Lake ice
“If you fall through a frozen lake you are not about to die, so don’t panic, and don’t give up,” says Matt Cruchet, president of Direct Bearing, an outdoors risk-management firm in Palmer Rapids, Ontario. Cruchet stresses the one-10-one rule. You have one minute to get over the initial cold shock and begin breathing normally or you risk drowning. You have 10 minutes of purposeful movement before your muscles seize from the cold. And you have one hour before you go unconscious.

Assuming you survive the first minute by calming down and keeping your head above water, the next nine will count for a lot.

  • Call for help. If anyone is within earshot, they can come on the safe ice you just travelled over and reach for you with a branch, rope or ski pole.

  • Take your pack off. If it floats, use it as buoyancy in front of your chest. If it sinks, make a note to buy a new one.

  • Determine the best exit point. The direction you came from is probably a good choice since you know the route was safe until you broke through.

  • If you are wearing skis, snowshoes or ski poles, try to take them off. They may help you climb onto the ice, but not if they are attached to you.

  • Lay the skis across the edge of the ice so they will distribute your weight.

  • Using ice picks, snowshoe cleats or ski pole tips for purchase (if available), reach forward and while kicking and pulling, try to haul your torso onto the ice. Stay low with your weight spread out.

  • If you can’t climb out and your 10 minutes are coming to a close, keep yourself available for rescue by freezing your arms to the ice surface. If you keep your head above water, you won’t drown and the cold water will act like a metabolic icebox, slowing down your bodily functions. You might be rescued many hours later and successfully warmed up and revived in a hospital.

Surviving cold-water immersion

Surviving in cold water is all about timing. Cold water will sap your body of heat 25 times faster than cold air will. Swimming only increases that cooling effect, by pushing warm blood to your muscles where it is lost. The question then becomes: when to sit tight and conserve heat and when to risk swimming to shore?

In a 2007 journal published by the National Research Council of Canada, two scientists laid out some numbers. They reported that most people wearing a PFD can swim about 2,500 feet in 10°C water before becoming incapacitated, a distance covered by good swimmers in 45 minutes. Stationary floaters can remain conscious for an hour or more in 8°C water, so your decision should be based on if you expect help to be on the way and how far from shore you are. The researchers also found that swimmers usually overestimate the distance to shore by a factor of three.