Answers from the FieldFishing

When $%&! Goes Wrong: Falling Through the Ice

By Adam Berkelmans

Our adventures to procure wild food, whether through hunting, fishing, or foraging, can bring us into some extreme situations and sometimes, despite our best efforts, $%&! can go wrong. In this series, we’re going to talk about different adverse situations you may find yourself in, and the best ways to deal with them.

This month, we’re talking about falling through the ice.

This will apply mostly to those who enjoy doing some hard water fishing in the winter, but many other instances could find you moving across unreliable ice in search of animals or wild edibles. This is what to do if you fall through.

Before it Happens

Ice, no matter how thick it seems, is unreliable. If you plan on venturing out on the ice, you MUST ALWAYS BE PREPARED. Most sources agree that you need at LEAST 4″ of solid ice before it is safe to walk on it (without heavy gear), but many recommend no less than 12″ for walking. Remember, no ice is 100% safe. Avoid areas with running or fast-moving water, edges of waterbodies, and grey or opaque ice. Clear blue or black ice is the strongest. Try to go our with a buddy, or at least let people know exactly where you’re going, what you’ll be doing, and when you should be home.


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What to bring:

  • Spud Bar – Spud bars are long and heavy metal rods that you can pound through the ice to test for thickness. You should be measuring the ice’s thickness every four or five steps. If the bar goes through the ice in only two or three strikes, it’s time to slowly back off and reconsider your options.
  • Gear with Built-in Floatation – There are many products available to buy, from full floating survival suits to unobtrusive PFDs that inflate once submerged. Buy one and wear it; it may save your life!
  • Ice Picks – Ice picks, popular with the snowmobiling crowd, are handheld picks attached by a string that you wear around your neck. If you go through the ice, these can help you gain purchase to pull yourself back out.
  • Throw Rope – A small bag of floating line could help save the life of another. If you are going with someone else (a great idea) then you can use the throw rope to assist in towing them out of the hole they fell into.
  • Dry Bag – A good dry bag or even a ziplock plastic bag is great for keeping things you may need once you extricate yourself from the ice. It’s a good idea to keep any communication devices in it, and if you’re going to be far from your vehicle or home, you’ll definitely want to keep a lighter or matches and some tinder to start a fire with.
  • Dry Clothes – Bring some warm dry clothes and a blanket and store them in your vehicle in case you need to change out of your wet clothes.

When it Happens

If you do happen to fall through the ice, follow these steps to get yourself out.

  • Brace Yourself – If you feel yourself going through, brace yourself and consciously try to avoid reflexively taking a big breath if your head goes underwater. Find the Hole – If underwater, you need to immediately find your way to where you fell in. Always look for contrasting colors. When the ice is covered with snow, the hole will appear darker; ice without snow will make the hole look lighter.
  • Stay Calm – Once you hit the ice-cold water your body’s shock response, called torso reflex will kick in, causing panic and hyperventilation. Stop any motion except for what it takes to keep yourself afloat and begin taking deep breaths, calming your body and mind. This will help you avoid panic and allow you to formulate a plan to get out. Torso reflex should calm down within 1-2 minutes, at which point it’s time to quickly extricate yourself.
  • Lose the Gear – Kick off any heavy items like a backpack, snowshoes, skis, etc.
  • Be Seen and Heard – Sit as high out of the water as you can and wave your arms. Shout if you can. If there are others around, this will alert them and they can come to help.
  • Get Horizontal – Point yourself back to where you came when you fell in and tilt your body towards the ice, grasping the edge. Kick your legs as hard as you can and use your forearms (or ice picks) to shimmy yourself back up onto the icepack. If you can’t possibly get out, get as much of your body out of the water as possible and wait for help, or keep trying after a brief rest.
  • Get Away – Once you’ve extricated yourself from the ice, don’t stand up. Spread yourself as wide as possible and roll to a safe spot, following the route you took in. Once you’re very sure you’re in a safe spot again, stand up and make your way to land.

If you encounter someone who has fallen through the ice, use extreme caution; many would-be rescuers end up falling through the ice themselves. Call 911 first. Try throwing a line out to the victim, or use a long branch or spud bar for them to grab on to. If you have to approach them, do so VERY cautiously by slowly crawling towards them spreading out your body weight as much as possible. Drowning victims can react violently, so be careful not to get pulled in with them. Talk them through the whole thing.

Once they’re out, get them somewhere warm fast. Remove their clothing and give them any dry clothing you can find, including your own until they warm up.

After it Happens

Thankfully, you’re out of the water, but you are still in danger of death due to hypothermia. Follow these steps to get home safely.

  • Follow your Steps – Retrace your steps back to where you came from and if at all possible, find a vehicle or indoor space to warm up. If there are any people about, enlist their help by calling 911 or letting you use their home or vehicle to warm yourself. Your legs may not be working well at this point, so crawl if you have to.
  • Find Shelter – If you are too far away from a building or vehicle, find a spot sheltered from the wind like a snow drift, fallen tree, or cliff.
  • Remove your Clothes – Wet clothing will block any heat from penetrating, so removing it will help you get warmer faster.
  • Gently Warm Up – Get near a heat source and warm yourself. Be careful not to go anywhere too hot like a hot bath or too close to flames. If you can’t make it to a vehicle or building, quickly light a fire before your fingers stop working. This is why you should always carry a fire starter and tinder.
  • Find Dry Clothes – If at all possible, find yourself some dry clothes or a blanket. You may need to ask others to supply them. Having a set of dry clothes in your vehicle is a good idea. Use warm water bottles to help spread warmth in places like the groin and armpits. Be sure to have a barrier, like cloth, between the bottle and the skin.
  • Drink Something Warm – Drink a warm beverage and let yourself slowly warm up. This may take over an hour.

Being prepared and knowing what to do when $%&! like this goes wrong can mean the difference between life and death. Be cautious, be smart, and be prepared!


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