Skip to main content

Boreal Emergency Preparedness Portal

Video: How to get out safely if you fall through thin ice

Feb 19, 2019 05:15AM ● By Editor
By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer, Accuweather.com - February 19, 2019


The risk of falling through thin ice is always present while enjoying wintertime activities on a frozen pond, lake or river, because despite frigid weather conditions, experts agree that there’s no such thing as "safe ice" unless you're on an ice skating rink. 

“We tell people to try to assess the ice before they go out on it so they don’t end up in it,” said Scott Hembruff, chief instructor, operations manager and wilderness emergency medical technicianat Ontario-based Wilderness Rescue Solutions.

People planning to spend time on ice should use an ice auger, hatchet or ax to put a hole in it, according to Hembruff. Check for a minimum of 4 inches in thickness, which is enough to hold a single individual.

“Sometimes that creates problems because people go out, measure the ice and think, ‘Oh, we’ve got 4 inches,'’’ Hembruff told AccuWeather. “The next thing you know, you’ve got 10 people standing around an ice fishing hut with all that weight in one spot, and they forget that the 4 inches is for one person, not a group.” 

Man stands on cracked ice - Getty Images 

(Photo/Artranq/Getty Images)


If you fall in, control your breathing

In the unfortunate scenario that a person does fall through the ice and into the freezing water below, it’s crucial that they try to remain calm, according to Sam Maizlech, a firearms and survival expert for Gunivore.com.

“Because your body will have a cold shock response, it's vital to just relax and control your breathing,” Maizlech said. 

Experts also advised remembering the “1-10-1” rule. The first “1” represents the initial minute after having fallen through the ice. “The biggest threat you have in that first minute is if you swallow water,” Hembruff said.

“If you see it coming, you hear the ice cracking and you know you’re going to go through, we teach people to cover their mouths and noses to hold their breaths.”

In that first minute, keeping your head above water and trying to slow your breathing is more important than trying to escape the water, according to Hembruff. 

“If you’ve ever jumped into a cool or cold lake, you know there’s a tendency for people to hyperventilate,” he said. 

They'll experience an uncontrollable gasp reflex, causing them to take a very deep breath. The issue, Hembruff explained, is that the frigid water hitting the back of their throats will close up their airways, severely hindering their ability to take another breath in the next few moments. They could then become lightheaded and possibly pass out, he said. 

After the first minute of getting breathing under control, a person then has 10 usable minutes to try to get themselves out of the water.

Try to get yourself out 

While many people believe hypothermia is an immediate concern, it’s actually the gradual loss of ability to use your muscles in the next 10 minutes after falling in, hampering the ability to swim, according to Hembruff. 

“We recommend they go back to where they fell into the ice, because we knew the ice could hold their weight up until that point,” Hembruff said, adding that if they try to escape at another spot, they may fall through again.

Maizlech advised positioning yourself back to the edge of the hole, placing your hands on the edge and raising your legs up behind you, while kicking your feet to help propel yourself out of the water.

“You should be aware that your wet arms can stick to the ice, so be sure to not keep them in the same place for too long,” Maizlech said. 

If you have ice picks, experts recommend using those to help lift yourself out. 

A person in the water shouldn’t stand up after they’ve gotten themselves back on the ice, as it can put too much pressure on the ice at once, posing the risk of breaking through it again. 

“Instead, slide out onto your stomach and remain lying down,” Maizlech said. “Keep your body weight as widely distributed as possible, lie on your stomach and move across the ice until you get to land.” 

Get yourself warm and dry 

The final “1” in the “1-10-1” rule represents a one-hour period after escaping the water in which a person should work to fight against the effects of hypothermia, according to Hembruff.

“When people think of people falling through the ice, they think they die of hypothermia, when in actuality, they die of drowning or swim failure after that 10 minutes of not being able to use their muscles,” he said. “That one hour is how long it usually takes the average person before true hypothermia starts to set in.”

Once on dry land, it’s best to remove all wet clothes to lower the chances of hypothermia, as wet clothing significantly lowers your body temperature, according to Maizlech.

Experts recommend getting indoors as soon as possible. “If you are unable to [go inside], putting on dry clothing, applying a blanket and positioning yourself next to a fire are effective ways of getting your body temperature back to a normal level,” Maizlech said. 


To read the original story and related reporting as well as more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.


Watch this video from survival experts

Upcoming Events Near You

No Events in the next 45 days.

CodeRed