How to Survive If You Fall Through Ice

The only thing worse than being immersed in freezing cold water is falling through into freezing cold water. 

If you’ve never experienced being submerged in freezing cold water before, the feeling is comparable to being pricked by a thousand icy knives while hyperventilating and struggling to breathe.

Unfortunately, it’s not the freezing water that makes falling through ice so dangerous. It’s the difficulty of pulling yourself out of the water and safely onto thin ice. Or, even worse, getting trapped underneath the ice and not being able to get out. 

Not fun at all…

So what should you do if you accidentally fall through ice? 

  1. Stay calm.
  2. Focus on your breathing.
  3. Attempt to lay horizontally.
  4. Slowly move towards the safest direction and call for help.
  5. If someone is nearby, ask them for something to grab onto.
  6. If not, search around for the thickest ice and use your arms and legs to pull yourself out of water and onto the surface.
  7. Roll to safety.
  8. Warm up as quickly as you possibly can.

Continue reading to learn more in-depth information on what to do if you (or someone else) accidentally fall through ice and into freezing water

Be Aware of Conditions

As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Taking the proper precautions before you head out on the ice can go a long way towards avoiding a preventable tragedy before it happens.

It is important to be educated on the characteristics of ice and how it forms over a body of water. There are many variables that affect the safety of ice including temperature, snow cover, and currents.

As a rule of thumb, some smart guidelines to follow when it comes to ice thickness include:

  • 2″ of ice = Stay away
  • 4″ of ice = Safe for ice fishing and other activities
  • 5″ of ice = Minimum requirement for riding a snowmobile or ATV on the ice

These guidelines are for new, clear ice only. In general, freshly formed ice is stronger than old ice. Partially thawed ice or ice that has been insulated and covered by the extra weight of snow is not as strong as new, clear ice. 

For this reason, ice that is near the shore can sometimes be weaker than ice that is further out. In addition, ice that is formed on top of currents and moving water is more dangerous, so avoid ice near streams, bridges, the outside of river bends, and culverts. 

Lastly, the heat and movement generated by schools of fish or flocks of waterfowl can impact the safety of a layer of ice, so exercise caution in these situations. It’s also important to keep in mind that ice thickness is rarely the same depth over an entire body of water. Instead, it can be several inches thick in one place and an inch thick just a few feet away.

When you will be heading out on the ice for winter activities, you should always let someone know where you are headed and how long you expect to be gone. Be sure to wear proper winter attire, and if possible, go equipped with survival gear including rope, ice picks, an ice chisel, and even a tape measure to accurately measure the thickness and safety of the ice.

Personal Survival Tactics

If the unthinkable happens, and there is no one around to help pull you out of the water, knowing the right strategies to take can mean the difference between life and death. Follow the tactics below in the event of a personal ice emergency:

  1. Stay Calm. If you are alone and you fall through the ice, the most important thing is to stay calm. In any survival situation, the more you panic, the more you risk death. All of your energy must remain focused on getting yourself out of the dangerous situation you are in. In the case of falling through ice, this entails staying afloat until you can call for help or pull yourself out.
  2. Focus On Your Breathing. It is also important to control your breathing and avoid hyperventilating. Although this will be your body’s natural reaction to the shock of the incident itself and the exposure to the cold water, hyperventilating wastes energy and decreases your chances of making it out alive.
  3. Attempt to Lay Horizontally Do not flail your arms or waste energy trying to swim without a clear exit strategy. Instead, immediately try to get into a horizontal floating position in the water. It is counterintuitive but staying upright will make it more difficult for you to get out of the water. With your clothes weighing you down and the ice being slippery, trying to pull yourself out of the water vertically will likely backfire.
  4. Slowly Move Towards the Safest Direction and Call for Help. Once you’re lying on your back, you then want to swim as if you were making a snow angel in the water. Swimming with your arms and legs extended in all directions will help you feel around so you can safely find somewhere to get out of the water. 
  5. If Someone is Nearby, Ask Them for Something to Grab Onto. It’ll be much easier to escape the freezing cold water if you have something to safely grab onto and someone (hopefully strong) to help pull that object.
  6. If Not, Search Around for the Thickest Ice and Use Your Arms and Legs to Pull Yourself Out of Water and Onto the Surface. If nobody is nearby to help you out then you’re simply going to have to find the safest location to pull yourself out of the water and onto the surface. If possible, try to head back to the section of ice that was previously holding your weight before you fell through the ice. You may have a better chance of finding a solid section of ice there than in moving forward a different direction where the ice may be weaker.
  7. Roll To Safety. Once you have safely removed yourself from the water, do not attempt to stand up and walk away. Instead, roll yourself away slowly until you are confident that you have reached land or a strong enough patch of ice to hold your weight.
  8. Warm Up as Quickly as You Possibly Can. You need to warm yourself up as quickly as you can in order to avoid experiencing hypothermia. Getting out of your wet clothes and into dry clothes is the most important thing you can do. 

