If someone where to fall through the ice on a lake or a pond, what would be some correct ways of rescuing them?

This question is inspired mostly by this video, where one person gets too close to the melted part and falls through and some one comes to attempt a rescue and falls in, and so on, until 12 people end up in the water (Don't worry, nobody dies or is seriously injured).

Barring the fact that no one should have been on that ice in the first place, how would you pull them out?

  • I saw the title and was going to come post that video in the comments, but it looks like you beat me to it!
    – nhinkle
    Dec 20, 2016 at 8:12
  • 4
    I lost a dear friend some years ago while ice fishing. Search and Rescue hold us that if someone does not come up through the same hole for air within seconds, the ice distortions will make it hard for the victim to find his or her escape route.
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 20, 2016 at 12:39
  • @KenGraham I'm so very sorry about your friend. That must have been devastating. This is important information and looks like an answer to me, if you want to write it up. Dec 20, 2016 at 23:45

4 Answers 4


Most important: Be prepared!

On organized skating tours (at least in sweden) the following is mandatory equipment.

  • An ice probe (to determine ice thickness so you wont go through in the first place)
  • A backpack with a complete change of clothes in a watertight bag. The backpack must have a harness that goes between your legs so it doubles as a flotation device and can be used to pull you out of the water.
  • Ice claws/spikes/"Isdubbar" (If you do go through, you stab them into the ice for traction)
  • A rescue line. A line with a floating weight and a fixed loop in each end. Must be easily accessible even in water.

This is equipment that both the person in the water and people around are likely to have, even far from populated areas.

Once someone is in the water however, there are several means of rescue.


Rescue helicopter. Lets you get to the person in the water without putting the rescuer at risk. Lets you transport a hypothermic or injured victim safely. This naturally is overkill in most cases.

Second best

A surf board or similar, that can be pushed out onto thin ice by spreading the load, and what floats if the ice breaks. The victim can grab the board and get up/be pulled up, or a rescuer can lay flat on it grabbing the victim while a second rescuer pushes/pulls the board from behind.

There are custom built boards designed for this. Naturally a plank, a ladder or a branch will do in an emergency. Anything that spreads the load, ideally floats and/or puts some distance between rescuer and victim.

A small boat works too, but might be harder to reach up to from the water.

Note: I put this as "second best", but only if such items are at hand. If you have a rescue line ant the victim is uninjured, don't waste time looking for a plank.

Third best

A line with a floating weight and a bowline (fixed loop) on both ends. Throw it to the victim. (Or even better, if the victim has one he/she can throw it to a rescuer) Either put the bowline around your wrist or (if you came prepared) attach it to a carabiner on your backpacks harness.

Fourth best

Self rescue. Never go on natural ice unprepared! Wear something that will help you float. (Dry suit, life jacket or a water tight backpack) Bring a pair of "isdubbar" (Swedish. Don't know an english term) or simply two large nails. Stab them into the ice to get traction enough to get back up.

In any case, make sure that no one else falls through. Always try to get up in the direction from wich you came. And don't go out on natural ice unprepared.

  • Naturally, the first alternative is only for when things have gone really wrong. The third and fourth are using items that you should have available.
    – Guran
    Dec 20, 2016 at 11:52
  • 1
    I would add Extension ladder to your list. and I would modify surf board to include small boats. Dec 20, 2016 at 13:49
  • In general you should never put a line round your wrist. Don't Google "deglove" if you're in the last bit squeamish. Hopefully it was a typo for waist, though the angles wouldn't be ideal. If the victim is conscious and capable, anchoring the line (even with your body, on solid ground) for them to use as a handhold should be your first (rope-based) option. And if they aren't that capable a role probably won't do much good.
    – Chris H
    Dec 20, 2016 at 18:07
  • I would really emphasis to put a bowline or similar on BOTH ends. A person that has fallen through ice for some time may not be able to grab a bare rope - even without frozen hands, with bulky gloves on it may be difficult to actually grab hold of a rope. So loops at both ends, so that the person can slide an arm through and be pulled out with minimum prehension needed.
    – Francky_V
    Dec 20, 2016 at 23:31
  • @ChrisH Good luck tying a line around your waist while swimming in ice cold water... I wrote wrist, and I mean it.
    – Guran
    Dec 21, 2016 at 9:10

The standard way of pulling someone up would be to throw your rescue line to them and then pull them up. But as with anything that is potentially dangerous, the most important part is for everyone (in particular the one in the water) to be prepared, which can only be seen to in advance.

One technical but sometimes overlooked aspect is that when you are the one crawling on the ice, you shouldn't try to stand up until you are back on thick enough ice. When using rescue claws/nails/spikes to get up yourself, try to crawl further than you actually think you need to! Otherwise, the hole just gets bigger and bigger and you exhaust yourself by repeating the procedure.

This same principle is behind the ideas of ladders, boards etc. The important part is to distribute the weight on a big area.

And if you're really far away from civilisation, calling for help by helicopter or so is obviously a good idea. But I would suggest trying to save the person before doing that, as it is going to take an eternity for the helicopter to arrive compared to how fast you drown when the water is freezing.

Just a note: here in Sweden it is very common for schools to teach the basic theory of ice safety, combined with practise. I think going into the water and getting up yourself should be a mandatory prerequisite before going on any serious ice adventure.


If anyone has ever fallen through ice, you know how devastating is the physical shock of loosing all your body heat in a flash.

I fell through ice once, but was fortunately able to get to shore quite easily on my own because I was very close to the shoreline and able to walk out. Believe me icy water takes all the energy out of you.

A few years back, a friend of mine was out on the ice while fishing, when he simply vanished. He somehow walked across a weak spot on the ice and fell through. It took Search and Rescue three days to locate his body.

Search and Rescue told us that if a person falls through the ice, it is imperative that he or she find the spot they went through within seconds. Once under the ice it is not so easy to see the hole in the water once one is under the ice because of the distortions of the ice on the surface. If it is cloudy outside that makes it even harder. A submerged victim has only seconds to find that escape route.

If you see someone fall through the ice and you can see him, the best thing to do is throw him some rope immediately, while staying as far back away from the whole as possible and pull him out of the hole. Do not let him stand up while he is still close to danger zone, as the ice around the hole may be in itself weak. You need be do your pulling in such a fashion as to spread your weight over the ice: avoid standing if possible.

If you cannot see the victim put something with bright colors (red and yellow) at the end of your rope into the water and well below the ice depth. Dot not try going into the water. If the victim sees the rope and grabs it, your in business. Once his head is out of the water and he has had air, get away from the hole and commence the above paragraph.

I truly hope none of you will ever have to do this.


If they are above water. Instruct them to turn around. Back to ice. Put there hands on the ice & lever up. This throws the body backwards onto the top of the ice. Next remove your coat shirt belly down on the ice flip it toward them and drag them a foot at a time towards you. as you back off. Take my word for this. I ran a trap line going to school in America as a teen. Been threw the ice a few times.

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