Falling through thin ice into freezing water is terrifying, but whether you’re a hardened outdoors adventurer or just overcome with how pretty the middle of a frozen lake looks, it is an occupational hazard, especially in winter.
You really shouldn’t be out on ice on your own, which is your first step to self-preservation, but if for whatever reason you are and you do fall through, here is a relatively simple two-step self-rescue method that could get you out.
What happens to your body when you fall through thin ice
If you fall into freezing water, your body’s physiological response is to go into what is called “cold water shock". The shock causes your respiration rate, heart rate, and blood pressure to increase dramatically, which can cause ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest – basically sudden death.
How to mitigate that initial response
The first thing you must do is try to mitigate that cold shock response. It will buy you precious moments to allow you to think clearly and act rationally. Try not to panic, which speeds up your heart rate, blood pressure etc, exacerbating the cold shock response. Basically, relax into it. The knowledge that if you relax it will pass quickly should help you stay calm.
Put your arms and legs out to slow your descent, and prevent yourself from going under. The body’s natural gasp response means you might try to take a breath and swallow water. If you manage to keep your head above water, your automatic response will still probably be to take a huge breath. Many people struggle with this in panic situations and feel like they can’t get the air they need to breathe. Doctors and anxiety coaches everywhere will tell you this is because – and it sounds silly, but it’s true – most people forget to exhale first. Blowing out slowly through your lips will help calm you.
Reach out and place your hands and arms flat on the ice lightly, and take a couple of moments to breathe calmly. Congratulations, you survived step one. This now puts you in the best possible position, mentally and physically, to be able to take the next step – getting yourself out of the water.