How Long Can You Swim in 50-Degree Water?

Swimming in cold water is no walk in the park – it could push your body to the brink of hypothermia if you’re not prepared. Your main concern should be the sudden exposure to chilly water, which can lead to cold water shock, as well as loss of consciousness, which can occur in just a few minutes.

How Long Can You Swim in 50-Degree Water

The average person can reach total exhaustion and lose consciousness in 50-degree water in as little as 30 minutes. For this reason, you should always wear a wetsuit and other insulating gear such as neoprene socks, gloves, and a neoprene cap if you want to not only stay warm, but stay safe in cold water.

In this article, we’ll explore the effects of cold water on your body, the risks associated with swimming in 50-degree water, and how long you can expect to swim safely in such conditions.

How the Human Body Reacts to Cold Water

When you swim in cold water with a temperature of around 50 degrees, your body can react in various ways.

One of the most significant risks you face is hypothermia, a condition where your core body temperature drops below the normal range.

To keep your core temperature as high as possible, as your skin comes into contact with cold water, the blood vessels in your extremities – such as your hands and feet – constrict to conserve heat, prioritizing your vital organs.

Cold water can also trigger a phenomenon called cold water shock, which causes an involuntary gasp reflex, followed by rapid breathing. This sudden reaction can lead to panic and make it difficult for you to swim or stay afloat.

Lastly, your body can acclimatize to cold water over time as you consistently swim in colder temperatures. This adaptation can lead to increased heat generation and improved heat conservation in your body.

The Role of Body Fat and Muscle in Temperature Regulation

While everyone’s reaction to cold water differs, the role of body fat and muscle cannot be overlooked. Individuals with a higher body fat percentage might find it easier to tolerate water that is too cold for others since fat acts as natural insulation.

On the other hand, people with more muscle mass can generate heat faster due to increased metabolism when exercising, which might help in keeping the core temperature stable while swimming. That said, muscle does not help you with buoyancy, but fat does.

With that said, you are not likely to intentionally increase body fat or muscle mass for the purposes of cold water swimming, nor is it worth the effort. It’s better to acclimate your body to the water temperature or to simply wear a wetsuit instead.

Common Risks of Swimming in 50 Degree Water

Swimming in 50-degree water can be quite an adventure, but can come with some significant risks. At this temperature, your body can be affected in ways you might not expect. Let’s have a look at some of the potential dangers associated with swimming in 50-degree water.

As mentioned, hypothermia can set in quickly in 50-degree water. The reason is because your body loses heat more rapidly in cold water than in air at the same temperature. As your core body temperature drops, it becomes difficult for you to maintain normal bodily functions. In extreme cases, this can lead to organ failure or even death.

You should also be aware of your age and physical condition when taking the plunge into colder water. With age, your body’s ability to generate heat decreases, so older individuals may be more susceptible to hypothermia. Children, on the other hand, have a higher ratio of surface area to body weight, making them lose heat more rapidly and face a higher risk of hypothermia.

Another potential risk of swimming in cold water is the so-called cold water shock. This happens when your body experiences a sudden drop in temperature, causing an involuntary gasp, sometimes followed by hyperventilation. If you’re submerged in water during this reaction, it can lead to the accidental inhalation of water, increasing the chance of drowning.

Furthermore, prolonged exposure to cold water can reduce your muscle function and fine motor skills. This becomes particularly dangerous if you struggle to swim or stay afloat due to fatigue or loss of strength. The inability to swim effectively may lead to drowning, even for experienced swimmers.

Lastly, loss of consciousness can happen as a result of sudden heart failure brought on by the stress your body endures from the cold water. This is especially concerning if you’re swimming alone because rescue may not be possible in such circumstances.

How Long Can You Actually Swim in 50 Degree Water?

Factors Influencing Swimming Duration

When considering how long you can swim in 50-degree water, several factors come into play.

Your age, body fat, fitness level, and tolerance to cold water will all affect your ability to withstand the colder temperatures.

Additionally, wearing a wetsuit can help insulate your body from the cold, prolonging the time you can spend swimming.

Weather conditions also play a role, as wind and waves can reduce your body temperature even further.

With these factors in mind, it can be hard to give an exact number for how long you can swim in 50 degree water, but we can give an estimated guess within a range.

Estimated Times and Warnings

While there is no exact number for how long you can swim in 50-degree water, some general guidelines can help you gauge your limits.

