How to Survive Falling Through the Ice: An Illustrated Guide

by AoM Team on February 7, 2014 · 35 Comments

in Manly Skills, Survival, Visual Guides

1. Do not breathe in the water. Your body’s shock response will cause you to gasp and hyperventilate. Resist this force. The shock will wear off in 1-3 minutes and you have 15-45 minutes to get out before you lose consciousness, so try to stay calm.  2. Orient yourself and get back to where you fell through – this ice held you before, so it should be sturdy enough to crawl back onto.  3. Don’t try to pull yourself straight up. Get horizontal, and in a coordinated motion, kick your feet while using your elbows for traction to get up out of the water and onto the ice. Pull and kick until you’re out.  4. Lie flat on ice and ROLL away. This helps prevent further cracking in the ice. Find warm, dry shelter immediately.  5. If you can’t get out, stop trashing to conserve heat and avoid exhaustion. Put arms on ice and don’t move them – they may freeze to the ice, keeping you from slipping into the water when you lose consciousness and giving rescuers more time to get to you. Get as much of your body onto ice as you can – water draws heat away from the body 25x faster than air. Your beard can also freeze on the ice and save you.  6. If your friend falls through, call 911 and then coach them through this process rather than going out to them the hazardous ice. Two victims are worse than one. If they can’t get out on their own, extend a looped rope they can put around their arms, or a tree branch or ladder to hold onto.

If you live in a place where snowy and icy winters are the norm, you know the dangers of falling through the ice. And this guide is especially pertinent for those areas of the country where freezing weather only visits sporadically. When frigid temps descend for a short time upon a location that’s not used to seeing them, people, especially children, are apt to go out exploring their neighborhood ponds and reservoirs. As you can imagine, this creates a danger because the cold weather hasn’t been around long enough to create ice strong enough to walk on. That very scenario has happened here in Tulsa this winter, where two young men, in separate accidents, both drowned when venturing out onto a thinly-frozen creek and pond. So be sure to share this guide with your kids after you study the info yourself.

While no ice is guaranteed to be safe to walk on, the general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t venture out onto clear ice that is less than 2 inches thick. An even safer bet is 4 inches. And if it’s “snow ice” or white ice, it’ll need to be double that to support you.

If you know you’ll be on ice, it’s also a good idea to carry rescue ice picks with you. They’re cheap, and could make the difference between life and death. You can also make your own with a couple nails and dowels.

Big thanks to Lieutenant Harold Osborn of Denver’s North Metro Fire Rescue District for consulting on this piece.

PS-We’re not making up that bit about your beard. Watch this video for this and other fascinating and life-saving insights from a hypothermia expert and thermophysiologist.

Illustration by Ted Slampyak


{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Azaan Salyani February 7, 2014 at 4:51 pm

I was wondering though, I’ve heard when you fall in that the hardest part is finding the hole you came through. So what do I do in the situation where I’m under the ice?

2 Alex February 7, 2014 at 5:23 pm

I was always told to try to smash the ice around the hole until you get to a place that’s thicker. Otherwise, you might fall through again while climbing out.

3 Andrew February 7, 2014 at 5:59 pm

This is probably the most convincing argument for why men should grow beards I’ve seen.

4 Alex February 7, 2014 at 6:20 pm

What about that part where you remove all your wet clothes? Is that true?

5 Kyle Boureston February 7, 2014 at 6:32 pm

Great article. It is equal parts informative and terrifying. Falling through the ice would be awful.

6 Goldy February 7, 2014 at 8:53 pm

An old ice fisherman’s trick. Take a couple of big nails or spikes and tie them on the ends of a rope. Run the rope through your sleeves so that a spike comes out by each of your wrists. That way if you fall in, you have the spikes right there to either help you break the ice or dig in to pull yourself out.

7 Ryan February 7, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Bubbles never lie. Assuming you can see, release a small amount of air and watch the bubbles. Not only will this show you the way up but the bubbles will also show where it tries to escape the ice or where it doesn’t. Typically falling through ice, unless your momentum has been further acted upon by an outside force, you should be relatively in the same place. Rivers of course or current from moving bodies of water will be the exception.

