How To Survive Falling Into Freezing Water

Survivalists sometimes are a solitary bunch of people. Many don’t mind being alone or, even, being sort of like hermits in their quest for self-sufficiency and independence. With that in mind, along with the benefits of being in nature and not dependent on municipal utilities, it’s not uncommon for survivalists to decide to move to more rural areas of the country, many of which are in colder climates, such as Alaska or North Dakota.

Living in a colder area has it’s own unique challenges, one of which is the higher possibility of falling through ice into freezing water. Why would this happen? Possibly because a person is trying to get fresh water or because they have gone ice fishing. Regardless of the reason, though, handling this type of fall is knowledge that is useful to have if you live or plan on moving to a colder climate.

Joe Alton has a few bits of advice which make a lot of sense for preparing for this situation:

  • Keep a change of clothes handy that is kept in a waterproof container
  • Have a firestarter that works when wet
  • Have blankets
  • Look for the clearer blue areas of ice (thinner ice tends to be darker)
  • If you fall in, try to stay calm and slow down your breathing to prevent panic

Alton continues his advice for what to do if you fall in:

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.

Alton also recommends working with someone else instead of trying to make a go of it alone. There truly can be safety in numbers.

Have you survived a fall through ice into freezing water? Tell us below how you survived it.



  • Keith Pearson

    Out on a small lake with my 85 lb dog. I go in, he comes rushing to see what the commotion is, and joins me in the water. I thought the water was shallower, and thought I’d just step on the bottom and walk to a piece of nearby (30′) dirt poking above the surface. Wrong, I dropped down and hit…nothing. My first mistake was to try and get Jake out first. The combined weight kept breaking the edge. I let go of him, and dragged myself onto the ice, head first, keeping flat as mentioned in the article. Second mistake was trying to reach behind me and pull him up, breaking more ice. I finally succeeded by getting myself out, then rotated 180 degrees where my head was facing the hole. Grabbed Jake by the collar, and slid us backwards.

    Jake is part lab, didn’t seem to be affected by the cold much, was just scared at the sudden dip and commotion. I had a half mile walk back to the vehicle, got home, stripped the wet clothes off and got in a warm bath, was still shuddering all over the rest of the evening.

    I’ve always stepped hard on ice to test it before going forward, didn’t work out well this time. I probably didn’t spend more than 45 seconds in the water. More time in the water, or not having home nearby, could well have been more serious than it was. No people anywhere nearby, also could have been worse.

    So, be extremely wary of ice that isn’t known for a fact to be thick enough. Flatten out. If a child or animal is in with you, get yourself out of the water first, then help them. Trying to get them out first, or both at the same time, just keeps breaking more ice. I walked as rapidly as I could back to the vehicle, to generate some body heat.

    Bonus tip: As soon as possible, take the battery out of your phone. I did this as walking back to the vehicle, and placed it near, but not right next to a heater, with the back off. Did this for 24 hours, and it’s worked great for over a year now, thank you Samsung Galaxy Note 4! As I’d been taking pictures right before the fall, it took some pictures of me in the water all on it’s own!

  • Theodore King

    For a number of years I volunteered in Search and Rescue in Northern New Mesico. One of the fundamental principles we learned was that “cotton kills” because cotton, being a plant fiber, absorbs moisture leading to rapid body heat loss. Wool and synthetic fibers do not absorb moisture, thus if you got wet, you could wring out your clothing to significantly reduce the water content and put it back on allowing your body heat to help your recover from the chilling experience. I agree that it’s not as good as a change of clothes but it’s much better than dying.

    I agree with what you have presented and thank you for providing the information.