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The Myth of Falling Through the Ice

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If you fall through the ice, you will die of hypothermia within 5 – 10 minutes.

Nope.  Not true.

You have probably heard this from an “all knowing” river guide, a news show or even a first aid instructor. They usually say it with an air of sage authority. But, it isn’t true.

Recommended Reading: Wilderness First Aid: Emergency Care in Remote Locations by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

You simply cannot die of hypothermia in 32ºF (0ºC) water in 5 – 10 minutes. However, you can rapidly meet your demise if you fall through the ice or fall into the icy waters.  Here is what can really happen:

1.  Cold Shock Response –  You have just broken through the ice and are now gasping for air, you panic and suck in water.  It is an automatic reflex – your body tries to take in air before you go underwater – but you take in water instead.  This is a very serious issue for expeditions.  It is especially serious for kayakers, divers, boaters or anyone near cold, icy water.  In fact, it is the leading cause of death from immersion in very cold water.

In addition to the initial shock, there is hyperventilation.  Like the initial gasp reflex, this is a natural reaction to the cold.  Although this physiological response will subside, panic can cause a psychological continuance of hyperventilation.  Prolonged hyperventilation can lead to a faint, so the key is to concentrate on controlling your breathing.  Having experience and knowledge of falling into cold water helps, but so does wearing a PFD (personal flotation device / life jacket) – ALWAYS.

Ice Safety Picks are very inexpensive and can enable you to self-rescue before things get any worse, but only if you have them with you! These are highly recommended whenever walking on or near frozen water.

2.  Cardiac Arrest – The cold water can also cause a heart attack due to vasoconstriction (arteries narrowing in response to the cold).  Vasoconstriction causes the heart to work harder to pump the same volume of blood throughout the body. For people with heart disease, this additional workload can cause the heart to go into arrest.


  • If you have the choice, immerse yourself slowly to minimize the shock.
  • Consider wearing clothing that will provide you with thermal protection and minimize the Cold Shock Response.  For instance, kayakers can wear an insulated cold water hood to protect them from the shock, in addition to a drysuit or other water proof insulating layers.

3.  Cold Incapacitation – This occurs between 5-15 minutes after immersion.   After you survive the initial gasping for air, vasoconstriction decreases blood flow to the extremities in an effort to preserve heat.  This response is meant to protect the vital organs by keeping heat in your core.  But when this happens, your muscle and nerve fibers don’t work well and you begin to lose meaningful movement in your hands and feet, then your arms and legs. Eventually, you are no longer able to tread water.   If you are not wearing a personal flotation device, your head and airway will slip beneath the surface of the water.  Other important life-saving/survival activities will also become more difficult and then impossible.  Self rescue after this point is not an option.

4. Hypothermia – Its not over. . .yet.  You still have a chance. If you manage to hang onto the ice or stay afloat you still have plenty of time for rescue. There are a number of misconceptions when it comes to hypothermia. The first deals with how long it will take to become hypothermic.  It varies with water temperature and body mass, but can take 30 minutes or more for most adults to become even mildly hypothermic in ice water.

Hopefully, this knowledge will make you far less likely to panic.  If you know that hypothermia would not occur quickly, that means you have some time to make good decisions and actions to save yourself. Over the next hour or so you will shiver and slowly cool off.  But, you still have time to be rescued.  This is important for your rescuers to understand.  They don’t need to panic, they need to be careful and deliberate.

Eventually, however, you will lose consciousness, as your condition progresses.  At this point, keep still contact with the surface of the ice as you might freeze your arms (or beard, clothing, etc) to the ice and keep you out of the water.  If you did not panic; you were able to hang on and keep your head above the water even after you lost consciousness (if frozen to the ice). Then and only then, in the next hour or two, you may indeed eventually develop severe hypothermia and “freeze to death.”

Professor Popsickle (aka Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht) summarizes the through-the-ice experience
1 Minute – Ten minutes – 1 Hour – 2 Hours

1 Minute to Control Your Breathing.
10 Minutes of Meaningful Movement.
1 Hour Before You Become Unconscious.
2 Hours to Be Found.

Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht’s videos on the Phases of Cold Water Immersion:

See also: How to Travel in High Risk Snow Areas, How to Survive Your Winter Adventure in Comfort, Skis or Snowshoes? Consider Skishoes