Let's Get Cold! - Winter Bathing in Denmark

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CIEE Copenhagen

Looking for a new activity to try and get your next adrenaline kick? Since the Danish landscape doesn’t feature a wealth of mountains to go rock climbing or skiing on, nor gorges to white water raft in or cliffs to bungee jump from, we Danes have to look elsewhere if we want to get our pulse up and our blood rushing. Something a cool dip in the harbor or ocean during wintertime tends to do nicely.

Yes, you read correctly – some Danes voluntarily go swimming in the winter in a country where most people find the water chilly even during summertime. Blame it on Viking blood or a general adventurous spirit, the fact of the matter is that winter bathing has become a new hobby for many Danes, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, where many used it as a way to be outside and take a break from the mental toll of living during a pandemic.

Some like to go winter bathing through a “forening” or a type of club that also can grant you access to a sauna you can use after your dip in the water. Others prefer to do it on the cheap and bring plenty of warm clothes and coffee to heat up afterwards.

If this sounds like something you would like to do while you’re in Denmark, please be aware of a couple of safety tips. Winter bathing in Scandinavia is no joke - water temperatures can get as cold as 2 degrees Celsius or 35 degrees Fahrenheit during the chilly winter months, and that can send your body into something called a “cold shock response”. Sudden exposure of your head and body to cold water can in serious cases result in fainting, which, as you might be able to imagine, is not so great to do when you’re in the water. Therefore, a couple of safety tips:

1. A little self-evident perhaps, but nonetheless important to establish: DO NOT, under any circumstances, go winter bathing if you have not learned to swim or don’t have a lot of experience with water.
2. NEVER go winter bathing alone. Always bring at least one friend, also because it’s more fun that way :)
3. Don’t swim anywhere you aren’t allowed to – look for the harbor pools in Islands Brygge and Nordhavn that are marked off. Don’t stray further than a couple of feet from the nearest ladder up.
4. NEVER go winter bathing if you’re drunk or when its dark outside.
5. Get out of the water immediately when you start to freeze.
6. And last but not least, DO NOT JUMP INTO THE WATER, headfirst or otherwise. The chances of your body going into shock are higher if you jump in as opposed to calmly lowering yourself/walking into the water.

That being said, winter bathing is a pleasant activity enjoyed by many people – up towards 50.000 people a year – all across Denmark, and accidents are extremely rare if you take these precautions. We've gone winter bathing on numerous accounts with our brave students, and once they have gotten over the initial cold shock, they thought it to be one of their most memorable moments with us in the city.

If you can get over the initial cold shock, plenty of research has been made into the many health benefits of winter bathing, and while nothing is 100% certain yet, studies have shown that if you expose your immune system to the cold shock of winter bathing, this can lead to your immune system developing better defense mechanisms against illnesses such as sinusitis or common colds. In one study the concentration of these illnesses fell by 40% among a group of winter bathers compared to a sample group. Other studies have shown a health benefits for winter bathing patients with type-2 diabetes.

Another benefit of winter bathing is that winter bathers supposedly don’t get as cold nearly as much as other people. So if you feel cold during your stay here in Copenhagen, perhaps the solution, however counter-intuitive it might sound, might be to embrace your inner Viking and jump into cold water every now and then. We promise its worth it.