How I’ve Survived — and Thrived — at the CCAN “Keep Winter Cold” Polar Bear Plunge

In Articles by Lori Hill2 Comments

Historically, I’ve never been a big lover of the cold. When I was a kid and it snowed,  I was always the first one inside.  I really, really hate the cold and right now, I’m craving 95-degree summer days.

Yet for the past 11 years, I get really, really cold at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s “Keep Winter Cold” Polar Bear Plunge to fight global climate change. I view it as mere seconds out of my life for the most important cause of our lifetime. It’s also really, really fun, inspiring and motivating.

I’ve learned a lot over the past eleven years, so here are my tips for surviving and thriving at the plunge.

Dress Warm

The night before the plunge, I pick out everything I plan to wear during the Pre-Plunge Rally and after the plunge (see What to Pack below). For my first layer, I wear my bathing suit because it makes stripping down in the changing tents go a heckuva lot faster. I follow that layer with a camisole top (okay, guys may not wear this) and thermal underwear. A turtleneck and a pullover, along with a fleece vest and my winter coat round out the remaining layers (I told you I hate being cold). On the bottom, I wear thermal underwear, jeans, and my ski pants, warm socks, and winter boots.

What to Pack

This is what I pack for the plunge and post-plunge:

  • shoes for the water (I wear Keens, but old running shoes work well, too. DO NOT WEAR FLIP FLOPS. They will fly off as soon as you hit the water (I learned this the hard way my first year).
  • a beach towel to wrap myself in before and after the plunge
  • a bathrobe if I plan to chit chat and pose for photos by the water before and after the plunge
  • a reusable Chico bag that I place my wet suit and water shoes in after the plunge –#ReusablesNotDisposables
  • underwear (since my bathing suit is wet)
  • a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated and/or a travel mug for my hot beverage — #ReusablesNotDisposables
  • a handkerchief or two for my runny noise #ReusablesNotDisposables

Dress Up

While wearing a costume to the plunge is not a requirement, it definitely makes the experience more fun! In 2014, I began dressing in climate-themed costumes to attract more attention to the cause and help spread the message across social media (attention grabbing images get hits!). Fellow plungers and supporters ask to take pictures of me or with me and I’ve met great people this way, too. Watch my Polar Bear Plunge playlist on YouTube to see the different get ups my friend and make-up artist Kim Reyes creates for me each year.

And don’t even think I’m going to share what I’m dressing as this year! I always keep it a surprise until you see me the morning of the plunge. 

Eating Plunge Morning

Since I get up around 6 a.m. on plunge day, I eat a few vegan pancakes and maybe some fake bacon to keep me sustained until I can enjoy the free food at the Plunge (details below). I also pop some vitamin C and zinc (which I try to start taking a day or two before the plunge), and drink echinacea tea to keep my immune system from getting cranky with me. 

Getting to the Plunge      

On a good day without traffic, I can drive to National Harbor in about 40 minutes from Takoma Park. But this is DC folks, so that means we should factor in an additional 10 to 15 minutes in case there is an accident or some other traffic mishap. Be sure to check Google maps NOW to see how long it will take you to drive to National Harbor on a Saturday morning with an arrival time of 10:00 a.m. Use McLoone’s Restaurant (141 National Harbor Boulevard, Oxon Hill, MD 20745) as your destination since the restaurant is next to the parking lot and is the location of the after-party (woo hoo!). And of course, check Google maps the morning of the plunge, too, to see if there is a traffic snafu. 

By the way, you definitely want to arrive at 10:00 a.m. for many reasons:

  • If you are one of the first 50 vehicles to arrive, you’ll get free parking
  • You’ll beat the registration lines
  • You’ll have a chance to check out the free warm drinks and pastries 
  • You’ll get to see other plungers and pose for photos. This is also a great time to begin posting photos on social media to help your fundraising efforts and to raise awareness about CCAN and climate change. Heck, you might even get more donations that morning!

An additional note on parking: If I’m able to park near the changing tents, I tend to leave my gear in the car and then grab it on the way to the changing tents. Otherwise, I keep it with me to save time during the transition from rally to plunge. 


Registration is divided alphabetically, so be sure to read the signs! If you didn’t sign your waiver, you’ll be asked to do that. You’ll also get a set of foot warmers and, depending on the amount of money you raised, you’ll also receive a voucher for a t-shirt and other great giveaways. Use this time to thank the CCAN staff and volunteers for all their hard work! 

Pre-Plunge Rally

Every year rousing speakers in warm clothes pump us up before we plunge our bodies into frigid water. They keep it brief (for the most part) because they know we’re cold and just want to get going with the plunge! It’s fun and motivating and not to be missed (or you might miss the actual plunge!).

Changing Before the Plunge

After the rally, grab your gear, find a spot in the changing tent (there are male and female tents, and a smaller tent for those requiring more privacy), plop your bag, strip down to your suit, and put on your water shoes. Wrap a towel around you and head to the water! 

