How Far Can You Swim in The Ocean ? Must-Know Tips to Pick a Safe Spot & Timing!

Swimming in the ocean can be refreshing and even eye-opening, but there’s not much to do or see miles from the shore (without a boat, of course). Plus, the farther out one goes the greater the risk of/potential for hazards/danger. Even seasoned swimmers aren’t immune to these hazards/dangers. 

Nonetheless, perhaps, you are wanting to set out on a quest to see how far out into the ocean you can swim and want to go about it safely. So, you’re wondering exactly how far can one swim in the ocean [safely]

I have talked to a few people that have experience with and/or enjoy ocean swimming and read articles from others who also enjoy it and/or have set out on such a quest. The result of this research is this article which aims to answer some of the common questions regarding ocean swimming and how far one can [safely] swim in the ocean. 

What we have found regarding how far one can swim in the ocean is that, in general, on average one can safely swim half of the total distance that they can swim (for an out and back swim). That is to say that if one can swim a total of 5 miles, then, they can swim 2.5 miles out into the ocean. (Thus, they will swim 2.5 miles back to shore; totaling their 5-mile max).

Remember, swimming in the ocean is not the same as swimming in a pool, lake, or, even, river

Unlike these other bodies of water, there are factors such as the waves, tide, currents, slope of the beach, water temperature, aquatic creatures/marine life, and watercraft (i.e. boats, jet skis, kayaks, etc.), among others, to contend with when swimming in the ocean. Furthermore, at the ocean, conditions change not just day to day, but hour to hour. These changes can occur abruptly as well.  

Thus, ultimately, one’s swimming ability, assessment of risks (i.e. weather and water conditions as well as location), and good ole common sense will dictate just how far one can safely swim in the ocean. (Source A)(Source B)

Also find out How Far Can the Average Person Swim? 1 mile, 10 miles, 30 min & Underwater ?!

What Happens if You Swim Too Far? Factors To Consider !

So, you’ve decided to embark on this seeing just how far you can swim in the ocean journey to find out just how far YOU can swim in the ocean. But, you want to be sure you’re safe about it and know the potential risks and safety precautions. To that end, one may be wondering what exactly happens if one swims out too far in the ocean. Well, honestly, it depends.

For some, it could be as minor as resulting in taking longer to get back to shore, and, thereby, longer than they planned for their swim (which for some may be an inconvenience, even if just a  minor one). While for others, it could lead to more serious consequences such as injury or illness. And, for some, it can turn deadly. 

Ultimately, many factors will dictate exactly what happens (or, rather, could happen) if one swims out too far. Let’s take a look at (some of) those factors and how they can affect one’s swim as well as a swimmer themself. 

1- Water Temperature 

Open water, particularly the ocean,  is colder than a pool. And, unlike a pool that remains relatively the same temperature year-round, throughout each day, and across the pool regardless of depth, the temperature of ocean water is more susceptible to fluctuation year-round, day-to-day, and even from one spot to another depending on depth.

Both the [typically] colder temperatures and the fluctuation in the temperature of ocean water can be hazardous for swimmers as these factors can affect the core temperature of a swimmer.

Without proper swimming attire such as a wetsuit, hypothermia can set in. Hypothermia can be detrimental as it can eventually incapacitate an individual which in turn will result in more significantly detrimental effects.

  • Ideal water temperature = 77-82 degrees Fahrenheit 
  • Hypothermicwater temperatures = below 70 degrees Fahrenheit 
  • Hyperthermic water temperatures = above 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit 

We also highly recommend that you check out our post “Can Swimming in Cold Water Make You Sick? What You Must Know!

2- Aquatic environment/culture 

In the ocean, you have aquatic creatures and marine life to be aware of as well as boaters, wakeboarders, jet skis, surfers, and anglers/fishing lines to contend with. 

For the most part, the creatures and marine life are relatively harmless- though there are some such as jellyfish and sharks to be aware of, and, in general, if an aquatic creature or marine life feels threatened by you, they could harm you.

And, while those on watercraft watch for swimmers near shore(s), they may not be watching out for them as closely, if at all, farther out in the ocean. 

3- Thirst/Dehydration 

Swimming is an exercise and like any other exercise one will perspire (yes, you can/do sweat while swimming); thus, one can become dehydrated while swimming.

The risk of dehydration is why it is important to drink water/hydrate before, during, and after exercise-including swimming. Being in open water, saltwater, in particular, one will not have access to drinkable water while swimming (unlike at a pool where it’s right there at the end of the pool lane in a water bottle for you or at a water fountain at the facility). 

4- Exhaustion

Not only does exercise dehydrate you, but it can tire one out/exhaust them too.

This is particularly important if you do not have a watercraft picking you up, but also important regardless. You will want to leave a reserve to account for this.

