Splash, Not Trash: 6 Ways To Swim Sustainably Outdoors

February 11th, 2016




We’ve all heard the famous quote by Chief Seattle, ‘Take only memories, leave only footprints’. But it seems there are plenty of people out there who haven’t taken his words to heart. As lovers of the outdoors and wild places, we’ve probably all been pissed off or saddened by litter or campfire remains at what we expected to be an unspoilt remote wilderness spot.

The last thing we want when we escape into the wild are unsightly reminders that humanity has been there before us and done it’s worst.

The unseen impacts we can have as humans in a balanced ecosystem can be just as damaging. Pollution from a lack of knowledge of outdoor hygiene practices (did you pack your shovel?) or from environmentally unfriendly ways of keeping ourselves clean and comfortable in the wild can be exacerbated when we are close to waterways as whatever we put in water can be spread over a wide distance very quickly and can seriously upset the delicate underwater worlds of fish, plants, insects and animals who live there.


The impact (or hopefully lack of impact) of our choices will be felt by everyone who passes through behind us.


We also need to consider our impact on each other when out in the wild. Escaping the rules and authorities of the ‘civilised’ world means entering a realm where we each have responsibility for our own actions. The impact (or hopefully lack of impact) of our choices will be felt by everyone who passes through behind us, including the traditional owners of the land, not to mention the animals, fish, birds and vegetation who call the wild their home.

Here is our list of things to consider (and to discuss with your less wilderness-savvy friends) if you really want to ‘Leave No Trace’ of your wild swimming adventure and leave the area pristine for your children to enjoy.

1) Litter


is perhaps the most obvious culprit as it has the most visual impact. And you’d be surprised how many otherwise sensible people think that throwing cans or bottles in the fire to ‘rot down’ is an effective method of garbage disposal. We thought we were fairly educated when it came to litter but we were shocked to find that an aluminium can will take up to 200 years to decompose and glass bottle can take up to 1,000,000 years. Even an apple core will take around two months to disappear (not to mention possibly introducing a non-native apple tree into the area). To avoid confusion about what constitutes littering, maybe it’s best if we all keep it simple and pack out everything we bring in, disposing of it in the nearest dustbin.


2) Camp fires


are a huge part of the wilderness experience. They somehow connect us back to that primitive part of ourselves. Conversation, food and silence are all enhanced alongside a log fire and there is no better way to finish off a day’s hiking or swimming that gazing at the ‘bush TV’.

However, whilst many locations are completely appropriate for a camp fire, and may even have a ready-made fire ring, others are not. If you are in a national park or state forest campsite there will be clear guidelines about when and where fires are appropriate. In other locations it may be down to you to make the call.

Things to consider are:

  • How remote and unspoilt the location already is. If there are fire-pits already in place, use those. If not then the Leave No Trace Australia Skills and Ethics booklets give several ideas for making a low impact fire so that it doesn’t spoil the experience of the next people who come through.
  • Local fire warnings: Check signs and ask around to find out what the fire risk status is that day. It’s just not worth having a massive bushfire on your conscience for the sake of a few toasted marshmallows.
  • Where your wood comes from. Ideally wood from a sustainable source should be bought locally (to avoid introducing foreign plant diseases) and brought in to your camp. If you gather wood then only small, dead, fallen branches should be gathered.
  • Bring a small gas stove: If you decide that a fire isn’t the go on this occasion, a gas stove is a safe, if less picturesque alternative. Set it up on a rock or some bare earth and no-one will ever know you were there…


3) Skin care and cosmetics


We don’t think of ourselves as walking around covered in poisonous chemicals and yet by wearing most types of sunscreen or bugspray that is exactly what we are doing. Protesters Falls in the Nightcap National Park is a case in point. The area has been closed to swimmers after chemicals from products on swimmers’ skin began affecting the already threatened population of Fleay’s Barred Frogs.

There are a number of natural alternatives available including sunscreens which advertise themselves as ‘reef safe’ although some of these claims are misleading.  When choosing a sunscreen be sure to check the ingredients against this list of sunscreen ingredients which damage coral.  A Spanish study has also suggested that sunscreens containing Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide could react with UV rays and become toxic in the marine environment. The only sunscreen  to be certified ‘Marine Positive’ so far is Aethic Sôvée (which you can buy with free worldwide shipping here*).  When lab tested this groundbreaking sunscreen actually improved the health of corals and shellfish.

There are also natural bug sprays or roll-ons available, made from essential oils which will bio-degrade. However, natural is not the same as non-toxic and in high concentrations, for example in a small swimming hole, these could still disastrously upset the balance of the ecosystem. These may also be harmful to corals, even in small doses.

The only sure-fire way to minimise your chemical impact on a swimming hole is to switch sunscreens and bug sprays for physical barriers to the sun and beasties. Long, lightweight clothing and a large hat are a foolproof option whilst travelling to your destination. Many bushland swimming holes are shaded by trees and bushes but a long-sleeved rashguard with SPF should keep you sun-safe as well as protecting from mosquitoes and other water-loving bugs. Coolibar clothing have a solid range of functional SPF rated clothing and hats and you can buy direct from the Coolibar website here. You can even go the extra mile and dress for your swim in Fourth Element’s revolutionary new range of swimwear made from recycled ghost fishing nets, which mean less rubbish in the ocean and less unnecessary fish deaths.


