Swimming in open, natural waters (e.g. lakes, rivers, streams, oceans) is very different from swimming in pools. Natural waters can change in depth unexpectedly, going from shallow to deep in just a few steps. Natural waters can have swift currents, waterfalls, cold temperatures, and underwater hazards such as trees and boulders. Distances between shorelines are very deceiving. The weather can change very quickly. Even the strongest swimmers can be overcome by these conditions.
Every park has its own rules on swimming. In some parks, wading or swimming is allowed and in others it is prohibited, or not allowed, because of the hazards around, on, or in the water. Before you head out on your adventure, make sure you check the "Plan your Visit" section on the park website at www.nps.gov or contact the park to find out about water recreation regulations.
Swimming Safety TipsRead our water safety tips to learn how to be prepared for a fun adventure while swimming in national parks!
- Wear a life jacket - It is important to wear a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket at all times when recreating in open natural water, even when boating. Lifeguards are not present at all national park swimming areas. Being a strong swimmer does not guarantee that you will not drown; in many cases it is this false sense of security that has placed visitors in dangerous circumstances. Search and Rescue teams may take time to reach you depending on your location. Swimming in strong currents or even treading water can tire you out quickly. A properly fitted life jacket can help you float while you wait for help.
- Learn to swim – Get your swimming basics down. Be realistic about your swimming abilities and understand your limits, along with everyone else’s who is traveling with you. Learn about what water safety means for you, your family, and friends. Learn how to prepare yourself and others to prevent a drowning situation.
- Watch your children – When recreating around, on, or in open water, children should always wear a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD. Inflatable swimming rings and inflatable water wings are not a substitute for a life jacket. Assign a person in your family or group to be the “Water Watcher”. This person is responsible for keeping track of the children in your group when you are around, on, or in water. A moment’s distraction could quickly lead to a child drowning.
- Swim in designated lifeguard areas - Some national parks have designated swimming areas where lifeguards are on duty. Some estimates indicate that the chance of drowning at a beach protected by lifeguards can be less than one in 18 million. Consider choosing to swim in a lifeguarded area if available. Be sure to check the days and times lifeguards are on duty at the park and follow all signs.
- Check the weather forecast at the park - Check the weather forecast and look for park alerts the day of your trip to ensure that conditions are optimal for water recreation. Park alerts are found on individual park websites at www.nps.gov and at the visitor centers and ranger stations inside the park. Once at your destination, look for warning signs and flags for water conditions. Pay attention to the sky around you for changing weather conditions. What may start as a clear sky, can quickly turn into a thunderstorm with lightning and flash flooding. Learn more about weather safety and how to be weather ready!
- Watch for currents - Moving water is more powerful than the strongest swimmer. It is also deceptively dangerous. Do not let moving water fool you. Even wading in shallow water can pull you off your feet. Stay far enough back from moving water so that an accidental trip or slip on wet rocks will not cause you to fall into the current and be swept away.
- Consult local tide tables and pay attention to tidal behavior - Oceans, estuaries, and their tributary streams are tidal – Tides reverse about every six hours. Beach users, rock climbers, and cave explorers can become trapped, and potentially drown, when incoming tides flood their return to safe ground. If trapped by a flooding tide, seek higher ground and call for help.
- Don’t drink or use drugs – Alcohol and drugs impact your judgement and coordination, especially if you attempt to swim and are not wearing a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket. Operating a vessel (boat, kayak, etc.) while under the influence is illegal in the NPS.
- If you don’t know, don’t swim – If you don’t know the regulations, if you aren’t familiar with the water or the hazards that may be present, or you don’t have a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket, don’t attempt to swim. Drowning only takes moments, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Don’t be a victim of drowning! Learn to swim, be sure to “Know Before You Go”, and wear a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket if you plan on recreating around, in, or on natural waters in the NPS.
For more information weather and water safety, see the links below:
Learn more about NOAA, weather safety, and how to be weather ready.
Last updated: June 15, 2018