The Art Of Finnish Ice Swimming

Helsinki Ice Swimming

If you had’ve told me when I was little that one of my favourite activities as an adult would be jumping into a frozen lake through a hole cut in the snow, I probably would have kicked you in the shins.  So, fast forward a couple of decades and I find myself in Helsinki in the depths of winter contemplating this very feat.

Crazy? You betcha! Stupid, I have no doubt. But it was one of the most heart-pounding and adrenaline-fuelling experiences of my life! And the Danes, Finns and Swedes can’t all be wrong –they’ve been jumping into icy lakes for over 100 years. But it’s in Finland where ice swimming, or Avantouinti is akin to their national sport, with clubs all over the country offering access to their frozen lakes and rivers as well as piping hot saunas in which to thaw your frozen limbs and prepare yourself for your next dip.  This tradition of rapid cooling and warming is considered to have multiple health benefits by the Finns, and I must say I did feel incredibly alert and refreshed after my first Avantouinti experience. It’s also thought to keep colds and flu away – something which I must admit I baulked at to begin with, but was left eating my words weeks later when I still hadn’t succumbed to even a sniffle all winter.

There are numerous places in Helsinki where you can have a traditional Finnish sauna, but if it’s the all out craziness of ice swimming you want then you’ll need to head to the Rastila Camping Centre, one of the country’s largest camping grounds located in the Eastern Helsinki suburb of Vuosaari,  a short subway ride from the city centre. The ice swimming season runs from October to April, and there’s no need to book – just turn up with your swimsuit and towel (and a few hundred layers of clothing for afterwards), pay your 6 Euros and you’re away!

Helsinki Ice Swimming

One you arrive at Rastila you are lead down to a log cabin on the edge of a frozen river, ready to undress and await the impending  snow-dash to the river around 50 metres away. The sauna is mixed, but there’s separate men’s and women’s change rooms, and thankfully all are toasty warm, and they even provide lockers free of charge and hair dryers for drying off post-swim.

I managed two ‘rounds’ of sauna and ice-plunging and was pretty chuffed with myself…The cold is enough to take your breath away as you thrust your unsuspecting body into the water, but I was actually more shocked how hot the saunas were, it was almost more intolerable than the ice, and the locals kept throwing more and more water onto the coals which I couldn’t work out was for their own benefit or to drive out the tourists!  It worked anyway – After one last sauna I was done and completely invigorated  – and not at all shivery as I’d feared.

As I walked from the cabin and back to the subway all toasty and warm, I was soon played the trump card by a group of men sitting around in nothing but shorts, playing cards in the snow, calm as you like, as if it was the middle of summer and not a blistery -20 degrees. I gave them a look that could only be described as ‘WTF?!’ and couldn’t help but laugh…only in Finland!

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Comments

  1. Tijmen says:

    I had my first sauna visit in Sweden this summer, there where a few who ran outside and jumped in the river. But the cold wasnt something for me. Cant imagine ever doing it in the winter. But who knows, it might be one of these things you just need to do without thinking to much about it :)
    Tijmen recently posted..4 Things to See and Do in Mali

    • WomanSeeksWorld says:

      Hehe, yes, thinking and ice swimming definitely dont go hand in hand! Maybe the locals drinking whisky has something to do with their resilience?!

  2. Awesome writing! I just found your blog and look forward to poking around.
    The ice on the ladder railing in the picture kinda makes me want to put on a warm jacket just looking at it.
    So, would you go again?
    Andrew – The Unframed World recently posted..Beef and Ice in the Japanese Alps

    • WomanSeeksWorld says:

      Thanks so much! : ) Yes, the iced up ladder was not the most alluring thing to see before you get in, but I would so do it again! I only wish there was enough snow in the UK for me to do it all the time! You definitely have to try it some day!

  3. Tom says:

    Looks fun-I would like to try that one day( I’m banking on the heat nearby :o) ). Winter is a kind of close to the danger zone and one can only stay in for a short time. Have you ever tried swimming in the fall months of October and November a 60 ro 70 degree day. I think you would like this experience… 10 years ago we swam for 1/2 hour among the autumn leaves in Pennsylvania’s delaware river. It’s chilli at first ..once you get in over your shouders and dunk your head in it’s not so bad. If you breath deep and swim you warm up in the cool water and it becomes relaxing as you keep swimming. It’s easy to warm up afterwards with a brisk walk. I think you would like this over the cold shock of winter water; please let me know what you think and send pictures if you choose to try it(stay close to shore). Nice meeting you and happy travels :o)

    • WomanSeeksWorld says:

      Hi Tom, thanks! That sounds great – unfortunately there’s nowhere to swim in London this time of year (A swim in the Thames would probably kill you anytime of year!) but I would love to try it some day! : )

  4. Tom says:

    The thought of jumping into an icy lake gives me the chills! Here in Korea we have a similar-ish thing. You go in a really hot bath first, then a hot one, then a lukewarm one and then an ice cold one – but you can lower yourself in slowly to that, rather than plunge in!

    I heartily agree with your “WTF” reaction at men in underpants playing cards in the snow hahaha!

  5. The sauna and ice bathing thing is an old tradition all over Scandinavia, but even though I was brought up in Sweden I never once tried the ice bathing thing, maybe next time I spend a winter there I’ll give it a go ;)

  6. The finland is famous for its sauna culture, which goes hand in hand with an ice swim.It’s easy to find one, as there are more than 2 million in a country with only 5 million residents. That’s one for every household!

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