So, in other words, if you can swim a total of 4 miles you would want to aim for 1.75-1.9 miles out if you are doing an out and back swim

If you do have a boat to pick you up, you could aim for 3.5-3.8 miles (this way you have a reserve/don’t exhaust yourself before getting back to shore/to your awaiting boat). 

on a side note, check out How (& How Much) Do A Marathon Swimmers Rest or Sleep?

5- Disorientation

Once away from land it is easy to lose sight of markers/landmarks and where exactly you are in the water, especially with relation to the shore- one is more likely to lose sight the farther out they go.

This disorientation can be detrimental. For this reason, one needs to keep a careful eye on their course and helpful markers/landmarks, and not veer off their course.

Another contributing factor to disorientation to be aware of is the depth of water

In the ocean water depth is not marked (as it is in a pool) or known; furthermore, it’s in a constant state of flux due to the ebb and flow resulting from the tides. 

Be sure to know your swimming ability and be honest about it- you will get better and be able to go farther as you continue to swim; so, go slow and build gradually- start small and scale according to your ability. Additionally, be sure to check on the weather and water conditions before embarking on your swim route.  (Source A)(Source B)

When Should You Not Swim in The Ocean?

While swimming in the ocean, by and large, is refreshing and safe with proper precautions for the activity and environment, there are some instances where one should not swim in the ocean.

One should not swim in the ocean at night or during/after thunderstorms. Also, one should not swim in water that is not guarded by a lifeguard or, if it is not guarded, without a friend/group. 

Though there are potentially other instances when one should not swim in the ocean, these are the ones that pose the greatest hazards/danger to ocean swimmers. So let’s look at these instances of when NOT to swim in the ocean a little closer to see just why one doesn’t want to swim in the ocean under these conditions. 

1- Don’t Swim at Night  

Nighttime is dark (I know- DUH! Obviously). Darkness reduces visibility- both what you can see and others (i.e. boaters/anglers) being able to see you. Both visibility reductions can lead to harm. If a boater or angler doesn’t see you, they could run into/over you or you could wind up tangled up in their fishing lines- both of which would injure you pretty badly.

Your reduced visibility could lead to disorientation which can be catastrophic in the dark of night (it’s hard enough sometimes to keep track of markers/landmarks during the day, the dark of night doesn’t help).

Additionally, at night the water tends to be more choppy (rough) and predators tend to stir more (increasing your risk of harm from an aquatic creature/marine life). 

2- Don’t Swim During or Immediately After a Thunderstorm

The most dangerous waves result from storm surges; hence, why it is not safe to swim during or immediately after a thunderstorm.

The powerful waves from storm surges create dangerous rip currents and strong undercurrents (undertows). These strong currents can be right at the water’s edge and take people by surprise. Thus, it is important to be aware of the most common currents/tides- what to look for and how to get out of them.

However, ultimately, one will want to avoid swimming in the ocean during or immediately after a storm, or when these current/tides are present.

3- Don’t Swim in Water NOT Guarded by a Lifeguard/Don’t Swim Alone 

One should avoid swimming alone in unguarded water. Ideally, one would swim with a friend or group and in an ocean that is guarded by a lifeguard. But, we all know that things don’t always go ideally. So, DO NOT swim alone in water that is not guarded. One should aim to either swim at an ocean that has a lifeguard or to have a friend/group to swim with. 

While these are some of the most obvious times to not swim in the ocean, one would not want to swim in the ocean if any of the aforementioned strong currents/tides were present (as was mentioned). So then what exactly are those common currents/tides to look for? And, how does one recognize them? 

4- Rip Current

As defined by the dictionary, a rip current is a relatively strong, narrow current flowing outward from the beach through the surf zone and presenting a hazard to swimmers. It is the most dangerous of the currents/tides that can affect swimmers.

They can pull swimmers away very quickly as rip currents typically move at a rate of 1 foot to 2 feet per second.

Because of how quickly they move, they can be deadly. However, should you find yourself in one, first and foremost,  Don’t Panic- Stay CALM; second, don’t swim directly against the current (it will only exhaust you and cause greater harm)- instead, swim parallel to the current and angle toward the shore. Lastly, signal for help.

Rip currents originate from waves interacting with each other and thus, are unpredictable which is what makes them so dangerous.

5- Riptide

As defined by the dictionary a riptide is a strong current caused by tidal flow in confined areas such as inlets and presenting a hazard to swimmers and boaters. Many see a riptide as another name for rip current and they may seem like they are the same, but, they are, in fact, different.

While rip currents originate from wave interactions with each other and are unpredictable, rip tides originate from tidal water movement. Thus, rip tides are more predictable, and thereby, not as dangerous as rip currents. Though, caution should be exercised around them. 

6- Undercurrent (undertow) 

As defined by the dictionary, an undercurrent is a current of water below the surface and moving in a different direction from any surface current. An undercurrent results from the waves crashing on the shore and rolling back out to sea- a natural occurrence at the ocean.

