Surviving in Cold Water

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It’s winter, and mishaps can occur that lead us to a discussion about surviving in cold water. Whether a boat capsizes or you fall through the ice, you can get into trouble quickly if you don’t know what to do. Water doesn’t have to be extremely cold to cause hypothermia. Any water that’s cooler than normal body temperature will cause heat loss.  You could die of hypothermia floating in a life vest off a tropical coast if immersed long enough.

In the event that you find yourself in cold water, you’ll need to have a strategy that will keep you alive until you’re rescued. Most, if not all, of your body surface will be exposed in an immersion event; you could succumb to exposure in a very short time.  Consider all the people who fell into the water when the Titanic sank. Within 15 minutes, most of them were most likely beyond medical help. First, we’ll talk about falling into the water when your boat capsizes, and then we’ll talk about falling through the ice during a winter hike.


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. 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 AS MUCH OF YOUR BODY OUT OF THE WATER AS POSSIBLE. The less percentage of your body exposed to cold, the less heat you will lose. Climbing onto a capsized boat or grabbing onto a floating object will increase your chances of survival, even if you can only partially get out of the water. However, don’t use up energy swimming unless you have a dry place to swim to. Note:  If you saw the movie “Titanic”, you know that the girl survived by climbing onto some debris.  There was no room for the boy, who subsequently perished.
  • POSITION YOUR BODY TO LESSEN HEAT LOSS. Use a body position known as the Heat Escape Lessening Position or Posture (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.



What if you’re hiking in the wilderness and that snow field turns out to be the icy surface of a lake?  Whenever you’re out in the wild, it makes sense to 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 fire starter 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, thin areas of bare ice without snow appear lighter.  Beware of areas of contrasting color as you’re walking.

KEEP CALM: Your body will react to the sudden immersion in cold water by an increased pulse rate, blood pressure, and respirations.  Although it won’t be easy, make every effort to keep calm.  You have a few minutes to get out before you succumb to the effects of the cold.  Panic is your enemy.

GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE WATER: This is best accomplished by breathing in and bending backward.  Tread water and quickly turn your body in the direction of where you came from; you know the ice was strong enough to hold you there.

GET RID OF HEAVY OBJECTS THAT WEIGH YOU DOWN:  The more you weigh, the harder it will be to get your body out of the water.

TRY TO LIFT UP OUT OF THE ICE:  Place your arms on the ice spread widely apart in front of you.  Kick with your feet to give you some forward momentum and try 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. If possible, get out of wet clothes.  Having spare clothes available in a hiking partner’s backpack is an important consideration.

I would like to mention a brand new item that would be helpful for falls through the ice or avalanche protection.  An air bag accessory is now available for those who are traveling in snow country. It can be easily deployed to achieve buoyancy in the water or to help prevent from being deeply buried in the snow.  Upon burial in an avalanche, hypothermia will set in quickly.  The air bag causes the victim to become a larger object; these seem to stay towards the top of the snow in avalanches.

Joe Alton, M.D. aka Dr. Bones the Disaster Doctor



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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