There are a lot of videos and instructions out there on what to do when you fall through ice: You turn the direction you came from, pull and kick until you get out and roll yourself to safety.

But what is the procedure, if you are in the middle of the lake, you break through, but the ice all around you is too thin and keeps breaking, when you try to pull yourself out of it.

What do you do in this situation? Just keep moving, trying to basically swim through the ice, while breaking it hoping to reach thicker ice or the shore? How long would you be able to keep that up?

Note: This question is about the specific situation, in which you can not climb back on to the ice, as it keeps breaking and you are far away from shore.

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    This is not a duplicate. I'd like to see a good answer to this. Moreover, "Pull and kick until you get out" -- I'm trying to envision this, but I don't know what there is to pull against. My father fell through the ice in the middle of a small lake when he was ice-skating alone. Best estimate is that he was in the water for over 1/2 hour. Someone noticed from a nearby house and called 911. He was pulled out by, I think, the fire department. He was very strong but could not pull himself out. Wearing ice skates did not help, of course. Worst after-effect: acute embarrassment.
    – ab2
    Jan 29, 2017 at 20:50
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    @ab2 Thank you for sharing. Half an hour is pretty long. Did he have hypothermia? The idea is, that you use ice picks or your hands, bring yourself in horizontal position and simultaneously kick and pull. However this is not possible, if the ice keeps breaking, you can not get on top in such a situation. Jan 29, 2017 at 21:04
  • I don't know if he had hypothermia, or was just g---d-d cold. I was in school at the time. My mother did not call me until the next day, when he was fine. He was not taken to a hospital. Ice picks would sure have helped. In retrospect, he might have made it out himself if he had taken off his skates and used them as picks.
    – ab2
    Jan 29, 2017 at 21:32

1 Answer 1


What do you do in this situation? Just keep moving, trying to basically swim through the ice, while breaking it hoping to reach thicker ice or the shore?

More or less, yes with two caveats. If someone else is in the process of attempting a rescue (e.g., their first rope toss came up short or the boat is on the way) you might be better off making sure you do not end up under the ice (and potentially conserving energy).

The second caveat is you need to reevaluate which way to go. The general idea of going back the way you came from is that you know the ice quality there. If you have crossed a long expanse of ice and are near the "far" shore, you might be better off going forward instead of backwards.

How long would you be able to keep that up?

There are a lot of factors that influence survival/exhaustion times (cf, http://www.seagrant.umn.edu/coastal_communities/hypothermia), but you could probably manage to keep your head above water for somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes (maybe 60 if you are in shape and a good swimmer/water treader).

  • But how much time could you manage breaking ice and swimming towards shore? Assuming you are alone, in the middle of a lake. How many meters could you move that way before you pass out? Jan 29, 2017 at 21:08
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    @user1721135 no way to know. If the ice was really thin, you are a reasonable swimmer, and you can strip off you clothes, you could potentially go over 1 km. If the ice is thick where you get most of your body on it before it breaks you might only make it 15 body lengths.
    – StrongBad
    Jan 29, 2017 at 21:19
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    +1 because you've made good points, but I'm not sure about the advisability of stripping off one's clothes. Sure, it lightens your load, but it removes all your insulation. This might be worth a separate question.
    – ab2
    Jan 29, 2017 at 22:03
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    It also really depends on how deep the water is. The local skating pond is only about four feet deep at most, so the alternative self-rescue procedure is to stand on the bottom and yell for help.
    – Mark
    Jan 29, 2017 at 22:07
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    @ab2 if you are going for distance in cold open water, there is no doubt in my mind (but you can ask for numbers) that drag is going to be the limiting factor. I doubt any material (e.g., fleece and wool) provides must insulation when submerged in moving water.
    – StrongBad
    Jan 29, 2017 at 22:07

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