One final note: If you feel yourself slipping into unconsciousness, and do not have the strength to get out of the water, there is one final tip that may save your life. In the event you are too weak to self-rescue, get your arms on the surface of the ice and rest them there. This will help keep your head above water even if you lose consciousness and increase the chances of you being saved.

What Should You Do If You Can’t Change Clothes?

If you’re far from civilization and don’t have a spare set of clothes to change into then you need to think fast.

Here’s what I would do to increase your chances of survival.

  • Find a safe location off of the ice.
  • Take off clothes and wring them out.
  • Put clothes back on.
  • Build a fire as quickly as possible.
  • Use the heat from the fire to further dry out your clothes and warm you up.

It’s possible you may suffer from hyperthermia before you succeed in making a fire, but if you’re lost in the wilderness then this will be your best chance for survival.

Team Effort

If you encounter an individual who is in need of an ice rescue, there are some things to keep in mind. The last thing any rescuer wants is to make a bad situation worse by falling into the ice themselves.

In the event of an ice rescue, individuals attempting to help should stay as far away from the opening in the ice as possible. Stay calm, take a step back, and assess the situation accurately before reacting. When possible, use a branch, rope or sled in order to help pull the individual out from the water without putting yourself at risk.

However, if the individual in question is unable to assist themselves or is unconscious, you may have to take additional steps to safe their life, even if it means putting yourself at risk. If you must approach the ice hole as a last resort, do not run or even walk onto the ice, but instead crawl slowly towards the individual in need of saving. If possible, use a rope to throw around the person’s waist and pull them to safety, or form a human chain to reach in and pull the person to safety. In extreme situations, a flat-bottom boat can even be used to safely reach the victim without risking the lives of the rescuers.

No matter how you reach the person who has fallen through the ice, remember to pull them out horizontally by their arms, and then drag them slowly and carefully to safety.

After The Rescue

When a person has fallen victim to falling through ice and has survived being pulled from the water, that doesn’t necessarily mean the danger has passed.

While you wait for emergency services to arrive and likely transport the individual to the nearest hospital, there are a few things you can do to ensure their comfort and survival.

If the person was unconscious or is having trouble breathing, the first step is to perform CPR and ensure that they have not taken any water into their lungs.

After the person’s vital signs have been established, the next most important thing is to regulate the individual’s body temperature. Hypothermia can begin to set in with as little as 10 minutes of exposure to the extreme cold. Remove wet clothing, dress the person in warm and dry layers, and offer hot beverages. Finding a warm shelter or moving around as much as possible can also help the person safely warm up.

At the same time, you do not want to attempt to increase their body temperature too quickly, such as with a hot bath or shower, as this can bring shock. Focus on bringing their body temperature back to baseline slowly and safely.

Final Thoughts

With a little bit of extra preparation and precaution, a focus on winter ice safety can help prevent a drowning tragedy. But in the event that you do experience or encounter an ice emergency, memorizing and following the tips above can help save a life.