The pull of the water as a wave recedes (sometimes felt when standing in shallower water) is the undercurrent (undertow). Generally, it is not strong and one can overcome this slight pull. However, younger children or those with balance issues can potentially be knocked down by them. This is the least dangerous of the 3 currents/tides to be aware of.  (Source A)(Source B)(Source C)

Where Is the Safest Place to Swim in The Ocean?

Location!Location! Location! – as with most anything these days, location is important and it’s no different concerning swimming. Where exactly one chooses to swim has a significant impact on their swim… everything from performance to safety. 

To get the majority of the safety side of the equation out of the way, here are some places one DOES  NOT want to swim when swimming in the ocean

  1. Avoid swimming near rocks/reefs
  2. Avoid swimming near quick-moving currents 
  3. Avoid swimming in inlets
  4. Avoid swimming in congested areas 
  5. Don’t swim in choppy/rough waters
  6. Don’t swim near piers

Swimming in any of these areas can be extremely dangerous and even deadly. Always check on any restrictions for where you are planning to swim. 

It is safest to swim during the one hour before or after low or high tide. During this time it is what is known as a slack tide. It is during this slack tide that the water current is slowest. Thereby, making it the safest time (and area of an ocean) to swim (in)

During high tide, the ocean water is too high and rough. During low tide, the ocean water is too low- one would have to walk out to where they can safely swim which could pose problems on one’s return plus one would need to wear water shoes to protect their feet (something one doesn’t want to swim in as they can weigh you down).

Thus, the best time and place to swim in the ocean is where/when it is between low and high tide- particularly the one hour immediately before or after low/high tide. 

Also, one should be aware of sandbars and use extreme caution when swimming near them

Rip currents are prevalent in areas of sandbars. Remember, while this is the strongest and most dangerous of the currents, it will not pull one under. So,  if you do happen to get caught in a rip current, remain calm and do not swim against the current; instead, swim parallel to it and angle toward the shore- you will eventually get out of it as they are only but so wide (you just maybe a little farther down the shore and have to walk back to your stuff). 

As mentioned a couple of places/times in this article, once at the ocean water/your swimming location, take a moment or two to observe the water- waves & currents; watch what the water and current(s) are doing and look for posted flags indicating the water’s current condition/hazard (safety) level. 

  •  2 Red flags = Dangerous for Public swimming (not safe)/No entry into water allowed 
  • 1 Red flag= High hazard potential for strong currents and high waves (not safe)/going in the water is Not Recommended 
  • Yellow = Medium Hazard potential regarding currents and waves (Safe but use caution/be vigilant)/okay to go in the water
  • Green = Water is calm and there is a low hazard potential. One should still use caution as the conditions can change abruptly. (safe, but still use caution)/ okay to go in the waterPurple= dangerous marine life/aquatic creatures, particularly jellyfish

Planning and preparing are two of the most important factors to a safe and successful ocean swim. (Source A)(Source B)(Source C)

Is It Safe to Swim in The Ocean at Sunrise?

It is safest for one to swim during daylight hours. Typically, sometime after dawn and before dusk is recommended. That said, with proper precautions swimming at sunrise can be (is) safe (and, bonus, it can be a refreshing/good way to start one’s day).

One precaution a swimmer can take if swimming at sunrise (anytime really, but particularly at sunrise) is to wear flippers and/or a waist/ankle tethered pull buoy which can make one more visible; thus, making one safer in the water- particularly at sunrise. (One could also opt for a life vest/jacket with a safety whistle; however, swimming in a life vest/jacket can be cumbersome, so it is recommended to at least have a safety whistle. These can be found independent of life vests/jackets and can be worn around the neck/tucked inside a swimsuit/wetsuit to not interfere with swimming).

It is also recommended to opt for a beach that is less congested at that time of the morning- i.e. pick a less popular beach/ocean. This will result in less watercraft and surfer/other water sport traffic to contend with; thus, making your swim safer (and more enjoyable!).  

Preferably, opt for a beach/ocean that has a lifeguard that early in the morning and let the lifeguard on duty know of your swim route/plan. If the location is not guarded by a lifeguard that early in the morning, it is recommended to go with a friend/group. 

Also, as you would any other time of the day, be sure to check the weather and water/wave conditions before heading to your swim location. Once at your swim location, take a moment to observe the water and wave patterns- as was previously mentioned, the wave patterns will let you know what the currents are doing and are a good indicator of any potential hazards/danger in the water.  (Source A)(Source B)

Melissa Frank

My passion, outside of animals, is helping people and adding value to their lives…I strive to leave the world a little better than I woke to it each day. The first part of my career, for a total of about 15 years, was spent in the public safety field as a Volunteer Firefighter/EMT-B and 9-1-1 Operator. In 2019 I obtained my personal trainer certification (ACE certified) as well as many group fitness certifications and certification as a Corrective Exercise Specialist.

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