Before You Go For A Swim, Read This!

Jun 4, 2014

The weather might be nice this time of the year, but the water is not.

Even on a cloudy day, the Columbia River looks like a great recreational destination.
Credit Allen Johnson / First Impression Photography and Video

Rivers and lakes are connected to mountains. Common knowledge, right? But what people don’t think about is the snowmelt from mountains that runs into our rivers and lakes. Not only does this runoff cause the water levels to rise, but it also lowers water temperatures. Recent open-water temperatures in the Spokane valley were averaging around 50 degrees, but some creeks and rivers are as cold as 36 - not the best conditions for a leisurely swim. In fact, these are perfect conditions for hypothermia.

Hypothermia kills. Last winter, a councilwoman in the town of Palouse capsized during a kayaking trip. Authorities believe she died after being exposed to cold temperatures of the river. A Gonzaga University student died of hypothermia two years ago after being immersed in cold water for more than an hour.

Though the weather is heating up now, don’t think that hypothermia isn’t still a concern. The Washington State Department of Health warns that waters are especially dangerous during spring. In a public notice the department states: “Rivers are often high and swift from rains and snowmelt and can easily overwhelm the strongest swimmers.” It mentions that even hot days can be dangerous for swimmers since the water is still cold and can lead to hypothermia.  

Trevor Fulton is the Outdoor Program Assistant Coordinator at the University of Idaho. He stresses the need to be educated. It turns out people aren’t as knowledgeable about open water as they usually think.

“As long as someone is prepared, people can recreate on and around the water year-round,” says Fulton. But before you jump in, you need to know some basics.

Temperatures drop during the evening. Even if the day temperature was able to meet the rule of hundred standard, conditions can change drastically once the sun starts to go down.
Credit Esther Wofford /

“Typically, a really good rule to follow is the rule of hundred,” Fulton says. The rule of hundred is a method of measuring whether the water temperature is safe to swim in, he explains. “Add the air temperature and water temperature and if it’s under 100, you should be wearing a wetsuit,” he says. Fulton says that even 100 degrees is too low sometimes and they usually use 120.

So, when’s the best time for swimmers and floaters to head to the river? Not until July. And temperature's not the only concern. Think about the undercurrent. As snow melts and water levels become high, undertows are created. You can’t see undertows from the shore and once you’re caught in one you’ll be pulled away and sometimes under. Swimmers aren’t the only ones who should be worried about them.

Harsh currents can also affect rafters, floaters, and kayakers. The Columbia River Kayaking website warns that strong currents will take water-goers away from their desired destination. “In addition to sweeping you where you don’t want to go, currents can create rough whitewater conditions when they meet with obstacles, constrictions or opposing wind,” the site states. Fast currents are also an easy way to tire out swimmers and when added to the cold temperatures will quickly tire even the best swimmers.

A group from the University of Idaho Outdoor Program enjoy white water rafting, demonstrating proper use of safety equipment and clothing.
Credit UI Outdoor Program /

It doesn’t matter if you’re an experienced swimmer or not. “If you don’t know how to navigate a river, you could get into some trouble,” Fulton says. Staying calm helps. “Not having that ‘freak out moment’ is a real positive to getting out of trouble.”

To avoid any trouble with river currents, Fulton recommends a personal floatation device and training, mainly on how to swim effectively and what to do if there are any dangerous objects or conditions in the water.

But if you can’t get the training here are helpful tips the Seattle Local Health Guide says to watch for.

  • Uneven Water Surfaces
  • Visible River Current
  • Changing Weather

And here are some additional guidelines to help you stay safe in the water this summer:

  • Know the water, including temperatures and currents
  • Never float or swim alone
  • Stay near the shore
  • Monitor yourself and others
  • Tell someone outside the group about your plans
  • Bring personal floatation devices (life jackets)

“It comes down to being prepared and having the right equipment,” Fulton says. Before heading out to the water, make sure you know the condition of the water and the surrounding area. If you feel unsure, look into recreational programs. All major universities as well as some state parks and recreation services have water safety programs. If you can, take a course and get educated. At the very least, a quick call will connect you to an experienced professional who would be able to walk you through specific safety measures and precautions.

University of Idaho Outdoor Program: (208) 885-6810

Washington State University Outdoor Recreation: (509) 335-1892

Central Washington University Outdoor Pursuits and Rentals: (509) 963-3537

University of Washington Waterfront Activities Center: (206) 543-9433

University of Oregon Outdoor Program: (541) 346-4365