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The Polar Bear Plunge: What Is It and How To Do It

November 02, 2021 6 min read

To most of us, there’s no debate about the appeal of swimming on hot summer days; taking a refreshing dip into the pool with yourfavorite float when it’s 93 degrees out is a natural choice.

Then, when the summer fades and the winter months roll in, we replace the recreation of swimming with activities that tend to be warmer, like sipping tea around the fireplace. However, there are still somemany in fact, who embrace swimming in cold water in the dead of winter.

They call it... The Polar Bear Plunge. 

What Is It? 

The Polar Bear Plunge is a shocking, exhilarating, frigid swim in freezing water during the coldest time of year, most commonly held on New Years Day.

You could go out and do it by yourself (albeit that would qualify you for a whole other level of insane among polar swimmers). But usually, the swim takes place in the context of an organized event to raise money for charity organizations, often the Special Olympics. 

The Plunge, of course, is named after the arctic marine mammal. Polar bears have no problem managing the cold waters of Antarctica. They have layers of blubber and fur that create nearly25 centimeters of insulation.

Plus, they can weigh up to ten times the amount of a full-grown man. Lastly, they possess evolved genes and a diet that allows them to convert nutrients into body heat at a rapid rate. (They’re also adorable and terrifying, but that’s a post for another day.)

Humans have named their winter swimming efforts after this incredible animal, but it isn’t quite accurate. In reality, people tend to be in and out of the water during their plunge, while polar bears can constantly swim for days at a time!

The History 

In the United States, the first Polar Bear Plunge is said to have taken place on New Years Day 1902, in Boston, MA. It was organized by a swim club called the L Street Brownies.

However, long before that, people in Nordic countries were taking icy dives through holes cut in the ice for reasons separate from raising money.

Wait, so there’s actually a reason to swim in freezing water aside from raising money for a noble cause? While it may not reason enough for everyone. Some people seek out the physical and mental health benefits that come with freezing your tail off from time to time.

It’s not just an ancient practice either; people today are still practicing ice swimming in different forms. Denmark alone has over 20,000 people registered as “Ice-breakers” and 75 winter swim clubs. 

Why Would Any Sane Person Take the Plunge?

Now adapted as the official day of The Polar Plunge, people have been using New Years Day as the day for their frigid dip for centuries. Each person has their own reasons for participating.

While partial insanity may be a valid reason for some ice swimmers, people embrace the activity for the thrill, health benefits, camaraderie, and to raise money. Others do it as a way to start the fresh year with a positive mindset. Their reason is that if they can withstand The Polar Plunge, then the rest of the year’s obstacles will seem that much easier (and warmer) in comparison. 

Are There Health Benefits From the Polar Plunge?

Studies have shown that manyhealth benefits come along with submerging yourself in cold water or adding cold showers to your routine. Cold water submersion forces the body to react to a change in condition.

This increases the production of white blood cells, which results in a boost of the immune system. Additional benefits are increased circulation: the heart pumps faster to keep the body warm, pumps blood quickly and flushes your veins, and reduces inflammation.

The Polar Plunge can help with mental health as well. The combination of the thrill and the body's natural state of overdrive as it responds to the drastic change produces endorphins that result in a natural high.

This benefit is sought after intentionally by ice swimmers in Nordic countries, where the winter season doesn’t see a lot of sunlight and seasonal depression is common. 

Unmatched Camaraderie 

Unless you’re a lone wolf/bear, there is an undeniable level of camaraderie that comes along with The Polar Bear Plunge. Take that fateful jump into the stingingly cold water with another person or group, and there is an instant bond created around mutual exhilaration and suffering.

Shared challenges tend to create lasting bonds, and The Plunge is a unique bond that you’ll share with those at your event and those all over the world who’ve done the same. This is especially true of events raising money for the Special Olympics. Camaraderie surrounding a good cause has to be the best kind there is.

Special Olympics Fundraising 

Today there are opportunities all over the country to participate in The Polar Bear plunge while raising money for the Special Olympics. The Special Olympics is an organization that provides those with special needs a chance to participate in organized sporting events and achieve their goals.

Polar Bear Plunge events with a goal to support an organization such as the Special Olympics are sure to be a fun time for the whole family. Not to mention, it’s a great chance to make new friends while doing something wild with a purpose!

How Do I Participate in the Polar Plunge? 

You could wait until the temperature drops low and go out on a whim to your nearest ocean, lake, or pond and do a polar bear flop.Yeah, that’s one way to do it, although there are some best practices to be aware of.

With thoughtful planning, you can make your plunge that much better and more meaningful. There are certain items you’ll want to bring along with you for your plunge, some techniques you might want to practice, and events to register for that will make your plunge the best it can be.

What Should I Bring to The Polar Plunge? 

To get in the water, you don’t need much but a bathing suit and a whole lot of boldness. To embrace the fun and have something to support you while you’re freezing in the water, it would do you well to bring afestive pool float.

Aside from that, it’s after The Plunge you have left to prepare for. You’re going to want to bring items along with you to help warm you up.

Be prepared:

Bring a large towel to wrap around you as soon as you run out of the water; you’ve got to get dry as quickly as you can. Once you’re dry, jump in a warm car that you have waiting for you, preferably with a loved one there to support you in your freezing state. 

In the car, you should have a sweatsuit to get into, a blanket to wrap around you, and a hot drink to hold. Sip your toasty drink proudly as you defrost in the warm air (and holiday music) blasting from the car vents. 

Where Do I Sign Up? 

There are Polar Bear Plunge events all over the world supporting a number of causes. Check out theSpecial Olympics database for Polar Bear Plunge events in your area. 

You can find assorted local options, or you can plan for a large event such as the Plungefest at Sandy Point State Park in Maryland, where thousands of participants raise millions of dollars!.

In recent years due to COVID-19, it has become popular to create a Polar Bear Plunge event of your own. If you’re good at rallying people, consider organizing an event in your area.

You can even do a small-scale event in your backyard using astylish inflatable poolfilled with ice water. Virtual plunge fundraisers are available as well, which involve documenting your Polar Bear Plunge and sharing it with a group of people who are doing the same while raising money for charity. 

Making Memories

Family and friends will be thrilled to face the Polar Bear Plunge right at home and then run back in the house to get warm! 

If you haven’t done it, this is your year. The Polar Bear plunge is a thrill you won’t forget. If ice-cold swimming isn’t your thing, don’t worry, soon it will be summer again!


How do polar bears stay warm? | Science Focus

8 Benefits of Cold Water Swimming | IPRS Health

Polar Plunge® for Special Olympics | Special Olympics

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