Getting in the Water

It’s always fun to have a plunge partner, but if your partner is using another tent, agree on a place to meet after you are dressed and ready to get in. The plunge site can become a mob scene and it is sometimes difficult to locate others.

Just before you plunge, drop your towel near the stone wall or ask a non-plunger to hold it and GO FOR IT!

My husband John shoots video of my plunge so I make sure he is right next to me before I head into the water to ensure he documents every moment! If you can, have someone shoot video of your plunge or, if you have a GoPro, bring that into the water, but hold on tight. You don’t want to accidentally drop it in the Potomac!

Run into the water as far as you can. Keep in mind, there’s no required amount of you that you have to get wet. Go up to your ankles, knees, waist, or further. It’s up to you! I usually go out to the water until my short legs are fully covered and then crouch down in the water to submerge up to my neck. I choose not to get my head wet, but other plungers dive right in. I don’t go too far out because my legs get numb and I want to be sure they are still functioning to get me back to shore!

Changing After the Plunge

On warmer plunge days (when the temperature is above 35) I find myself lingering after the plunge, but these also tend to be years I get sick! So I now make a point to strike a few quick poses and then change out of my wet gear right away.

Once inside the changing tent, I dry off, put all my wet gear in my Chico bag, and change into my clean underwear and warm clothes. Changing post plunge is sometimes worse than the actual plunge because my feet are so cold and it is hard to put on socks. If you haven’t already, this is the time to place the foot warmers in your shoes. Your feet will thaw out much more quickly.

Important! Before I leave the tent, I check the area around me to be sure I haven’t left anything behind.

Attending the After-Party

I love attending the after-party at McLoone’s Pier House! We take over the entire place and everybody is in a great mood, high fiving each other for a job well done.

While here, I get a drink and a meal at a discount. This year, McLoone’s is offering all plungers 20% off their check if they order food. 

Returning Home

When I return home, I take a hot shower, crawl into bed with our dog and two cats, and take a snooze for a few hours. Then, I spend the rest of the day binge watching the Hallmark channel (don’t judge me!). I no longer make plans for Saturday night because I’ve learned that since my body worked so hard to stay warm after being plunged into cold water, I need to let it rest in order to stay healthy.

Thanking My Donors … Again

If I’m really on top of things, within a day or two of the plunge, I thank my donors again by emailing them a big thank you (via the plunge site) and sharing my plunge video. I also let them know if I reached my dollar goal. For folks like my 90 year-old aunt who don’t have email, I give them a call and share the video later. A hand written thank you note also works. I post my plunge video on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and encourage others to make a pledge, because they still can!

Fundraising Tips

Speaking of pledges, I ask just about everybody I know to donate to my plunge. It doesn’t hurt to ask and the worst that can happen is they’ll say no or take no action. But plenty of others will donate and I am shocked every year at who does.

The first year, I sent an email to just about everybody in my address book, including a printer who made business cards for me (he donated!). Since then, I always start by asking the people who contributed in previous years if they will contribute again and most always do. I have also gained new donors by reaching out to certain groups such as my neighborhood list serve and my church’s Facebook group. One holiday season, I included in our holiday card a small strip of paper announcing my plunge along with the link to my page. Posting on Facebook has also helped and on Giving Tuesday, I gained brand new donors who I hope will turn into repeat donors.

After the first email, which I send in November, I send out reminder emails at the end of the year and then a few weeks before the plunge. I also post on Facebook around this time and include photos from my previous plunges. So be sure to get photographic proof that you went in the water! 

The donations I receive range from $10 to $300 per donor and every year I am shocked by their generosity. I am also surprised that people I don’t even know that well — from high school, church, my community – donate. And sometimes very, very generously! You never know how someone feels about climate change until you simply ask. 

Finally, whenever I receive an email notification that someone donated to my plunge, I send them a quick email thanking them for their support.

For more fundraising tips, check out CCAN’s Fundraising Guide.

I’ll see you on the 26th! Let’s do this!!

Lori Hill

Lori Hill

Lori Hill is a plant eater, trash picker upper, climate activist, wife, and mom to 2 human boys, 2 cat boys, and 1 dog boy. On a mission to do all she can to take better care of the planet, Lori created Sister Eden Media, a green lifestyle company, to inspire others to give a damn and live more gently on Earth. She shares tips on her YouTube channel, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and also frequently appears on television.
Lori Hill


  1. Thank you so much, Lori, for your detailed hints regarding CCAN’s Polar Bear Plunge. They were incredibly helpful in preparing for a first-time plunge, and making the plunge seem less intimating and more feasible. And your hints worked! Thank you!

    1. Author

      Cairn –
      that is WONDERFUL to hear! Thanks so much for letting me know. I hope you enjoyed the plunge! While the air temperature was warm, that darn water was still sooo cold!

      Since you obviously care about the planet, sign up for my weekly emails to receive tips on green living, including a short video. Just click here:

      I’d love it if you subscribe to my YouTube channel. I’ve made over 150 about taking care of yourself and taking care of the planet. Many are funny while others are straight forward with simple tips. Just click here:

      Thanks again for your feedback! I hope you decide to plunge next year!

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