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What To Do If You Fall Through Ice

Updated on October 29, 2020

In a suburb of Ottawa, there's a river that mostly freezes over in the winter and becomes a trail for snowmobiling enthusiasts. This river narrows as it runs past the backyard of a friend of mine. Narrowing translates to faster water flow, which makes it less likely that the river will freeze over in that location.

My friend tells me that just about every year, one or two unsuspecting snowmobilers come ripping down the river trail and end up going through thin ice and drowning. Just a few years ago, a man and his young daughter tragically died in this way.

Even if you aren't into snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, or other popular outdoor winter activities, it doesn't hurt to know how to maximize your chances of surviving if you fall through ice.

In the following videos, Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht - a thermo-physiologist and professor at the University of Manitoba - shares tips on how to survive after falling into icy cold water. Below the video, you'll find a summary of a few key points to share with loved ones.

First, be aware that as soon as your body hits icy cold water, it will experience something called cold shock phenomenon. This phase lasts between one to three minutes, and is characterized by an instinctive gasping response, which can lead to hyperventilation and a huge waste of energy.

As your body experiences cold shock phenomenon, your focus should be to consciously control your breathing. Try to slow your breathing down and know that you have more time than you think to survive. If it helps, remember that many top level athletes experience this scenario almost daily with ice baths following intense workouts.

Once you are relatively calm, try to swim to the point at which you fell into the water and use your arms to grab hold of a solid edge of ice.

For most of us, the natural instinct is to pull ourselves straight out as we would do in hoisting ourselves out of a swimming pool - according to Dr. Giesbrecht, this is next to impossible.

The most efficient way to get yourself out of the water is to keep your legs as horizontal as possible and kick like you're swimming, and try to get into a rhythm of kicking your legs and pulling your body forward onto the ice with your arms. Kick, pull, kick, pull.

Once you have kicked and pulled your body out of the water, remember that the ice is probably weak, and that it's best to roll your body away from this point to an area that looks more solid. Rolling can transition to crawling, and when you are relatively confident that you are on solid ground or ice, you can stand up and walk away.

What To Do If You Can't Pull Yourself Out Of The Water

If there is no one to help you and you can't get out on your own, don't thrash around, as you'll only lose more heat and get further exhausted.

Try to get as much of your body out of the water as possible to minimize heat loss. Specifically, get your arms up and onto the ice. Keep your arms there and don't move them. Then relax as much as possible.

If you're lucky, your arms will freeze to the ice before you become unconscious. If you become unconscious, you'll stay there a bit longer because you are frozen there - you might get rescued in this state.

What To Do As A Bystander

If you come upon someone who has broken through ice, remember that the most important goal should be to preserve yourself.

Dr. Giesbrecht recommends calling for help immediately, be it via yelling at people within earshot or with a phone.

Tell the victim to try to relax and slow down their breathing and emphasize that you are going to help them get out.

Try to talk them out of the water - tell them to get their legs horizontal in the water, their arms up on top of the ice, and to kick, pull, kick, pull.

If the victim can't get out on their own, find something to throw to them like a rope, tree branch, or even a ladder from a nearby home, if available. If you throw a rope, try to create a loop at the end of it so that the victim has something to grab onto. If they can, they should try to put the loop around their trunk and elbow.


Please consider sharing these thoughts with family and friends. It's always best to be ultra cautious and stay away from frozen bodies of water, but it's good to know all of this just in case.

For more on surviving after pulling yourself out of icy waters, please feel free to view the following videos:

Many thanks to Mario Vittone for letting us know about Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht and his tips on surviving after falling through ice. Mario provides important insight on drowning and what it looks like here:

Do You Know What Drowning Really Looks Like?


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This strikes close to home, since this happened to a young man who worked in the same place as myself, about 5 years ago. He was a truck mechanic, around age 20, and looked to be in pretty good shape. He and a friend were snowmobiling on the Ottawa river and both fell through. From what I heard about this terrible incident, his friend was able to escape because he took off his snowsuit and presumably his boots, but my acquaintance, the young mechanic, drowned, because he wasn't willing or able to do this. Maybe he couldn't kick enough, with that extra gear. His friend must have had good presence of mind, to do what he did. Unfortunate that they both couldn't escape. Perhaps another point to consider.

Thank you so much for this info! I am a safety educator and this will really enhance my classes and give additional knowledge to the students. Thanks!

I'm so glad to know, thank you Nora! - Ben