8 dapete February 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

…or you could just drink vodka and do it again:

9 dapete February 8, 2014 at 1:01 am

Easily the #1 reason to grow a beard in winter.

10 Adam February 8, 2014 at 4:06 am

‘You’re beard can also freeze on the ice and save you”… Classic!

11 Nikola Gjakovski February 8, 2014 at 10:15 am

I hope I will never be in this discomfort to crawl out of icy cold water. This you may find interesting and how this guy is able to control his body under that frigid circumstance

12 Chris February 8, 2014 at 11:23 am

Love the part about the beard … looks like Harley Morenstein of EMT won’t ever die from falling through the ice … though he’ll likely croak from something else :P

13 UncleDan February 8, 2014 at 12:56 pm

This is not meant to be snarky in any way. The best solution for this entire scenario is simply to NEVER walk out on ice in the first place. You have no business being there. Stay on land.

14 James Jenson February 8, 2014 at 8:55 pm
15 Bobby February 8, 2014 at 9:58 pm

I have always been told not to fall through it at all..

16 Michael Corner February 9, 2014 at 3:29 am


I found the fact of …”don’t walk on the ice unless 2 inches or better 4 inches…”, to be very valuable infomation.

I lived in VA @ Ft. Eustis. (Near Newport News.)
I drove by the frozen Ft. Eustis lake while stationed there in the U. S. Army. I really wanted to walk on the frozen lake, but never did. I was afraid of falling in the lake and did not know the fact of how thick the ice is to be before it is safe.

I will check the ice thickness rule and be ready to walk on the ice if safe.

Thanks for the great article and useful infomation.

In Christ,

17 john February 10, 2014 at 2:17 pm

id continue filming the incident with my go pro camera.then using my waterproof smart phone call the coast guard giving them my g.p.s. coordinates.thus leaving my beard in good condition for the next days interview on the morning shows.

18 Michael D. Abramoff February 10, 2014 at 2:57 pm

How to find the hole you fell through:

look up to the ice and swim towards the DARKEST, not the brightest area. Open water is darker than ice.

19 Lukas February 10, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Where was this guide when I was 9 years old. I fell trough a thin ice, messing around alone on frozen river. When I pulled myself out (which wasn’t easy with all the layers of clothing all soaked up in cold, cold water), I made the horrible mistake which was to go on my knees, instead of staying flat (9 year old kids don’t really know basic physics). Too much weight in one place and the ice broke not one, but two more times with me. At that point I thought I was never gonna get out of there alive. Luckily, a passerby saw me, rushed to me and held a branch for me to grab onto. And then carried me to the nearest pub. I owe my life to that gentleman.

20 Kyle February 11, 2014 at 7:15 am

Let’s try this once more after a sip of coffee!

My father-in-law and I fell through the ice two winters ago at Ganoga Lake, PA. One day, incidentally, after I proposed to his daughter. There is a standing joke that he was trying to kill me, so that episode comes up a lot at family gatherings.

I would love to get him a framed print of this. Is there somewhere I can order one?

21 Carlos McDuck February 11, 2014 at 9:02 am

Teh mnemonic:
One inch – Keep off.
Two inches – One may.
Three inches – Small groups.
Four inches – OK.

22 John February 11, 2014 at 1:52 pm

I avoid the ice as much as possible. Never wanted to walk on it because as a duck hunter I KNOW how dangerous it is to fall through. Been there, done that, d@mn near died, and don’t ever want to do it again.

23 Tyler S. February 11, 2014 at 6:45 pm

You need to remove the clothes and do exercise – pushups, jumping jacks, something. You may put on clothing that might not be totally soaked – if possible. You need to get your core warm. Once out of the water your arms will be numb from blood rushing to your core to keep those organs warm. by exercising or at least rubbing your core after, you will heat your blood and it will return to your extremities. You will also want to know how to start a fire quickly in this situation if you can’t get to your car or warm building. You will need to go to the hospital regardless of how tough you are to be treated for hypothermia, because you will have it, especially switching between cold water and cold air. Stay dry.

