How to Survive a Fall Through Ice
In northern climates with lots of lakes and rivers, ice is a common sight during the colder months. The formation of ice provides the opportunity to enjoy a variety of winter activities, such as ice fishing, playing hockey and cross-country skiing. However, unless the ice is thick and can withstand your weight, there is a danger of falling through the ice into extremely cold water. Once in the water, panic, hypothermia and drowning are all difficult challenges to overcome. Surviving a fall through the ice is certainly possible, but it takes courage and knowledge of some life-saving tips.
Getting Out of the Water
Brace yourself.Once you have the sickening realization that you're falling through the ice and into the cold water, you need to brace yourself and consciously stop your reflex to gasp and breathe in if your head gets submerged. The shock of being in freezing water should not be underestimated, as it causes immediate changes to your breathing and heart rate.
- Once in the cold water, your body's cold shock response, called the"torso reflex,"will make you want to gasp for air and hyperventilate because your heart rate accelerates rapidly, but you must avoid doing so, especially if you're underwater.This initial shock typically wears off in one to three minutes as your body slightly acclimatizes to the cold.
- Although the initial cold shock passes, you're still in grave danger of quickly developing hypothermia, which means your body loses heat faster than it produces it. Just a 4-degree drop in body temperature can trigger hypothermia.
Keep as calm as possible.The physical pain of being submerged in freezing water combined with all the physiological changes in response to "cold shock" (increased heart and breathing rates, high blood pressure, adrenaline release) can easily lead to panic.However, remaining calm and controlling your breathing allows you to think better and develop a plan to get out of the water. You don't have a lot of time, but likely more time than a panicky mind perceives.
- Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature passes below 95°F (35°C), but it takes some time to get there and depends on many factors.Keeping your head above water and as much of your body as possible out of the water will buy you more time.
- Depending on multiple factors such as physical conditioning, the amount of body fat, type and layering of clothing, ambient temperature, and wind chill, it can take between 10 to 45 minutes to develop hypothermia and lose consciousness in cold water.
- Remove any heavy objects or clothing that are weighing you down, such as a backpack, fanny pack or skis. This will reduce your risk of drowning.
Focus your energy on getting out immediately.Once you have calmed down and your head is above the water, you must focus your energy on getting out as quickly as possible rather than treading water and waiting for help. Remaining in the water can shorten your survival time by 50%Orientate yourself and focus on getting back to where you fell in, as the edges are probably sturdy enough to support you getting out.
- If underwater, always look for contrasting color. When the ice is covered with snow, the hole will appear darker; ice without snow will make the hole look lighter.
- In most cases, neuromuscular cooling or "swim failure" is a bigger and more immediate concern than hypothermia.In essence, most people will have between three and five minutes before the cold water incapacitates their muscles and coordination, making it very difficult or impossible to swim and kick their legs.
- If you are with other people, yell loudly to let them know you've fallen in. They may not be willing or able to help you, but at least they won't abandon you and might be able to make an emergency call from their cellphone.
Get horizontal and kick your legs.Once you're orientated and decide where you're going to exit the water, quickly swim towards it and grab onto the edge of the ice. Get as much of your upper body as possible out of the water. Grab onto the top of the ice and use your forearms and elbows to prop yourself up. Then position your lower body horizontally and kick your legs as forcefully as possible in hopes of propelling yourself out of the water and onto the ice — much like seals in the arctic do.
- Once you've lifted your upper body on to the edge of the ice, wait a few seconds to let your clothes drain as much water as possible. It will reduce your weight and make it easier for you to actually propel yourself out of the water.
- If you're unable to get out of the water after about 10 minutes, then you're almost certainly not going to get out by your own efforts as swim failure and hypothermia will be upon you — but don't panic at this stage either.
- If you can't get out by yourself, conserve your energy (and heat) by moving as little as possible and wait for rescue. Cross your legs to conserve heat and try to keep your arms out of the water, as your body loses heat 32 times faster in cold water than in cold air.
Roll your body across the ice once you're out.Once you've propelled yourself out of the cold water, then resist the urge to stand up and run for the shore because you may fall in again. Instead, remain spread out on the ice (so that your weight is distributed across a larger area) and slowly roll your body toward thicker ice or hard ground.
- At the very least, roll away from the hole in the ice by several feet before attempting to stand up.
- If you can, trace your tracks back to shore or hard ground — it held your weight previously, so it'll likely hold your weight again.
- Remember that you should always stay off ice that's only 3 inches (7.6 cm) thick or less, especially during warmer days when the ice is thawing.
- At least 4 inches (10.2 cm) of ice thickness is needed for ice fishing, walking or cross country skiing, whereas at least 5 – 6 inches is needed to support a snowmobile or ATV.
Surviving Once You're Out
Retrace your footsteps back to safety.Once you're out of the water, only part of your struggle for survival is complete, because hypothermia is likely fast advancing within your body. As such, once on safe footing, quickly retrace your footsteps or path back to shore and/or your vehicle or cabin so you can get warmed up. Your leg muscles will likely not want to cooperate due to the cold shock, so you may have to crawl or drag yourself.
- Ask for immediate assistance if there are people nearby. They may not have any survival or emergency medical knowledge, but they can at least help you get to a safe place and maybe call for additional help.
- Initial signs and symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, dizziness, hyperventilation, increased heart rate, slight confusion, difficulty speaking, clumsiness and moderate fatigue.
- Signs of severe hypothermia include more advanced confusion, poor decision making, lack of coordination, violent shivering (or none at all), slurred speech or incoherent mumbling, weak pulse, shallow breathing and progressive loss of consciousness.
Take off wet clothes.It may seem counterintuitive during the moment, but taking off wet clothes is the fastest way to increase your core body temperature –– assuming you have dry clothes or a source of heat available.An external source of heat can't penetrate wet clothing and warm you up, so remove them quickly and wrap yourself in dry clothes and/or blankets.
- Find an area sheltered from the wind or elements before removing clothing, preferably a dwelling or a vehicle. If not, then stand behind some trees, rocks or a snow drift to protect yourself from the additional chill of the wind.
- If you are only in the early stages of hypothermia and still feel like you have some excess energy, do some push-ups or basic calisthenics after removing your clothes in attempts to warm up and improve blood flow.
Get warmed up.Once you've removed your wet clothes, you need to find dry replacements and a source of heat quickly. With advanced hypothermia, you may not be shivering any longer or feel very cold. Many patients report feeling numb. If you didn't bring a change of clothes, then ask others for extra clothes, jackets or blankets. Make sure to cover your head and insulate your body and feet from the cold ground. Sleeping bags, wool blankets or space blankets will help you to conserve body heat and rewarm your body.
- If you don't have a dwelling or vehicle to get warm in, you'll have to make a fire. Make sure you're out of your wet clothing and into something dry before collecting wood and making a fire. Get people to help if they're nearby.
- Once you are in front of a heat source (fireplace, heat vents in a vehicle, campfire) bring your knees to your chest and keep your legs tight together to conserve your body heat. If you are with other people, huddle together in a tight circle facing each other in order to share body heat.
- Drink a warm, sweet, non-caffeinated beverage. The mug will warm your hands and the liquid will warm your insides.
- If you are using heating pads or hot water bottles, place them near major arteries such as near the groin, armpits or shoulders. Always place a barrier between the heat source and your skins to prevent any burns.Extreme heat can damage your skin or trigger irregular heartbeats and a heart attack. Remember, you are trying to slowly and safely increase your core body temperature, and this can take a few hours.
QuestionHow do I prevent falling when ice skating on a lake, and keep my friends calm?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerPay attention to the ice and where the other skaters are. Most lakes will have signs about spots that have thinner ice and you should give those spaces a wide berth. Always make sure you can clearly see at least one other skater because if you can see them, they can probably see you, in case of an emergency. Keeping your friends calm is something that differs by person to person, from my experience, the best thing you can tell them is, "It's okay to be scared, but I'm going to help you."Thanks!
QuestionWhat tool can I use to pull myself out of icy water if I fall in?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIf you have a knife with you, stab into a thick part of the ice and pull yourself out.Thanks!
QuestionHow can I survive a fall through the ice if I cannot swim?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerHold on to the ice and pull yourself up. If you cannot pull yourself up, then hold onto the ice. A nearby person is bound to hear you, and if you hold on then you will be okay.Thanks!
QuestionWhat if you fall through the ice, and the ice quickly comes together?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerBroken ice is not going to immediately close itself back up. However, if you find yourself unable to get back to the hole, you're going to have to try to make a new one very quickly. Try to punch through the ice.Thanks!
QuestionWhat if I fall under the ice and can't find the hole I fell through?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerTry to break the ice above you by any means necessary. That way you can climb out through the new hole you've created.Thanks!
QuestionWhat if I can't find any source of heat and I don't have enough energy to move?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerCall for help immediately. If nobody's around, recover your energy and get to shore. Then, burrow in the snow or try to make a fire.Thanks!
QuestionIs it possible to break through the ice from underneath if I can't find the hole I fell through? What is the best way to punch through?IPadchrisCommunity AnswerIf the ice is around 3" thick, it is highly likely to be successful. At around 10" thick, you have slim chances. Most of the time, legs are stronger that hands, so try kicking your hardest. If you can't stomp or punch successfully, quickly find a sharp stone or even a branch with a side that is sharp, and press through the ice.Thanks!
QuestionIf I am alone and manage to get out of the water, how would I get myself warm?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerGet off the ice as soon as possible, and if you have matches, start a fire. If you do not have matches to make a fire, burrow into the snow, leaving yourself with an air hole.Thanks!
QuestionWhat if the ice is sharp on my way out?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerGetting a few cuts is nothing when trying to save your life. Follow the instructions above as usual.Thanks!
QuestionThe ice breaks further every time I try to get out, what can I do?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerTry to find the way you came from because that held your weight before and once your on the ice, roll away don't try to stand.Thanks!
||A professional deliberately falls through ice in order to demonstrate getting out, which begins about 1 minute into the video.|
- Warm spells in winter and early spring are the most dangerous times to venture onto the ice.
- When walking on ice you are unsure of use a "spud bar" (long metal probing pole) to test the strength of the ice in front of you.
- If you are carrying a knife, keys, or some other sharp object, you may be able to use it to dig into the ice to help pull yourself out.
- All fishing stuff should be dropped if you go under. It just weighs you down and it's not as important as your life.
- If you're wearing skis, kick them off immediately while in the water. Skis can make it extremely difficult to get out of the water.
- If you fall into ice off a snowmobile, let go of the machine. As soon as it starts falling into the ice, let go, leap off and roll sideways.
- Wear a flotation suit if you're traveling by snowmobile.
- Would-be rescuers frequently fall through the ice themselves. Exercise extreme caution when attempting to rescue someone who has fallen through the ice, and try to talk them out from a distance or throw them a line or reach them with a long branch while standing on safe ice.
- If you are attempting to rescue someone in the water, lie on your stomach to help distribute your weight evenly.
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