Category 1

Winter bathing

December 10, 2021

Is cold water the secret to Danish happiness?

When temperatures drop, the last thing on most people's minds is to go outside, strip off and take a plunge into near freezing water. That is, however, what a large percentage of the Danish population do each winter. Why on earth would someone choose to do this? Well, it turns out that the benefits are pretty convincing.

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by Saskia Weneit

Tirsbæk Strand in Vejle. Each winter season two saunas invite you to warm up after a cold dip. Credit: Saskia Weneit

Bathing in 11 Degrees? That’s for beginners. At least if you are one the numerous Danes that enjoy a dip in the near-freezing ocean from October to April. 

As soon as the winter bathing season starts, you see Danes stripping off, swimming in the sea and getting excited with each degree less in the water. The temperature can get as cold as 2 °C. No surprise that most winter bathers combine swimming with a stay in the sauna. 

Why? Because it is a healthy, refreshing, even social activity. And it makes you happy. 

In this episode, we try to find out what is so Danish about it and if there is something in the Viking heritage that explains the madness. 

After reading you are ready to give it a try. Or at least you understand why the Danes love winter bathing – and even founded clubs around it...

What is winter bathing?

In general

Winter bathing is a popular phenomenon in Denmark with a huge history. But what does it exactly mean? It is quite easy: people go to the beach, dress up and dip into the cold water – either in swimwear or naked. Usually they stay in the water for 20 to 40 seconds. A lot of them are standing still, others take a little swim. 

Afterwards they either dress up again or go into the sauna to heat up. Mostly there is at least one sauna at a winter bathing hotspot, provided by the commune or an association. You can see people in towels standing at the sea bridge – if there is one – breathing, looking at the ocean or doing some push ups (seriously!) and after a couple of minutes, they go into the water again. Others are done after the first cold bath. 

Is it about calming down or just a thrill?

Sam admits that he was confused by the name “winter bathing”, because “bathing” sounds so relaxing. 

Looking into Josefines face – a Dane that refuses to even touch the cold water – winter bathing has nothing to do with calming down or even joy. 

But if you watch winterbathers, they do look relaxed.  

"I saw so many smiling faces at the beach after their cold dip. They immediately get calm after they enter the water. I wanted to feel that, too. So I tried. And to me, it is a beautifully calm experience. But to be honest: not the first time. That was more yelling and making strange noises to deal with the freaking cold water", says Saskia.

Saskia after her first winter bathing in the Vejle Fjord, warming up with hot tea. The water was 11 degrees and it was really really cold. Credit: Saskia Weneit

Time to talk with an experienced winter bather. Helle Gollers, a yoga teacher and online marketing expert based in Vejle, uses winter bathing to reconnect with herself and nature every Monday for two years. The 36 years old Dane describes:

"I feel refreshed and more focused, more balanced. All the stress, the thoughts and all the worrying are just washed away. You cannot think about anything else than being right there in the moment with your breathing. That is really powerful to me."

Smiling faces and tingling skin

The risk of addiction

Helle was sceptical, how her body would react to the cold water. She expected to freeze. But to her surprise, when she got out, something completely different happened. Since then, she goes winter bathing two to three times a week and admits: she needs the cold!

After three minutes, my body went warm. And my skin was just so alive! It was tingling all over my body – in a good way. That is how I figured out, this is something for me." (Helle)

A lot of medical benefits

To get an understanding of the popularity of winter swimming in Denmark, we have to look to the medical benefits. And there are a lot!

In general winter bathers catch less cold than non winter swimmers. And thank to many studies all over the world, there are valuable reasons for winter bathing:

  • Empowers the immune system
  • Strengthens the heart
  • Improves blood circulation
  • Boosts metabolism
  • Reduces pain, helps with migraine and rheumatism
  • Improves skin health and tone – magical effect: it can make you look younger
  • Increases the libido
  • Burns calories

Isn't that tempting? Who doesn’t want a better metabolism and younger skin?!  

Danes love the natural high

So is it like an “happiness boot camp”? Somehow. In fact, the cold water gives your body a shock that leads to an enormous endorphin kick. That explains the smiling after the winter bathing.

An icy dip releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, serotonin, cortisol and dopamine, which gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Is it one of the reasons why Danes are so happy?

Many studies have identified the link between cold water and stress reduction. Cold water swimmers become calmer and more relaxed. Studies confirm that it improves mental health. In the long term, your memory skills improve and you sleep better.

Jørgen Hedevan, based in Aalborg, chairman of the Danish Winter Bathing Association and a winter bather for 12 years, points out: 

"I don’t feel any stress since I am winter bathing." (Jørgen Hedevan)

If you think about the dark winter period, it is understandable, whay Danes would use winter bathing to cope with the lack of sunlight. Denmark can be really miserable from November to April. A lot of people suffer from mild winter depression. 

