Cold Water Safety

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We’re heading into winter, and the inability to stay dry in cold weather can cause hypothermia in no time at all.  If you remember the movie “Titanic”, you saw hundreds of people bobbing in the freezing ocean after the sinking.

Exposure of a large area of the body to cold water causes heat loss very quickly, and you can bet that just about everyone in the water was beyond medical help within 15 minutes. In the unlikely (I hope) event that you find yourself in cold water, you’ll need to have a strategy that will keep you alive until you’re rescued.  First, we’ll talk about falling into the water when your boat capsizes, and then we’ll talk about falling through the ice on a wilderness hike.

Water Temperature and Heat Loss

Water doesn’t have to be cold to cause hypothermia. Any water that’s cooler than normal body temperature will cause heat loss. You could die of hypothermia off a tropical coast!  To increase your chances of survival in cold water, do the following:

·         Wear a life jacket.   Whenever you’re on a boat, wear a life jacket (did I really have to tell you?). A life jacket can help you stay alive longer by enabling you to float without using a lot of energy and by providing some insulation. The life jackets with built-in whistles are best, so you can signal that you’re in distress.
·         Keep your clothes on. While you’re in the water, don’t remove your clothing. Button or zip up. Cover your head if at all possible. The layer of water between your clothing and your body is slightly warmer and will help insulate you from the cold. Remove your clothing only after you’re safely out of the water and then do whatever you can to get dry and warm.
·         Get out of the water, even if only partially. The less percentage of your body surface out of the water, the less heat you will lose. Climbing onto a capsized boat or grabbing onto a floating object will increase your chances of survival.  However, don’t use up energy swimming unless you have a dry place to swim to.
·         Position your body to lessen heat loss. Use a body position known as the Heat Escape Lessening Position (think H.E.L.P.) to reduce heat loss while you wait for help to arrive. Just hold your knees to your chest; this will help protect your torso (the body core) from heat loss.
·         Huddle together. If you’ve fallen into cold water with others, keep warm by facing each other in a tight circle and holding on to each other.
How about if you’re hiking in the wilderness, and that snow field turns out to be the icy surface of a lake?  Whenever you’re in the wilderness, take a change of clothes in a waterproof container so that you’ll have something dry to wear if the clothes you’re wearing get wet.  Also have a firestarter that will work even when wet.
You might be able to identify weak areas in the ice.  If a thin area of ice on a lake is covered with snow, it tends to look darker than the surrounding area.  Interestingly, bare ice without snow appears lighter!  Beware of areas of contrasting color as you’re walking.
Your body will react to a sudden immersion in cold water by an increased pulse rate, blood pressure, and respirations.  Keep calm.  You have a few minutes to get out before you succumb to the effects of the cold.
Get your head out of the water by bending backward.  Tread water and quickly get rid of any heavy objects that are weighing you down.  Turn your body in the direction of where you came from; you know the ice was strong enough to hold you there.
Now, try to lift up out of the ice using your hands and arms.  Kick with your feet to give you some forward momentum and to get more of your body out of the water.  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 feel through.  This will spread your weight out, instead of concentrating it on your feet.  Then crawl away until you’re sure you’re safe.  Start working to get warm immediately.
Armed with a strategy to deal with unforeseen circumstances in the wilderness, a disaster or a collapse, you will stand the best chance of having it be a bump in the road and not the END of the road.
Dr. Bones

Hey, don’t forget to check out our entire line of quality medical kits and individual supplies at Also, our Book Excellence Award-winning 700-page SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WHEN HELP IS NOT ON THE WAY is now available in black and white on Amazon and in color and color spiral-bound versions at

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