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Ice and Water Rescue


Be it an extreme kayaker, or a backcountry hiker crossing a frozen lake, one bad move can spell disaster for the most careful adventurist. Survival in cold water immersion depends on your knowledge of hypothermia symptoms and how to treat someone just pulled from cold water. Know how to aid yourself and fellow travelers if professional assistance is not readily available.


Understanding what happens to the human body in cold water immersion can help save your own or another's life. The effects of cold water immersion must be understood, as hypothermia can cause death even after a person is rescued from cold water.


These are the four stages of cold-water immersion effect on the human body:


Stage One: Cold shock due to water immersion

Stage Two: Loss of use in hands and limbs

Stage Three: Long-term immersion (hypothermia sets in)

Stage Four: Post-rescue collapse


Stage 1: Shock response to cold water will happen when someone is immersed in water where the temperature is below 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Shock affects the respiratory system. Hyperventilating can take control, and is dangerous because breathing is too fast for oxygen to be absorbed into the bloodstream.


Stage 2: This stage happens anywhere between 3 to 30 minutes after being immersed. It can be accelerated by trying to escape a bad situation by swimming. This only cools the body off faster. Losing use of the hands and limbs due to cold water immersion also happens in this stage, which is why all of those in water adventure must wear a life preserver.


Stage Three: Generally, hypothermia will take place after a minimum of 30 minutes of immersion. The symptoms are: shivering that is uncontrollable, lack of coordination, mental confusion, extreme drowsiness, and a slow heart rate.


Stage Four: This stage is about post-rescue collapse. When a person is rescued, the danger does not end. Anyone who has been subject to cold water immersion may die from post-rescue collapse. Blood pressure may drop after being pulled from the water. When this happens, any inhaled water may cause lung damage. Heart issues may start when cold blood in the hands and limbs begins to circulate in the body's core.


Knowing the re-warming process is critical at this stage. If possible, get the rescued person into a warm environment, even if the only available item is a sleeping bag. Clothing should be removed if it can be done without excessive body movement for the victim. Do not massage the victim's limbs, hands, or feet. If the victim is semi-conscious, lay them horizontally with the face up, and with the head lowered slightly. Raise the head if the victim is nauseous or vomiting. Keeping the head down allows more blood to flow up and into the victim's brain.


Also note that a majority of people recovered had the appearance of death, such as blue skin and no breathing or heartbeat. This is just the body's way of increasing the chances of surviving.