As winter arrives, most families have plans to enjoy winter activities like ice fishing, ice hockey, ice skating, snowball fights, skiing, and more. As a prepper, the first thing one should consider is “What if I fall through the ice? In circumstances where the ice isn't thick enough to hold your body weight, you might find yourself in quite a pickle or in this case, icy cold water, as you might fall through the ice. Not being prepared could lead to hypothermia or even death.

How Long Can You Survive in Icy Water?

When it comes to any type of emergency, you want to act as quickly as possible to prevent a tragedy from happening. Despite that, prior knowledge of how much time you have to save yourself or the individual in this particular instance is very important.

Generally speaking, a person can survive for 15-45 minutes in icy water if they're equipped with flotation and other protective layers and gear, anything more than this and the brain can shut down and the heart can stop. However, most people, especially children, gets on the ice with the expectation of falling in so the chances of having protective gear like flotation devices is quite low. So, it's more ideal to estimate the survival period as 15-20 minutes in ice cold water.

When someone falls into water that is around its freezing point, they don't immediately go into hypothermic shock. If the person in the water is proficient enough at swimming, the ice is thin enough, and knows the proper technique, they might be able to smash and swim their way through and out of the icy water in seconds or minutes.

Under these freezing conditions the body goes into protective mode to sustain live, like causing them to hyperventilate. Unfortunately, some people might get scared, panic, and swallow too much water resulting in drowning. That's why speed is heavily emphasized.

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What to do if you Fall Through the Ice?

Falling through ice can be terrifying. Your body can go into a state of shock and your natural response might be to panic. It's not every day you get submerged in freezing cold icy water. But when you find yourself in this situation, it's best to fight the initial instinct to panic and freeze (no pun intended). Try to conserve your energy while looking for the quickest way to escape.

Remain Calm

The worst thing you can do in this situation is panic. Not only does it waste your energy; it can make the situation even worse. You could inhale too much water leading to drowning or lowering your body temperature too quick, leading to hypothermic shock. Additionally, this could lead to you dropping before the water line and getting sucked under the surrounding ice layer.

Instead, try as much as possible to remain calm as your body adapts to the "cold shock" (the physiological response to extreme cold). Breathing at as normal a rate as possible will keep your mind clear, heart rate down, and provide valuable time to formulate your escape plan.

Lose Heavy Equipment

If you were in the process of some activity, like ice fishing or ice hockey, before falling into the ice, there's a possibility you might have on heavy equipment, skates, sports gear, backpack, etc. Whatever ‘extra’ items, especially bulky or heavy items, you have on should come off as soon as the cold shock has worn off. Remembering to keep your warm layers and underlayers on. The goal hear is to get lighter, not to remove your clothing.

Shedding these heavier items will help reduce your risk of drowning as these items can weigh you down. It will also make it easier for you to climb back onto the ice or swim back to shore.

Let Your Clothes Act as a Flotation Device

Before you let go of your clothing items, quickly evaluate if any of them are helping you stay afloat. Air trapped between clothing layers might increase buoyancy in both children and adults. That feather filled or puffer winter coat may be trapping precious air, helping to keep you above water.

However, the prepared prepper, whenever on ‘wild ice’ would be wearing one of those thin personal flotation devices. The kind that is lightweight and deflated until activated. They don’t add much weight and can be inflated quickly if a fall through the ice occurs. They also often feature a whistle so you can get the attention of potential near by rescuers.

Use Solid Ice to Pull Yourself Out

The very thing that gives way to dump you in the drink, can also be the thing that saves your life. Find the thickest portion of ice around, grab on and get as horizontal as possible. Kick your legs up to the surface. Now you should be able to lift your upper body onto the ice, using your forearms and elbows to prop you up. Now with your legs horizontal and close to the surface, kick your legs while pulling and propelling yourself onto the ice, much like a seal.

Stay Horizontal. Don’t Stand on the Ice

Once out of the water, do not try to stand up! Instead, roll yourself away from the hole, by several feet, to more solid ice or solid ground. If still on ice, evaluate if you think the ice is thick enough to hold your standing body and handle you walking.

If you determine it feels safe enough to walk, then slowly stand up and take one step at a time until you are free of the ice. Still feels unstable? Then, remain horizontal and roll or army crawl to safety. Make sure to evenly distribute your weight as you progress by spreading your arms and legs as far as possible.

Get Out of Wet Clothes

Once you-re off the ice and in a safe location, you should take off all your wet clothes. As counterintuitive as it might seem, your cold wet clothes will absorb the cold moisture in the air and quickly and dramatically lower your body temperature. Removing your wet clothes is the quickest way to increase your core body temperature. While you will still be cold, you won’t be as cold as you would in wet clothes.

