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How to Survive a Fall Through the Ice

  1. 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.

  2. 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. Take deep and slow breaths after the initial shock so you’re less likely to panic. You don't have a lot of time, but likely more time than a panicky mind perceives.

  3. 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. Move your legs like you’re riding a bike and keep your head above water by tilting it back. Orientate yourself and focus on getting back to where you fell in, as the other edges are probably sturdy enough to support you getting out.

  4. 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.

  5. Roll your body across the ice and away from where you fell in 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.

Once you're out of the water

  1. 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.

  2. Take off your wet clothes once you’re inside. 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.

  3. Get warmed up gradually. Once you've removed your wet clothes, you need to find dry replacements and a source of heat quickly but not all at once. 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.

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