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In Finland, there are many unique experiences to be had and fascinating cultural traditions to take part in, ranging from bear watching to mobile phone throwing contests. For the most exhilarating, daring, and authentic Finnish adventure, try going for a swim in water covered by ice in temperatures below freezing. As bizarre as it sounds, this is a Finnish tradition that many natives take part in to this day.
It’s unknown exactly how far back ice swimming goes in Finland, but we do know that it has been practised since at least the 17th century. Possibly, it’s just as old as the sauna tradition. The first ice swimming clubs were founded in the country during the 1920s. For a long time, ice swimming was generally only done by seniors (especially since it is good for arthritis), but it has recently experienced a resurgence in popularity, with more and more young people opting to go for a dip every day during the winter.
But it is not just a cultural phenomenon – ice swimming has genuine health benefits, too. Some Finns take a swim first thing in the morning to wake themselves up with a rush of adrenaline. It can also make you more adept at dealing with cold weather, lower stress and blood pressure, improve circulation, prevent common illnesses, and relieve pain.
Ice swimming holes are made in many lakes and oceans throughout Finland, and maintained and supervised by volunteer organisations. Some hotels and spas have ice swimming facilities set up as well.
Even if you are brave enough to dive into the murky depths, your first time ice swimming will require a lot of courage, but don’t worry because entering the water is the only real challenge. Once the initial shock has worn off and you become accustomed to the cold, it doesn’t feel so bad. Swimmers only need to stay submerged for a few moments anyway, as any longer can be dangerous. A hot sauna or heated changing room is usually set up next to the hole so you can bring your body temperature back to normal. Afterwards, you’ll probably be filled with so much adrenaline that you will want to try it all over again. Some visitors go through four or five cycles of swimming and warming up, just because they enjoy it so much!
As you’ve probably gathered, ice swimming is not for the faint of heart. Therefore, it should only be attempted if you are in good health and absolutely sure that you want to go through with it. This activity encourages faster blood flow, so it should be avoided by those with heart conditions.
Unlike a Finnish sauna, swimsuits are required. Socks are usually provided to protect your feet on the ice, or sometimes there is a heated carpet leading up to the hole. Even if you are nervous, walk slowly and calmly on the ice to prevent slipping. Each swimming hole will typically have a guide, so it’s best to follow their instructions to ensure you remain safe. Daylight hours are short during the Finnish winter, but you should still only go ice swimming when it is light outside, as it can be dangerous to swim in the dark.
During your first time, it’s best to enter the water at your own pace, breath slowly, and only submerge as far as you feel comfortable. Your extremities will probably feel tingly and numb, you will develop red patches on your skin, and your breathing patterns will be out of rhythm for a while. These are all normal reactions and your body will return to normal after you warm up in the sauna and have a hot drink.
So, if you think you’re bold enough to submerge yourself in icy water, or want simply want to experience the health benefits, look up the nearest public swimming hole wherever you are in Finland (or visit a spa that has its own ice swimming pool). You will leave with a lot of energy and bragging rights – after all, you will have passed the ultimate Finnish rite of passage.