Safety tips for swimming in Lake Tahoe, other regional water bodies

Besides its spectacular natural beauty, a plunge into Lake Tahoe can literally take your breath away. It may be warm outside, but the lake can be dangerously cold.

Lake Tahoe’s average surface temperature in the summer is 63 degrees, and can drop to 53 degrees just 18 inches below the surface. And many other regional water bodies have colder-than-you-might-think temperatures during the summer months.

One of the most dangerous consequences of submerging suddenly into cold water is a “cold-shock response.” This response is an uncontrollable gasp for air, followed by a prolonged period of rapid breathing. Taking a couple gasps of air underwater is all it takes to drown.

Another “cold-shock response” when temperature of the blood cools down and returns to the heart is a heart attack.

So what can we learn from others who take a dangerous plunge? Here are few tips for a fun and safe day at the lake:

1. Ease in Slowly: Take your time getting in the water. Give your body time to adjust to the cooler temperature.

2. Follow the Rules: Swimmers should stay in designated areas. If you are paddling, wear a PFD (personal flotation device). Non-motorized crafts have the right of way, but be aware of power boats.

3. Watch for Obstacles: With the heavy amount of snow we had this winter, you may notice extra vegetation and debris near and along the shoreline. Before jumping into the water, scout out any obstacles and jump in feet first. Whether you are swimming or paddling, know how to look for and avoid obstacles.

4. Be Weather Aware: On Lake Tahoe especially, weather varies by the hour. Don’t wait for the weather to change. Be aware of your surroundings and know the easiest way to shore.

5. Skip Swimming and Drinking: Alcohol impairs judgment and increases risk-taking, a dangerous combination. Even experienced swimmers may venture out farther than they should. A leg cramp can make it challenging to get back to shore, and even a chill can develop into hypothermia.

6. Bring a Buddy: Never swim alone. If you haven’t seen your buddy for a couple of minutes, he or she may need your help.

7. Supervise your Children: Keep an eye on your children, especially if they are inexperienced swimmers. If possible, teach your little ones to swim at a young age.

In short, summer at Lake Tahoe is a treasurable time with family and friends. Do your best to keep it that way — swim with caution and enjoy this magnificent body of water.

Cate Neal, RN, is the Trauma Program Manager at Barton Memorial Hospital’s Level III Trauma Center. Go to to learn more.


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