Falling through thin ice into freezing water is terrifying, but whether you’re a hardened outdoors adventurer or just overcome with how pretty the middle of a frozen lake looks, it is an occupational hazard, especially in winter.
You really shouldn’t be out on ice on your own, which is your first step to self-preservation, but if for whatever reason you are and you do fall through, here is a relatively simple two-step self-rescue method that could get you out.
What happens to your body when you fall through thin ice
If you fall into freezing water, your body’s physiological response is to go into what is called “cold water shock". The shock causes your respiration rate, heart rate, and blood pressure to increase dramatically, which can cause ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest – basically sudden death.
How to mitigate that initial response
The first thing you must do is try to mitigate that cold shock response. It will buy you precious moments to allow you to think clearly and act rationally. Try not to panic, which speeds up your heart rate, blood pressure etc, exacerbating the cold shock response. Basically, relax into it. The knowledge that if you relax it will pass quickly should help you stay calm.
Put your arms and legs out to slow your descent, and prevent yourself from going under. The body’s natural gasp response means you might try to take a breath and swallow water. If you manage to keep your head above water, your automatic response will still probably be to take a huge breath. Many people struggle with this in panic situations and feel like they can’t get the air they need to breathe. Doctors and anxiety coaches everywhere will tell you this is because – and it sounds silly, but it’s true – most people forget to exhale first. Blowing out slowly through your lips will help calm you.
Reach out and place your hands and arms flat on the ice lightly, and take a couple of moments to breathe calmly. Congratulations, you survived step one. This now puts you in the best possible position, mentally and physically, to be able to take the next step – getting yourself out of the water.
How to get yourself up and out of the water
The longer you're in the water, the higher the chance of getting hypothermia and drowning. If you try to claw your way out, pulling the weight of your body – waterlogged clothing and all – onto ice that was already thin enough to let you fall through in the first place, you may end up going through it again. In this situation, it’s better to use the strength of your legs, rather than relying on your arm muscles.
First, bring your legs up and extend them behind you (use your butt to lift your lower body) so you are floating on your stomach parallel with the water’s surface. If you have on skis or snowshoes, or even boots, that prevent you from doing this, kick them off. It may save your life.
Kick your legs softly at first to gently launch yourself forward onto the ice, then kick hard to propel yourself horizontally out of the water and onto the ice on your stomach.
Don’t stand up! The overwhelming relief of being out of the water may ruin your hard-won calm and make you want to jump up, but thin ice could mean you fall through again. Instead, keep your weight distributed on a wider surface area by staying flat. Pull yourself to where you last were when the ice was thick enough to take your weight, slowly get onto all fours, or if it’s safe to, stand, and retrace your steps to shore (This is important, don’t fall at the last hurdle: stick with the route you know, rather than finding new possible areas of thin ice).
Finally, thank your lucky stars you read this article and so knew how to rescue yourself, and go get dry and warm ASAP.
[H/T: ReWild University]