How to

26 May 2016

What to do if You Fall into Freezing Water

Before we get into this, allow me to briefly indulge a bit of personal nostalgia. One of the first video games I ever loved as a kid was Mario Kart 64, and I vividly recall playing the ‘Sherbet Land’ level, failing to compensate for the narrow, icy bends and careening off the track into the water. If this happened, you would be lifted out of the water in a cartoonish block of ice, thaw out and start racing again. I bring this up because I remember it prompting me to ask my parents what would actually happen if you fell into icy water. The answer came with a grim tone: “You could die”.

Unsettling backstories about my somewhat alarmist parents aside, falling into freezing water is a horrible fate that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but sometimes it simply cannot be avoided, and while in some cases it can be a death sentence, it needn’t be. Once you know that you’re going to fall into freezing water, knowing exactly what to do is absolutely paramount, which is why we’ve broken it down into steps.

Brace Yourself

There are a few different ways you might fall into icy water. You could slip next to the bank, you might fall out of a boat or, most commonly, the ice you’re walking on could break beneath you. In any case, you’ll have a precious few seconds of airtime before you hit the water. This short ‘oh crap’ moment is absolutely critical.

Once you hit the water, the ‘cold shock response’ is going to kick in. The two most direct results of this are gasping and hyperventilation, and this is where bracing comes in. If you gasp as you hit the water and your head goes under, it could drag water into your lungs. There’s a word for that – ‘drowning’, and you don’t want to be doing that. Clamp your mouth shut as you fall and try your hardest to stifle this impulse, and then focus on regulating your breathing. It’s going to feel like your lungs have actually stopped working, but they haven’t, and the feeling will pass after around 1-3 minutes.

Spot Your Way Out

Flailing and panicking as you enter the water is a pointless waste of energy, if you’re going in, you’re going in, and you can’t panic yourself into growing wings. The important thing is to remain calm and assess as quickly as you can how you’re going to get out once you hit the water. Icy ledges, a bank, someone to throw you a lifebuoy, whatever it is, know what your options are.

In this way, once you overcome the initial shock of hitting the water, you’ll already know what to do. Your focus must be getting out as quickly as possible, but if you’re panicking and wheeling around trying to figure out how to do that, your cold-addled brain might short circuit and then you’re in real trouble. Stay calm, control your breathing and formulate a plan. It also helps to shed any excess weight before you start swimming.

Get Out

Once you know how you’re getting out, put that plan into action. The longer you’re in the water, the greater the risk of hypothermia setting in. In water that’s 0.3° or below, you’ll have less than 15 minutes before you’re in danger of losing consciousness and if that happens then you are absolutely screwed. Frostbite, meanwhile, can take effect in only a few minutes. The most immediate concern, however, is neuromuscular cooling, which can render you almost completely incapable of swimming in only a few minutes. For these reasons, you can’t linger.

If you’ve gone under the surface, look for where the colour changes and aim for that edge, as it signifies a change in density. Don’t swim too vigorously, as your muscles could seize up, leaving you incapacitated. If you were with other people, yell as you swim, this will prompt them to spot you and do whatever they can to help. Once again, it’s vitally important to stay calm and not overexert yourself. Fast swimming is important, but if you just thrash wildly you’re just ejecting vital, lifesaving energy.

Focus on Getting Your Upper Body Out

Apart from your brain, every vital organ in your body is contained within your torso, so that’s the part that you need to get out of the water first. Get over the edge, and use your forearms to drag yourself further, whilst rhythmically kicking your legs. It’s worth waiting for a moment once your top half is on land to let yourself dry out a little, which will shed a bit of weight, as well as giving you a precious moment of rest to let your breathing level out again.

At this point, it’s critical to assess how much movement you have. If neuromuscular cooling takes hold at this stage, it’s not as bad as when you were fully submerged, but it’s still a serious danger. If this is the case, move slowly to limit your exertions, call for rescue and keep your legs crossed to conserve heat.

Roll in the Snow

When you get out, under your own power or otherwise, don’t try to stand up immediately. Stay on the ground and roll around in the snow, moving away from the water and keeping your arms elevated. There are two reasons to do this: the first is to avoid getting up too fast and falling back in, the second is to absorb the cold water.

As you’re rolling in the snow, pat it off and repeat the process again several times. Keep your weight distributed evenly so that you don’t end up rolling yourself back into the water and once again, just to drive it home – do not panic. With this done, and under the assurance that you’ve moved far enough away from standing water or thin ice, you can stand up, but do it very slowly. If you find yourself unable to stand, crawl or drag yourself.

Find Your Way Back to Safety and Assess Yourself

Once you’ve taken a moment to compose yourself, you need to find safety however you can. If you can see people, make your way to them and if you can see shelter, make your way to that. Finding people is the more pertinent thing, as even if they aren’t medically trained they will be able to act rationally and find you the medical help that you need.

Their opinion will be the most important, but you can still assess your own state to figure out if hypothermia has taken hold. For a more detailed guide on the signs of hypothermia, read our guide, but in short, this is what you want to watch for:

  • Shivering
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Heavy breathing
  • Fatigue

Any of those point to the early onset of it, which is far more manageable, but if any of the following are noticeable, it’s likely crossed over into severity:

  • Pronounced confusion
  • Violent shivering or no shivering
  • Mumbling or slurred speech
  • Clumsiness and lack of co-ordination
  • Shallow breathing
  • Steady loss of consciousness

In either case, you will be in immediate need of medical attention, but if the hypothermia is severe, don’t move or try to do anything yourself, lest you run the risk of letting it advance further still. If you are still capable of making decisions though, you should do the following: find a sheltered area, remove wet clothes, do some basic exercise to warm yourself and find a way to remain warm.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.