The table below lists the time until you lose consciousness, as well as the expected survival times in various water temperatures ranging from warm to freezing. This information was sourced from this website.

Expected Survival Time in Cold Water
Water Temperature Unconsciousness Expected Survival Time
>80°F (>26.7°C) indefinite indefinite
70–80°F (21–27°C) 3–12 hours 3 hours – indefinite
60–70°F (16–21°C) 2–7 hours 2–40 hours
50–60°F (10–16°C) 1–2 hours 1–6 hours
40–50°F (4–10°C) 30–60 minutes 1–3 hours
32.5–40°F (0–4°C) 15–30 minutes 30–90 minutes
<32°F (<0°C) under 15 minutes under 15–45 minutes

The data that is most relevant to this article is in the third row from the bottom, where it is estimated you will reach total exhaustion or lose consciousness within 30-60 minutes of swimming in 50-degree or colder water.

Unless you are swimming with a buddy or wearing a life jacket, losing consciousness is already a death sentence. If you happen to be wearing a flotation device, you can survive for much longer, giving you some extra time to be rescued.

Keep in mind that these are just average estimates, and that there have been outliers throughout history where people have survived far longer than the times listed in the table above.

Guidelines for Swimming in Cold Water

Cold Water Acclimatization

To swim in 50-degree water, acclimatizing your body is essential. Cold water can affect your muscles and breathing, so it’s crucial to build up your tolerance gradually.

Begin by swimming in comfortable water temperatures (refer again to the table above) and progressively lower the temperature to increase your cold water resistance.

Remember that each individual has unique levels of comfort and ability to tolerate cold. Be patient and listen to your body when exposing yourself to colder water.

Safety Measures to Consider

When swimming in cold water, always prioritize safety. Wearing a wetsuit, neoprene gloves, dive booties, and a neoprene cap can help insulate your body and preserve core temperature.

A lifejacket is advisable, as cold shock and loss of consciousness could increase the risk of drowning. Be vigilant about weather conditions, as cold air and water temperature can exacerbate the situation.

Swimming with a buddy is another important precaution, as they can offer help in emergencies. Additionally, warming up your muscles before entering the water can be beneficial, and avoid staying in cold water for extended periods.

Remember that children, older adults, and pregnant individuals have a lower tolerance for cold water, so they should probably avoid swimming in cold water.

Emergency Procedures

In cold water, hypothermia and cold water shock are real risks. Know the symptoms of hypothermia, which include shivering, confusion, and loss of dexterity in your extremities. 

Cold water shock can make breathing difficult, cause panic, and potentially lead to heart failure. If you or someone else exhibits these signs, immediately leave the water and initiate warming procedures.

Always have an emergency plan, whether swimming alone or with a group. This can include carrying a phone in a waterproof bag, informing someone on land of your location, and knowing the nearest exits or rescue points. Regular practice and preparedness can save your life in cold water emergencies.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does hypothermia take in 50-degree water?

Hypothermia can set in very quickly when swimming in cold temperatures like 50-degree water. In fact, it could take only a matter of minutes for your body to lose heat and succumb to hypothermia. Always remember that cold water drains body heat up to 4 times faster than cold air, which increases the risk of hypothermia rapidly.

Can you swim in 50-degree water with a wetsuit?

A wetsuit is highly recommended when swimming in 50-degree water, as it can help significantly in retaining your body heat and protecting you from the risk of hypothermia. Wetsuits are designed to trap a thin layer of water between your body and the suit, allowing your body heat to warm up the water and create an insulating layer.

How does the 50-degree water rule apply to swimming safety?

The 50-degree water rule suggests that a person has a 50-50 chance to swim 50 yards in water at 50°F (10°C). Keep in mind that this rule highlights the danger of swimming in cold water without proper precautions. Make sure to at least wear a wetsuit, and be aware of the risk of cold shock, which could cause drastic changes in your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Can a person survive swimming in cold water for an extended time?

Surviving an extended swim in cold water largely depends on how well prepared you are for the swim. With proper gear, like a wetsuit, and awareness of the risks, it’s possible to swim for a longer duration in cold water. However, if you’re not well prepared or aware of the signs of hypothermia, cold shock, or fatigue, your chances of swimming safely for longer periods decrease significantly. Be cautious and prepared when attempting to swim in cold water.