4) Traditional Indigenous landowners


often have a very deep connection with their local landscapes and particularly with water. Swimming may not always be culturally appropriate  and permits may be required to enter some areas (such as the 51 Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia where land is managed by Indigenous** communities).

However, Indigenous people are often happy to welcome respectful visitors onto their land. If possible find out who the custodians of the land are before travelling and ask about any cultural restrictions affecting the activity you plan on. Check with local tourism agencies, local governments, land and community councils, parks and wildlife agencies or local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander organisations for this information.

We welcome comments on specific location pages about the significance of swimming holes to local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and acceptable cultural practices in each area. We would like the site to contain a lot more information about the way Indigenous people relate to the land and water as we believe there is so much to learn from their historical and current connection to their land and much common ground with the way we feel about swimming holes and other wild places.

If this information isn’t available then acting with general courtesy towards local people you meet and following Tourism Australia’s three Rs of Relationship, Responsibility and Respect is a good start. Also, showing openness to learning about local traditions and culture will make your trip a good experience for everyone involved.


5) Going to the bathroom…


…is a whole different deal outdoors. There are many different theories on the best way to do it without leaving an impact for wildlife or other people.

The debate rages on between pooping on paper towels or in a biodegradeable bag and carrying out your ‘deposits’ in a sealed plastic container (best for freezing temperatures, deserts and those ‘Mummy, I have to poo, now!’ moments), burying it more than six inches deep at least 200 feet from any water, campsites or trails (advocated by the Leave No Trace people and this amusing instructable on pooping in nature), or simply pooping in a secluded area and hoping it will decompose before anyone finds it. Either way all toilet paper and sanitary waste should be packed out, as animals will dig these up, and a good solid shovel will serve you well in many situations. There is no consensus on the best way to wild-poop and environment, ground composition, busyness of the location and temperature all need to be taken into account.  And you thought you were toilet trained!

Don’t be put off by all this controversy though as nature poos can be quite pleasant once you get used to them, honestly! How many toilets do you know with that good of a view?


6) Noise levels


This is a surprisingly complex issue as cultural and personal factors will mean that everyone has a different point at which and acceptable noise level becomes irritating. However, most people go to the bush for peace and tranquility so whilst a yelp of joy (or shock) when jumping into cold water is part of the fun of wild swimming, blaring music, motors and other persistent loud noises are probably going to spoil other people’s enjoyment, not mention scaring off all the amazing wildlife you might otherwise have seen. There are plenty of places (like cities) where constant mechanical background noise is unavoidable, so maybe we should leave the boom boxes at home and enjoy the gentler sounds of running water and wind through leaves for a while.  Noise travels further in the bush too, so even if you think there is no-one for miles around, somebody, somewhere is probably getting a headache from that wicked bass.

Swim Sustainably

We hope this article will inspire questions and debate and a thoughtful, considerate attitude to being in the bush. Leaving no trace in the bush requires a little more forethought but adds to the challenge and adventure of a wild swimming  experience. And there’s no doubt that it’s the way forward.

In the words of the poet Krista Kurth, “Tread lightly on the earth – you are walking on the back of your own children’s future.”

* This post contains affiliate links and we receive a percentage of any sale made after clicking through from our website. We carefully research the products and services we recommend and hope that we can save you time by pointing you in the direction of the best wild swimming-related resources out there. We appreciate you buying products you want and need through our links as this allows us to continue to provide information about swimming holes and wild swimming in Australia free of charge via this website.

**Indigenous Australians are descendants of the original inhabitants of Australia who lived here for thousands of years before the first European settlers arrived. There are two distinct ethnic groups: Aboriginals, who live on mainland Australia and Torres Strait Islanders who live in the Torres Strait.

We would love to know what you think


  1. Andrew

    Thank you for the post and for the great idea behind the website: wild swimming is a favourite pastime! I share your concern, but not perhaps your optimism, on the worsening state of some of the more accessible natural areas, particularly for swimming.

    A creek not far from Brisbane, Cedar Creek, near Samford, is a special place, being loved (and sometimes not so-loved) to death. It’s a place I have visited regularly for many years (and should be included in your blog, btw!). It used to be something of a secret, but like all good secrets, word gets out and now is exceptionally popular on summer weekends.

    My partner and I always come back with two full bags of litter collected from the 20 minute rock up to the main swimming hole. I don’t mind trying to keep an area special, but when I think that the people who dropped this litter (or sprayed the graffiti on the rocks) also visited this place precisely because they too believe it is special, I am become frustrated at their disconnect! If they were indifferent about the place, I could almost understand it!

    And I totally support your comments about sunscreen, particularly in this El Nino year when many of our (Queensland) creeks are running very low considering the ‘wet’ season is now at an end.

    Good luck with the website.

    • Rachel Lewis

      Thanks so much for your comment Andrew. Andy has actually been to Cedar Creek but we have yet to write up the location post. Coming soon! :) We too get so frustrated at the disparity between how much people seem to love these places and the way they are treated. But we just keep doing what we can do, as it sounds like you and your partner are. Always great to meet other people on the same wavelength so thanks for saying hello.

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