Ice-swimming in Sweden: Is this the world's most extreme competition?

Elias Liljeström
Elias Liljeström - [email protected]
Ice-swimming in Sweden: Is this the world's most extreme competition?
Keeping your beard dry is a hassle, but at least it gives you some proper insulation. Photo: Olaf Schneider/2017

Recreational, competitive or for health reasons, Scandinavians aren't short on excuses for jumping into the cold winter waters of the north. In Skellefteå they even celebrate it with a yearly festival.


Though the jury is still out on perceived health benefits, outdoor swimming in the middle of the winter is a Scandinavian pastime that is sure to get your endorphins going. This rush might also explain why it's such a popular activity, especially during northern Sweden's long and dark winter months.

The calm before the competition. View of the Skellefte River. Photo: Olaf Schneider/2017

Each year in February a 25-metre lane is cut open on the frozen Skellefte River. It marks the beginning of a festival celebrating the cold and darkness by swimming in the frigid waters.

It is called the Open Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship, held on February 15th, and it boasts not only regular swimming disciplines but also competitions for best costumes... and best poetry (we'll get to that later).

Swimming fast is one way to keep warm. Photo: Olaf Schneider/2017 

More than 400 participants signed up for this year's competitions. Photo: Ted Logardt/2020

This year it was also part of the World Cup, with international participants competing in disciplines such as 25 meter butterfly, 50 meter breast stroke and 100 meter free style. One of the more serious disciplines is the 'hat and cap' race, where headwear is not only mandatory, but the centre of attention.

"A naked body loses 50 percent of its heat through the head. That's why it's important to keep your hat on when winter bathing," said Jarkko Enqvist, one of the organizers, told the Swedish Lapland visitors board.

At least the octopus is trying to stay above the freezing waters. Photo: Olaf Schneider/2017

A competition inspired by the 'city of storytellers' motto of Skellefteå is 'Ice-hole poetry'. Budding poets send in their poems in advance and a jury chose six finalists. The poets then compete by reciting their icy compositions, standing in the shrill-inducing waters, with extra points given for costume and performance.

The poet hole featured a few different kinds of performances this year. Photo: Marcus Nilsson/2020

For those less competitively inclined there is also the option of taking a casual swim in the pool or trying out the 'poetry-hole'.

The winner of the 'isvakspoesi', Ice-hole poetry, competition Anna Nilsson. Photo: Marcus Nilsson/2020

Participants in need of a boost to warm up can find adequate facilities next to the ice in the form of a sauna and hot tub. The typical Scandinavian 'Badtunna' is a wooden hot tub, heated with a wood fired stove. This year's competition ended with an 'afterswim' party in downtown Skellefteå.

There are worse ways of getting warm than sitting in a hot tub, enjoying a beer with your fellow pirates. Photo: Olaf Schneider/2017

The event is organized by the Happy Friends of Cold and Darkness society, whose aim is to bring cold and darkness, in a positive sense, to visitors and inhabitants in the north.

Swedish vocabulary

Sauna – (en) bastu / To use the sauna – 'Att bada bastu'

Hot tub – (en) badtunna (Scandinavian, wooden version) or (ett) spabad (generic term)

Ice-hole – (en) vak or isvak / An ice-hole swim – (ett) isvaksbad

Ice-fishing – pimpla

Ice-fishing rod – (ett) pimpelspö


Would you take a dip in the icy water?

How to get in and out of the dark and cold waters. Photo: Olaf Schneider/2017



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