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How to Perform an Ice Rescue

Read the basic rules for dealing with an ice rescue.

How to Perform an Ice Rescue

Before You Put the Band-Aid On

It's a cardinal rule: don't go ice fishing, ice skating, or crossing icy ponds by yourself. As is true in deep sea diving or swimming, the buddy system ensures you have someone to call for help just in case. But, if you happen to be alone and the worst happens, you can try to help yourself. Other people have done it, and so can you.

There are two main rules: 1) don't panic and 2) get out of the icy water as fast as possible. You will have a few minutes before hypothermia inhibits your intellect and your muscle function. Basically, you must crawl out of the ice. This can be tricky, especially if the ice above is thin and you can't get a good grasp or if the water currents are strong and determined to push you away from the opening. Don't waste time pulling off boots or coats, unless you can do so quickly and without tangling yourself. Dog paddle up and out of the ice, if you can, pushing out and over the ice with each arm movement.

Concentrate on getting out instead of on the scary thought of drowning. Panic can lead to hyperventilation, which will further inhibit breathing and circulation and can cause hypothermia to set in faster.

Ice fishing, skating, and snowmobiling are all dangerous sports because of the possibility of thin, weak ice. Without any warning, ice can crack, and you or your companion can fall through into the icy cold water. Two major concerns result. First, the water will be extremely cold and can cause severe hypothermia and frostbite. Second, the victim may become trapped underneath the ice and drown.

Ice rescue can be a challenge, but it is not impossible if you follow the rules presented next. As always, before beginning these “ice rescue” rules, call for professional help, either a nearby hospital, ambulance, or even a ranger. It's nice to know that backup is on its way while you proceed on “thin ice.”

Rule #1: Don't step on the breaking ice yourself!

If you do, there will be two of you in need of help.

Rule #2: Reach for the person with a scarf or other clothing item, a tree limb, or a pole.

Using another object to reach the drowning person ensures that you keep your distance from the weak, dangerous ice. If there are others who can aid in the rescue attempt, you can form a human chain to reach the victim. To do so, each person lies face-down on firm ice and holds the ankles of the person in front of him. The “anchor man” should remain on shore, firmly gripping the legs of the first person lying down (and with a rope tied to his torso and a sturdy tree, if possible).

Another rescue device with “far-reaching” results is a small inflatable dinghy. Once blown up, it is smooth and sleek enough to get you across the ice to the victim, but light enough not to weigh you down. The dinghy can also be used as a life preserver, helping the victim reach up and out of the freezing water. But before you use any “hot air,” make sure that the ice is strong enough to support your weight.

Use a human chain to rescue someone from the ice.
Use a human chain to rescue someone from the ice.

Rule #3: Slide the drowning person across the ice.

Never carry a victim across an icy body of water. The extra weight can make the ice crack, and then you're both submerged.

Rule #4: Begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Don't give up if the individual appears to be dead. Icy cold water lowers body temperature which, in turn, slows down all body functions. People have been known to be revived 20 minutes after a drowning incident with no brain or heart damage.

First Things First

Do not give up on a person if, after an hour's search on the ice, you still haven't found him or her. The frigid water slows down the body functions and what would drown a person in the tropics in five minutes can take over 60 minutes in freezing water!

Rule #5: Treat for shock if necessary.

Because of the frigid water, an injured person might be in shock. Cover him or her with a warm blanket to raise body temperature. Although it seems logical to give the person something hot to drink, you should never give food or drink to a person who's semi-conscious or who's suffering from shock.

Rule #6: Treat for frostbite if necessary.

Frostbite is indicated by red skin, which then changes to a gray color, and ultimately changes to a bright icy whiteness (a sign of tissue damage). Treat frostbite by gently warming the body parts with lukewarm water. Do not massage the area. This can cause more tissue damage.

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