Surviving a Fall Through Ice

Whether you're snowmobiling across a frozen lake, skating on a pond that is now an ice rink, or simply crossing some snow-covered body of water to get to the other side, you run the risk of falling through the ice. This remains true even if you think the temperature has been cold enough and you've tested the surface before crossing.

So what do you do if the ice cracks and you fall in to the frigid water?

  1. Remain calm and focus on breathing steadily. The shock from the cold water is going to be extreme as I can a test to from jumps in to cold water that wasn't even close to freezing.
  2. If you can hold on to your bearings, turn to the direction in which you fell in. In all likelihood the ice you were on is stronger than the surrounding ice. After all, you were walking on it before it cracked.
  3. Use your elbows to lift yourself on to the edge of the hold. But don't get out just yet. Instead, let your clothes drain as much water as possible. This'll make it easier for you to actually climb out.
  4. Then reach out as far as possible and dig in to the ice with your hands. If you happen to have keys or something, you can use them to get a better grip on the ice.
  5. Start kicking your feet as if you were swimming and simultaneously lift yourself out of the water and on to the ice.
  6. Resist the temptation to stand up. You want to remain spread out on the lake's frozen surface so that your weight is distributed across a larger area. This will increase your chances of not falling through the ice again.

Unfortunately, getting out of the water doesn't guarantee your safety. You are now in danger of suffering from hypothermia. Get to shelter and help as soon as possible. Note that at this stage your wet clothes are not providing any warmth. They are in fact sucking the heat out of your body. Bear Grylls in one of Man vs. Wild episodes removed his clothes and did push-ups to warm his body after having to swim in frigid water. He did this on a sunny day (warmth) knowing that there was no help or shelter nearby. You might want to consider the same tactic.

If you're in a situation where you can evaluate the thickness of ice before engaging in activities on the ice, here are thickness guidelines. Note that white ice has air or snow within it and should be considered suspect for recreational use. The recommended minimum ice thickness for new clear hard ice according to is:

  • 3″ (7cm) or less STAY OFF
  • 4″ (10cm) ice fishing, walking, cross country skiing
  • 5″ (12cm) one snowmobile or ATV
  • 8″-12″ (20-30cm) one car or small pickup
  • 12″-15″ (30-38cm) one medium truck (pickup or van)

The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook – Travel by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht

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