- Be prepared. Many people fall through ice in or near towns where help is nearby, but if you’re going to be some distance from civilization (as you might on a backpacking or snowmobiling trip) you should prepare for the possibility of a plunge.
- Carry a spud bar – a long metal or metal-tipped wood pole that can be used to probe unsure areas of ice, and can also be used as a walking stick when traveling on slick areas.
- Carry safety spikes. There are also many types of safety spikes, designed to give traction to an ice adventurer, should he break through. Pairs can be bought at stores, but some of the most effective spikes can be made of wooden dowels and nails at home. By putting a nail into one-inch-diameter dowels that fit into your hands, you have created a floating tool that could very well save your life. Connect the two dowels with eye-hooks and a durable cord to have them comfortably hang around your neck available to use at a moment’s notice.
- Rewarming yourself after spending time in ice-cold water is essential, and in a remote area fire will likely be your only option. Carry reliable fire starters, such as those commercially available in camping and outdoor supply stores, or, at the very least, waterproof matches. Fire starters may not be waterproof, so make sure to keep them in a tightly sealed plastic bag or other waterproof container. Keep your fire-making supplies in a zipped pocket of your jacket so there is no chance of losing them. If you go through the ice, whether on foot or snowmobile, you will likely lose all your supplies that aren’t attached to you.
- Wear a small backpack that contains essential supplies such as water, food, an emergency blanket, and possibly a change of clothes. Make sure the backpack is waterproof, or keep the items inside sealed in a bag. Don’t overpack this bag; just keep the necessities in it. If you’re already carrying a heavy backpack, keep in mind that you may need to dump it in order to get out of the water, so consider keeping some emergency supplies in a fanny pack or in the pockets of your clothes.
- Wear a flotation suit if you’re traveling by snowmobile. Regular snowmobile suits can weigh you down and make escape from the water difficult. A flotation suit is more expensive, but worth every penny – and more – if you end up needing it.
Brace yourself. As soon as you realize you’re falling through the ice, hold your breath so that you do not breathe in water if your head goes under for a moment. If you have the presence of mind to lean back a little, this will also help you to avoid submersion of your head. Everything usually happens very quickly, though, so just be sure to immediately get to the surface if your head does go underwater.
Keep a cool head. You don’t literally want a “cool” head, of course, but you dowant to calm down. The body will react to the plunge by going into “cold shock,” a condition characterized by hyperventilation, involuntary gasping, and internal responses including hypertension (high blood pressure) and changes in pulse rate. It’s easy to panic under these conditions, but the fact is, you’ve got time: even in near-freezing water, people in decent physical condition will generally have at least 2-5 minutes, and sometimes much longer, before they lose the strength or coordination to pull themselves out. Yes, it’s a race against time, but the race is a bit longer than most people think. Panic is your worst enemy.
Find the hole! Especially when speed skating, momentum can make you end up far away from the original break in the ice. Being calm and try to locate what’s up and remember this:
- When the ice is covered with snow: the hole will be darker.
- Ice without snow: the hole will be lighter.
- Always look for the contrasting color!
Stay afloat. Though your head may have gone underwater initially, you want to make sure you keep it out of the water from here on out. Tread water, and lean slightly back to help you float more easily. Don’t worry about getting out right away; in the first minute you should just concentrate on keeping afloat and not drowning. If a heavy backpack is pulling you down, ditch it.
Control your breathing. The gasping and hyperventilating associated with cold shock begin the second you go into the water and can last up to 4 minutes. You need to normalize your breathing as quickly as possible to ensure that you have enough energy and awareness to get yourself out of the water and minimize the risk of cardiac arrest (cardiac arrest resulting from cold shock is rare in healthy people, but can strike almost instantly in the elderly or people with preexisting heart conditions). Concentrate on slowing your breathing, and make an effort to take deep breaths (note this may not be feasible if the water around you is turbulent). If you continue to take rapid, shallow breaths, try breathing through pursed lips.
Position yourself to face the strongest part of the ice. Since you fell through the ice, you know that the ice around the edges of the hole may very likely also be weak. Generally, the strongest ice will be that which you were on just before you fell through. After all, it was holding you only moments before. In some cases, however, the edge from which you came may difficult to reach or may have fragmented. If this happens, just get to an edge that you can reach and which appears thick and intact.
Get as much of your body as possible out of the water. Grab onto the top of the ice and use your arms and elbows to lift yourself up. It’s likely that you won’t be able to get all the way out by doing so, but you can get a good start. You’ll also lighten your load as water drains off of you.
Kick your feet and simultaneously pull yourself out. Since you generally won’t be able to lift yourself upward and out, you want to instead “swim” out by getting your body as horizontal as possible. Lean forward onto the ice, and kick your feet as you would if you were swimming. As you do so, use your arms and elbows to push and pull yourself out of the hole. An alternate method is to roll out and away from the hole by floating on your back, hooking your strongest arm over the ice and bring your leg on the same side up over the ice edge; begin rolling up on the ice with a throwing motion with the opposite arm in the direction of the roll while bringing the opposite leg up as the roll commences. continue to roll until you are on solid ice.
- If you’re unable to get out of the water after 5 or 10 minutes, you’re almost certainly not going to get out. Your body will become weak and uncoordinated, and you will eventually lose consciousness. Don’t give up, though. Instead, change your strategy. Many people who have lost consciousness after falling through ice have still been rescued because they managed to keep their heads above water even while they were passed out.
- Get as much of your body onto the ice as possible. The body loses heat in water much more quickly than it does in air, so the more of your body is above water the better.
- Stretch out your arms flat against the ice, and don’t move them unless you start slipping. If you hold your hands and arms in one position against the ice, they may freeze to the ice. This can prevent you from sliding into the water once you pass out, thus giving you more time to be rescued.
- If you’re certain you cannot escape, stop struggling. Struggling takes away your energy and can lower your body temperature, increasing the rate at which hypothermia sets in.
Roll away from the hole. Don’t stand up right away. The ice around the hole may be weak, so you want to distribute your weight over as much area as possible. Roll away from the hole or crawl on your belly until you are several feet from the hole. After that, you can crawl on your hands and knees until you are certain you are out of danger. Only then should you stand up.
Retrace your footsteps or path back to shore after getting out. At least try as hard as you can to go back the way you came, as the ice you crossed earlier held up under your weight until the breaking point.
Warm up and get help. Severe hypothermia actually takes quite a while to set in, but it’s critical to get warm as soon as possible, even if you don’t feel particularly cold (you will probably be numb). If you’re in the wilderness, start a fire. Otherwise, get indoors or inside a warm car as soon as possible. Get medical attention promptly, even if you don’t feel like you need it.
This post was written by Eric Sorensen on February 10, 2014