What constitutes a safe swimming area?

Photo by Michael Roytek

When planning an aquatic Scouting event, you should review BSA safety resources beforehand. There are several tailored to specific activities, and they can all be found in the Aquatics Supervision leader’s guide.

Part of Safe Swim Defense calls for establishing a safe swimming area. But what all should you consider when setting up a swimming area in a lake, river or ocean?

Water depth, clarity, current, temperature and the quality of the water are all important factors. Each presents a potential danger. Hazards must be removed or clearly marked, and every swimmer must be aware of them. Let’s take a look at each of these considerations outlined in Safe Swim Defense:

Controlled Access

Establish safe areas for all swimming ability groups to enter and leave the water. The ability groups include swimmer, beginner and non-swimmer. Both swimmers and beginners must jump into deep water, level off, swim and turn sharply. Swimmers can swim 100 yards using different strokes; beginners are able to swim 50 feet. Those who cannot complete either of these tests are classified as non-swimmers. The swimming areas must be defined for each ability group.

Bottom Conditions and Depth

The bottom of the swimming area must be clear of trees and debris. Drop-offs are not allowed in the non-swimmer area. Place floats to mark any underwater hazards. The maximum recommended water depth in clear water is 12 feet, 8 feet in turbid water.


Nobody should be swimming underwater or diving in turbid water, which is defined as when a swimmer can’t see their feet when he or she is treading water. Swimming at night is allowed where there is good visibility both above and below the surface.

Diving and Elevated Entry

Swimmers can dive into clear, unobstructed water from heights no greater than 40 inches. Water depth must be sufficient to prevent contacting the bottom. You shouldn’t jump into water from heights greater than you are tall. That means no cliff-jumping. You also shouldn’t jump off an elevated area where you must clear any obstacle.

Water Temperature

The comfortable water temperature for swimming is near 80 degrees. Activity in water 70 degrees or less should be of limited duration and closely monitored for negative effects of chilling.

Water Quality

Avoid swimming in stagnant, foul water; areas with significant algae or foam; or areas polluted by livestock or waterfowl. Do not swim in dirty swimming pools.

Moving Water

You should be able to easily regain and maintain your footing in currents or waves. Avoid areas with large waves, swiftly flowing currents or moderate currents that flow toward the open sea or into dangerous areas.


Get out of the water whenever lightning or thunder threatens. Wait at least 30 minutes after the last lightning flash or thunder clap before considering leaving shelter.

Life Jacket Use

You can swim in deeper or flowing water if everyone is wearing properly fitted, Coast Guard–approved life jackets and the supervisor determines that swimming with life jackets is safe. A properly fitted life jacket doesn’t reach above your ears in the water or when lifted at the shoulders on land.

More resources

You can find more information about water safety and policies here.

For tips from Water Safety USA, click here.

About Michael Freeman 435 Articles
Michael Freeman, an Eagle Scout, is an associate editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines.