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How to Survive Falling Through Ice

Falling through ice survival

Ice formation may seem harmless when the winter months roll around. 

Especially if you typically enjoy fun activities on the ice, such as ice skating, ice fishing, hockey, or cross-country skiing.

With that said, unless the ice is thick enough to handle the weight on top of it, you will be at risk of falling through and being submerged in extremely cold water.

Once submerged, hypothermia and drowning are the two major concerns and both can be hard to avoid. This is especially true if you’re alone. 

Luckily, surviving is possible if you’re brave enough, have the will to live, and the proper knowledge. 

In this article, I’m going to help you learn how to survive falling through ice.

How to Survive Falling Through Ice

There are two scenarios you’ll need to learn to overcome. The first will cover falling through ice and how to get yourself out. 

The second will entail what you can do to survive once you’re out. Let’s get started!

Getting Out of The Water

You’re feeling the ice beneath your feet rumble. It’s starting to crack. Here’s what you should do:

1. Brace Yourself & Resist The Urge to Gasp For Air

As soon as you come to the realization that you’ve just begun falling through ice and into the freezing cold water, brace yourself and make a conscious effort NOT to gasp for air if your head goes under.

This is easier said than done, as gasping in these types of situations is a reflex. 

As soon as your body hits the freezing water, your body will begin going into what’s called the “torso reflex”, causing immediate changes to your heart rate and breathing.

This is a reaction to the sudden shock of being submerged in cold water and will make you quickly want to gas for air and potentially hyperventilate due to an accelerated heart rate.

Your body will take 1-3 minutes to become somewhat acclimated to the cold water, and the initial shock will pass. 

At this point, you should be calling for help if others are nearby. While the cold shock does wear off, you’re still in danger of developing hypothermia quickly. 

Hypothermia is when your body starts to lose heat quicker than it can produce it and can be triggered by just a 4-degree drop in body temperature.

2. Attempt to Keep Calm

Your body will likely be in a lot of pain by now as a result of being in the freezing cold water. You’re also going to be dealing with a range of physiological changes due to the cold shock.

This can easily lead to a panic attack. However, in order to think clearly and start thinking about how you’re going to get out of the water, you need to remain calm and control your breathing.

You should start taking slow, deep breaths as soon as you hit the water to avoid a panic attack. 

While you do have to have a sense of urgency, trying to do anything while panicking can be impossible. 

You do have some time to avoid hypothermia – which occurs once your body drops below 95 degrees – so be sure to stay as calm as possible.

In order to buy some more time you should try to keep your head and as much of your body as you can out of the water.

The amount of time it takes for hypothermia to develop (and for you to lose consciousness in the water) is typically between 10-45 minutes. 

However, this will depend on a few different factors, including:

  • Your physical conditioning
  • Your body fat percentage
  • The type of clothing you have on and the amount of layers
  • Ambient temperature
  • Wind chill

If any heavy objects (such as a backpack or skis) are weighing you down, they should be removed immediately. 

This can help to reduce your risk of being submerged deeper into the water and drowning.

3. Start Focusing on Getting Out of The Water

As soon as you’ve calmed down and your head is above the surface of the water, you need to focus all your attention and energy on getting out as quickly as possible.

Do NOT sit and wait for help as time is of the essence. Instead, begin moving your legs (in the same motion you would when riding a bike) and tilt your head back to keep it from being submerged.

Focus on getting back to the spot you initially fell in. This is important as the edges around this spot are likely sturdy enough to support your weight when trying to get out.

Keep in mind, it may be difficult to swim at this point. One of the biggest concerns after falling through ice is called neuromuscular cooling (aka “swim failure”). 

Essentially, this means the cold water is incapacitating your muscles and coordination, making it nearly impossible for you to move around and swim. 

You have about 3-5 minutes before swim failure can occur, so getting back to the original spot you fell as quickly as possible is crucial in your survival.

What if you’ve fallen completely underwater?

Immediately open your eyes and start looking for contrasting colors. When ice is covered with snow, the original hole you fell in will appear darker. 

If snow isn’t present, the hole will appear lighter. Start swimming up towards the hole as quickly as you can.

Remember, if you’re with others or strangers are nearby, then you should yell for help to let them know you’ve fallen through the ice.

While they might not be able to save you themselves, at the very least, they’ll be able to send for help or dial 911 from their smartphone. 

4. Orient Your Lower Body Horizontally & Start Kicking Your Legs

Now that you’re back to the original spot you fell in and know where you’re going to make your exit, Here’s what you should do: 

  • Quickly grab onto the edge of the ice and get as much of your upper body out of the water as possible.
  • Grab onto the top of the ice and start propping yourself up using your elbows and forearms.
  • Position your body horizontally and begin forcefully kicking your legs. This will help propel the rest of your body out of the water and back onto the ice. It’s actually a technique seals use in the arctic.
  • Before you kick your legs to get your lower half out, wait a few seconds so you can let the clothing on your upper body drain out as much water as possible to reduce your weight. This will make it much easier for you to propel out of the water.

Unfortunately, if you don’t get out of the water after 10 minutes or so, then you’re likely not going to be able to get out on your own accord. 

At this point swim failure and hypothermia will already be occurring. With that said, you should not panic as you’ll need to save your energy and heat.

To conserve even more heat, cross your legs and try to keep your arms out of the water. 

5. Roll Your Body Across The Ice, Away From The Spot You Fell in

If you have managed to propel yourself out of the freezing water, then congratulations! Keep in mind though, it’s important to avoid standing up and running away immediately.

After all, the ice already broke beneath your weight once, so it’s possible it could happen again. 

Instead, you should remain spread out on the ice. This will distribute your weight evenly across a large area. Then, roll your body slowly toward either thicker ice or shore.

You should be several feet away from the original hole you fell in before you stand up. 

Surviving Once You’re Out

You’ve made it out of the ice, but you’re not out-of-the-woods just yet. You now need to get back to shore and avoid hypothermia and freezing to death until you can find help.

1. Retrace Your Footsteps to Where You Started

If you can, try to trace the tracks you made earlier back to shore. 

This part of the ice was able to hold your weight before so it could potentially be safe to walk on. (think of walking on beams in an attic to avoid falling through the ceiling.) 

If you were staying in a cabin or were in a vehicle when you arrived, try to walk back to these locations as quickly as you can to get warmed up. 

You might need to crawl or drag yourself back as your leg muscles could be uncooperative due to the extreme cold.

At this point, you need to see if any people are around to help you. 

While they might not have any survival/emergency knowledge, they can at least assist you by either helping you walk or calling for emergency assistance.

If no one is around, you’ll need to continue on your own. Just pay close attention to your body and look for signs of hypothermia. Symptoms can include:

  • Shivering
  • Dizziness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Clumsiness and difficulty speaking
  • Slight confusion
  • Moderate fatigue
  • Hyperventilation

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you’re at risk for “severe” hypothermia which can lead to death. Signs of severe hypothermia can include:

  • Severe confusion and lack of coordination
  • Difficulty decision making
  • Violent shivering (although sometimes you may not shiver at all)
  • Slurred speech
  • Weak pulse
  • Shallow breath and a loss of consciousness 

2. Take Off Your Wet Clothes Once You’re Back to Safety

If you’ve managed to get back to a safe place or, at the very least, a heat source of some kind (fire, space heater, heat from your vehicle) then you should immediately take off your clothes.

This might sound ridiculous, as you’d think being naked would only cause you to freeze quicker, but doing so can actually increase your core body temperature. 

Because an external heat source can’t penetrate wet clothing to keep you warm, it’s crucial to remove them as quickly as possible. If you have dry clothes or a blanket, put them on immediately.

But, what if you don’t make it back to safety and are stranded outside in the cold? If you can’t get indoors or inside a warm vehicle, here’s what you should do:

  • Locate an area that is sheltered from the elements or wind. This might be behind a tree, rock or even a snowdrift.

3. Gradually Warm Up 

Once your wet clothes have been removed, it’s crucial to find dry clothes or blankets to change into along with a heat source. This shouldn’t be done all at once though.

If you don’t have extra clothing, try to find others nearby who might. If you do, change into them immediately. Cover your head, hands, and feet to insulate your body from the cold.

You likely don’t have access to any additional gear, but if you do, these items can be a lifesaver at this point in the survival process:

Additional Tips to Help You Warm Up

  • Once in front of a heat source, bring your knees to your chest while holding your legs together tightly.
  • If you’re with others, huddle together in a circle facing each other. This will allow you to share body heat. 
  • Drink a warm non-caffeinated beverage. Keep the mug in your hand to warm your hands.

Ultimatley, Think Prevention

Learning how to survive falling through ice is simple, however, it might seem impossible to carry these actions out in a real-world situation.

With this in mind, you should do everything in your power to prevent falling through ice in the first place.

Fisherman testing the ice on the lake before falling through ice
Fisherman testing the ice on the lake before falling through ice

Start by never walking on ice that is 3 inches thick or less, especially on a warmer day as the ice could be thawing. 

Additionally, you should never ski, ride an ATV, or a snowmobile on ice that is less than 5-6 inches in thickness.

You can find more information about surviving the cold at our link here for cold climate survival.