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What is a Polar Bear Plunge?

By Elizabeth West
Updated May 23, 2024
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In a polar bear plunge event, people dive into icy water for fun, charity, or for physical health and vigor. Events in the United States are often held to raise money for charity. In Canada, the plunge has become a New Year’s Day tradition. Ice swimming is known as avantouinti in Finland, and is often combined with sauna activities to confer health benefits. Cold water swimming is generally safe for healthy people, but a participant should be careful not to take a polar bear plunge unless his cardiovascular system is in good shape.

Polar bear clubs have sprung up around the US, and one of the first was the Coney Island Polar Bear Club in New York. This club was founded in 1903 by Bernarr McFadden, a fitness expert who believed that a regular plunge in cold water would invigorate the body. The club meets regularly every Sunday from November to April. A New Year’s Day polar bear plunge is held regularly for club members and anyone who wishes to participate.

Clubs and other organizations use the novelty of ice swimming to raise money for various causes. A polar bear plunge is an unusual activity, and television and newspapers often turn out to do a story on the participants. This can help bring attention both to the cause and the sport of ice swimming. Swimmers at events sometimes dress in costume or take the plunge completely naked. Foot coverings are recommended, since numb feet may not be able to avoid any hazardous objects in the water.

In Canada, a New Year’s Day polar bear plunge is a tradition in many communities. Actual numbers of participants are probably lower than official recordings, since many people simply show up and join in. Finnish ice swimming enthusiasts like to combine the plunge with the sauna experience. After a session in the sauna, they take a moment to cool the body before entering the icy water. The Avantouinti Society and other groups maintain ice holes for swimming throughout the winter so that people can enjoy them anytime they wish.

There are a number of tips to remember before taking a polar bear plunge. Anyone thinking of trying ice swimming should be sure they have no underlying cardiac issues or blood pressure problems. It is recommended the swimmer keep outer clothing on until actually ready to go into the water to reduce the chance of hypothermia from exposure. Alcohol will accelerate hypothermia, and should be avoided. With precautions, ice swimming can be a unique and invigorating experience.

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Discussion Comments
By Oceana — On Feb 01, 2013

One of the local television station gave a few polar bear plunge tips to viewers. One of these was to wear shoes, because like the article states, your feet won't be able to feel anything on the bottom.

If I were crazy enough to do this, I would wear a wet suit. I would get one of those made for cold water diving, so only my head would feel the icy water.

By seag47 — On Feb 01, 2013

I've seen polar bear plunge pictures and videos, and all the divers look so happy! It's like they are all giddy with the ridiculousness of what they are doing.

By StarJo — On Feb 01, 2013

@cloudel – I think they just plunge in and get right back out. It's dangerous to stay in really cold water for long, because you'll get hypothermia and die.

Also, your muscles will quit working, and you will not be able to swim any longer. Some people go into such shock when they hit the cold water that they die in a couple of minutes from gasping in water or cardiac arrest.

By cloudel — On Jan 31, 2013

How long do people stay in the water when they go for a polar bear swim? I would imagine their bodies wouldn't mind the cold too much after the initial shock, because they would be numb! I just don't know how safe it is to stay in there for very long.

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