilled water on your warm, naked body, or the rush of heat as your skin flushes all over, or the unravelling of those coiled muscles as you gratefully take your place in the sauna. Life’s worries – along with our clothing – is left at the door.

I have now been winter bathing morning, noon and night, come wind, rain, sun or snow. I have been in the hours when the frozen sky shimmers with sunlight and you can see your toes through the still, crystal waters. I have been in the hours when the thunderous clouds stir the waves like porridge and the rain slaps about your face. I have been in the hours when the regulars have gone home for dinner, and night thickens your blood as you slip silently into the inky water, entirely alone. There are days when the sea is so cold that they need to cut a hole in the ice at the foot of the steps. It is the kind of cold that punches the air from your lungs and sends your blood gushing to your panicky organs, but you would think we were melting into the balmy waters of the tropics for all the way we carry on.

Swimming Denmark
Swimming in Denmark

The rhythmic patter of sea to sauna does something primal to my body. It resets me in a way that I have not achieved with yoga or running or dancing or writing or the myriad other ways I have attempted to create peace where there is unrest. As I endure my fourth White Winter I have finally concluded what those before me have always known – where there is cold, there is heat; and where there is winter bathing, there is life.

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