"It is seen to boost your mood during the long, dark winter." (Josefine)


So it really makes you happy? When asking Mette BL Thomsen, the first Danish ice-swimming champion, it is a straigt yes. The 60 years old nurse goes ice-swimming every morning and introduces herself with “I love life”.

"If you are in a bad mood or angry, it just events this out. You can not be depressed. You can not be unhappy. At least you can get reasons to be happy and more happy. It’s wonderful!" (Mette)

A Viking phenomenon? The history of winter bathing in Denmark

It runs deep in the Danish history

The Danes have been throwing themselves into cold water on dark days since the end of the 19th century. The sea is never far away in Denmark. Nowadays, the coastline gives you 8.700 km of opportunities to discover facilities at the beaches like saunas and changing areas.

Josefine remembers that her grandfather was also an enthusiastic winter bather.  

"We are doing it for generations!" (Josefine)

Bathe like a Viking 

Is it because of the deep connection to the water? Other nations like Sweden or Australia do it, too. So, why are the Danes so into it? 

“I think there is this Viking thing deep down in our brain, in our history, in the DNA of a Dane. That we’re connected to water and boats”, the ice-swimming Mette explains.

Fun fact: bathing in cold water is also called Viking swimming in Denmark. A lot of clubs associate themselves to Viking history and put that in their name, like the “AalborgVikingeklubben Isbjørnen”, where Jørgen is a member. He explains also the common tradition of the Viking baptism after two years of winter bathing. That means, you get a Viking name.

“We dress up with something we believe was kind of close to what Vikings were wearing. It is a very heavy scenario”, Jørgen explains whilst laughing.

It is a social thing! The Danes and their club culture 

The first winter bathing establishment was founded in Copenhagen 1913: Helgoland Badeanstalt on Amager. Nowadays, there are around 170 winter bathing clubs with over 61.000 members and long long waiting lists. Why? Because as a member you get unlimited access to the sauna. Besides, the Danes love their clubs. There are associations for everything. 

"It is more about being a part of a society for me, People are connected, like friends, like couples." (Jørgen, who meets his clubfellows every saturday for swimming and breakfast)

The other extreme: ice swimming

A new Danish national sport?

There is another thing called ice-swimming.

The former Danish ice-swimming champion Mette was the first Dane who attended a world championship in ice swimming. In 2014 in Finland she swam 450 meters in minus one cold water. She won a bronze medal and never stopped loving to swim in ice water. 

Now she wants to establish ice swimming as a national sport in Denmark. Why? Because it is for everyone, it’s simple and wonderful.

"No matter what age you are, from where you are from and what language you speak: you can do it!" (Mette)

Winter bathing safely

Before you enter the water

Sam shares, how he convinces himself to go winter bathing:

"If I make the decision to go, then there are no excuses. I remind me of the good feeling afterwards." (Sam)

Tips for beginners:

  • Start slow, breath, listen to your instincts, accept the cold, be honest to yourself
  • Don’t go if you have high blood pressure or medical heart problems
  • Never swim on your own. The cold can shock you so you fade out, which is life threatening
  • Beware of ice on the stairways and bridges
  • Wear the right kit: a hat helps to preserve the body heat
  • Never enter ice cold water straight from the sauna

When you are in the water 

  • Know your limits: As the temperature drops, decrease the amount of time you spend in the water. In winter, swimmers often only swim for one or two minutes at a time
  • Breathe slowly
  • Keep an eye on each other
  • Stay close to a staircase or a ladder
  • Never swim underneath the ice
  • No diving

What to bring

  • Towels, Bathrobe, warm clothes that are easy to put on
  • Something warm to drink afterwards
  • Also consider extra "clothing" for when you are in the water (swimming hat; neoprene gloves, shoes – whatever you feel comfortable with)

Main takeaways

Summing up the episode:

  • There are lots of medical benefits: it increases the immune system and it has a huge impact on mental health. It gives you an endorphin kick that makes you happy. 
  • It is a social event: there are around 170 winter bathing clubs in Denmark and the social part is important. It connects people.
  • The Viking heritage: even the Vikings knew it was healthy to bath in cold water. Winter bathing is also called winter swimming. A lot of clubs even have a viking baptism after two years.
  • How to do it: do it safely. Never go alone and be aware of the risk of fainting. Breathe and start slowly. 

What do you think?

If you haven't already, then you might enjoy listening to the show which you can do (for free) by subscribing to What The Denmark on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms. 

We’d love to hear about your experience with winter bathing. Head over to our Instagram feed where you can read what others have to say, as well as letting us know what you think.

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