24 marc February 12, 2014 at 2:28 pm

My dad fell through the ice while we were ice fishing, this was on Lake Champlain in NY. I must have been 6 or 7 at the time. We were walking to the shanty with me in the lead one second and then he was gone the next. Luckily my uncle was with us and he helped my dad get out. The shanty was a couple hundred meters away but it had a heater. Everything was OK until an ice quake happened. Nobody was hurt and nothing happened but I have refused to go out on the ice after that. It’s been 35 years since I’ve walked on a frozen lake.

25 Mason February 12, 2014 at 3:38 pm

I laughed out loud at the beard bit. That is just too awesome. Imagine if you pulled that off with witnesses to see it. You would be a legend and you would always have the best trump card imaginable if anyone told you to shave it off.

26 Don February 13, 2014 at 7:57 am

I wish I seen this article before I fell through the ice and almost died recently. I still have nightmares and this, from personal experiences, is NOT a good thing to happen to anyone!

27 Kade Carroll February 13, 2014 at 9:00 am

I just saw this post on another one of my favorite sites, Gizmodo. First time I’ve ever seen them link to, or mention AoM.

28 Rob N February 13, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Take off clothes that don’t have insulation value when wet – such as cotton. Keep wool on. Keep boots on – they may be wet, but that water will warm up from your feet and will be warmer than walking around barefoot. And only take off clothes if you’ve got dry clothes to put on once you dry off a bit.

From the Boy Scouts manual, to rescue a person who fell thru the ice or is drowning: Reach, Throw, Row, Go. To elaborate: If you can reach them directly from land, that’s best. If necessary, use a branch, rake, ladder, etc. Otherwise tie a loop in a rope and throw it to them (an unknotted rope is useless to somebody with cold hands). Next best option is to push a boat or canoe across the ice to them (you’re leaning over the boat, so if you fall thru the ice, you land in the boat and stay safe). Last is to actually go on foot across the ice to them (spreading your weight out), and that’s only if you’re in a place where there is no 9-1-1 available.

29 dom February 13, 2014 at 8:57 pm

The beard thing will save you if you are there so long that you cannot hold on any more with your arms and pass out from hypothermia. Your beard being frozen to the ice is the only thing keeping your head out of the drink. Without a “witness” you’d have no one to save you from certain death. It would be no laughing matter.

30 Damcrazy February 17, 2014 at 5:36 pm

I will now be growing a beard in the Fall to prepare for winter!

31 Tampa Fun February 17, 2014 at 7:49 pm

Living in Florida we rarely need to worry about falling in the ice, unless it is the cooler and you have had a few too many. But for some reason, I want to explore growing a beard.

32 Logan D February 18, 2014 at 11:05 pm

As a person who has fallen through the ice, it is terrifying. I was lucky and I did not have my head go underwater but it was still very intense. The worst part was the shock, I was uncontrollably gasping for air and I couldn’t do anything to actually stop, I was lucky and after about 10-15 seconds of being in the water I had help getting out. For a good 10-15 minutes I had enough adrenaline to stay warm in the 0°F weather (around -25° with windchill) and I got inside after that but I don’t think I could have survived much longer being drenched in the weather. It was even a little life changing, make sure you know how to tell where thin ice will be, it may just save your life.

33 Gene February 19, 2014 at 11:08 am

when in boy scouts i learned the saying
1″ No Way
2″ One May
3″ Small Groups
4″ OK

34 tom February 21, 2014 at 9:34 am

If you think that there is the SLIGHTEST chance of falling through while on the ice, ALWAYS carry a long pole with you, so that if you go through you can hold the pole in a horizontal position as you go through and this will hold you from going in all the way. Then you can climb out. You can also use this pole to tap hard on the ice ahead of you while you walk to check the thickness. This precaution is well known to to trappers.

35 Bryan February 23, 2014 at 4:56 am

Spent a few winters in the North woods, and was told that, with lakes, no matter how thick the ice, don’t go anywhere near where a river comes in. The river coming under the ice makes it much thinner than the ice on the rest of the lake.

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