It will help to go to a sheltered area like your vehicle or immediately back home. If none of these options are readily available, then some trees and dense foliage to shield yourself from the harsh elements that can cause additional chill is imperative until help can get to you.

Warm Up Slowly

You might have already expended most of your energy that's why what's left should be used in warming you up. If you can get some dry clothes or blankets to keep you warm is the best option. Are you alone? Start a campfire to keep you warm and dry your wet clothes.

If not, you can do some simple exercises like jogging in place or maybe jumping jacks or pushups to increase your body temperature and blood flow. Using heating pads and hot water bottles are just a few other ways you can warm yourself up.

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What to Do if you See Others Fall?

Rescuing someone else that has fallen through the ice is a different ball game entirely. It's dangerous because you can't predict how the other person might act in their state of panic, 1 person obviously already fell in, and you're also working against the time. However, as a survivalist and prepper, offering help to others in trouble may be in your nature, and would be much appreciated by the affected person.

Call 911

First things first, you should call 911. This will ensure the official life savers are on the way, and will hopefully be there quickly. They can help resuscitate, provide dry blankets & warmth, and maybe even finish the rescue if they get there quick enough. That doesn't mean you should wait around for help. If you can spot a safe way to get the person out of the water, that would be best. If you can’t find a safe way as to not injure or endanger yourself then try to keep the person calm and company.

Determine if You can Safely Reach them From Shore

Now it's time to calmly assess the situation. It's not advisable to go on the Ice to rescue them as you might also end up falling in. That's why you should check if you can safely reach them from the shore first.

If Yes? Rescue Them Without Getting Yourself Wet

During the rescue, avoid getting wet as much as possible and try to pull them out of the ice by using a long and sturdy stick. If you have to get yourself wet to help, try to limit it to your arms, when reaching in for them.

No? Option 1: Survivalist - Wait for Help

If they're far away from the shore and you don't think you can rescue them on your own, then wait for help. But while you wait, try reassuring them and you can even instruct them on how to survive and talk them through how to get out of the water and onto stable ice:

  • Help them remain calm
  • Tell them to look up, keeping their head and neck out of the water
  • Instruct them to get themselves out by getting their upper body on the ice and kicking with their legs while pulling themselves the rest of the way out

Resist the urge to run out and save them as you might make the situation worse.

No? Option 2: Off Duty Life Saver or Average Hero - Rescue Them Anyways

Plan to rescue them anyways? The most important rule is to stay dry and not fall in yourself. If you think you can rescue them then get down on your stomach and try to pull them out. You can have them grab onto your hands or a long stick or even a fishing net as you pull them out of the water to safety. Once they're out, you can either continue to drag them to shore or instruct them to remain horizontal and crawl or roll their way back to shore.

If the situation gets to hairy, wait for help so you don’t give the responders 2 people to save, instead of just one.

Get them Dry & Warm

Once they're out and back to safety, let the professionals handle it or have them to take off their wet clothes and if your clothes are dry enough, you can give them your coat or any of your spare clothing. To warm them up wrap them up by hugging them and sharing your body heat until the medics arrive.

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What to Consider Before Stepping on the Ice

How Thick is the Ice?

Before going out onto any ‘wild ice’, weather to help a fallen comrade or for your own recreational event, you should first consider how thick the ice is and whether it's strong enough to support your body & gear weight and other’s weight if you are going with friends.

Less than four inches thickness is not considered a good thickness and should be avoided. However, 3-4 inches should be able to hold a single person or a group in single file.

Four inches or more is solid enough to be walked on, but you will want it to be at least 7 inches thick if you want to play hockey, ice skate, or drill through for ice fishing.

Using the Buddy System

If you fall through the ice and are alone, you will need to rely solely on your ability to get out of the water, getting home, and getting warm all by yourself. Using the buddy system isn't just for children going to the bathroom or when walking the streets late at night. When doing anything that is known to cause potential harm like skating on wild ice, dirt biking, or rock climbing; using the buddy system is for all ages. When you have another person with you, you automatically have a better chance at survival.

In the instance of falling through the ice, you and your buddy(ies) automatically have another helping hand to get you out of the freezing water. You will also have help getting home. Additionally, you will have someone that can help get you warm. Whether they give you their coat or use their body heat to transfer some warm to you. If you and your buddy(ies) fall into the water together then you still have a comrade to help keep you calm and on track, focused on getting out, home, and warm.