Let’s face it. There is a whole lot more to prepping than having plenty of water, food storage, medical supplies, and an arsenal of weapons to protect yourself and your property.
In this exclusive article from contributing author, Joe Alton, learn what you need to know to survive a fall through the ice. With a few easy to remember strategies and some basic items in your pack, you will not only escape safely but will also avoid hypothermia. I call this “advanced prepping”.
The best advice is to avoid getting near unsafe ice in the first place!
A Fall Through the Ice
In winter, many northern outdoor enthusiasts run afoul of the extreme cold. If you don’t take weather conditions into account, you have made the environment your enemy, and it is a formidable one. Some simple additions to your pack will help “winterize” you to deal with mishaps in the backcountry.
Whenever you’re out in the wild, it makes sense to take a change of clothes in a waterproof container. This way, you’ll have something dry to wear if you get wet. Wet clothes in the cold will drain body heat and could cause hypothermia, which occurs with a drop of just 3 or 4 degrees in body core temperature.
What if you’re hiking in the wilderness and that snow field turns out to be the icy surface of a lake?
Ice can handle the weight of an average human if four or more inches thick. This “safe” thickness may be undermined, however, by flowing water just below the surface, which weakens the underside of the ice. When it comes to walking on ice, safety is never guaranteed.
Knowing the above, you might be able to identify weaker areas on the ice. Is the ice on the edge of the water body firm? If it’s slushy or cracked, it’s unlikely to be a reliable walking surface and you should go around.
The safest ice to be on is clear blue in color due to higher density, although testing for thickness with an ice pick or auger (useful items for hikes in the cold) is prudent.
Thinner areas of ice tend to be darker in color. Ice that thaws and refreezes in layers might be white in color but is questionable due to air pockets. Areas of contrasting colors indicate an uneven thickness and should be avoided.
Let’s say the worst happens and you fall through the ice. Your body will react to a sudden immersion in cold water by an increased pulse rate, blood pressure, and respirations. Although it won’t be easy, make every effort to keep calm. Concentrate on slowing down your breathing. You have a few minutes to get out before you succumb to the effects of the cold. Panic is your enemy: It causes mental paralysis at a time when quick action can save your life.
Start by holding your breath and getting your head out of the water. Once you’ve done so, inhale deeply and bend backward. Turn your body in the direction of where you came from; you know the ice was strong enough to hold you there. Tread water and quickly get rid of any heavy objects that are weighing you down. Keep your clothing on, though. It has air pockets between the layers that are helping you stay buoyant.
Now, try to position your body as horizontally as possible and lift up out of the ice using your hands and arms. Keep your arms spread in front of you to help distribute the strain on the ice. Kick with your feet to gain some forward momentum. At the same time, try to get more of your body out of the water. The more of your body that’s out of the water, the better. Cold water drains body heat much faster than cold air. Allow a few seconds to let water drain from your clothes; it’ll make you lighter.
Some of the ice may crack but keep moving forward. An ice pick would help gain a handhold (another good reason to have one handy in icy conditions).
Lift a leg onto the ice and then lift and roll out onto the firmer surface. Do not stand up! Keep rolling in the direction that you were walking before you fell through. This will spread your weight out, instead of concentrating it on your feet. Then crawl away until you are sure that you’re safe.
Start working to get warm immediately by removing wet clothes and getting out of the wind. Extra clothes from your or a party member’s backpack should be put on immediately.
Perhaps the most important safety precaution when hiking in the frigid wilderness (besides not walking on thin ice) is to have a partner or partners. Walk in single file on the ice with some distance between party members. If the advance hiker falls through the ice, tell them not to panic and walk them through the above. If you can throw them a rope (make a loop they can put around their body) or hold out a branch, do so, but don’t get so close that you fall in also.
It will actually take a while to die from hypothermia, but a loss of consciousness will occur if rapid action isn’t taken to effect a rescue. Here is a link to an amazing video by a professor from the University of Manitoba that uses himself as a guinea pig to show you the process: http://drbenkim.com/what-do-if-you-fall-through-ice.
The Final Word
Depending on where you live, cold weather may or may not be a factor at the moment. That does not, however, negate the need to be knowledgeable of advanced strategies for saving yourself or a companion when stuck outside in a freezing cold environment.
Although this article refers to a fall through the ice, many of the same techniques are useful during an accidental fall into an icy lake or river. Please take heed; I don’t want anyone of you to succumb to hypothermia!
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!