With a sudden and almost violent jolt, air rushes into your lungs, alerting your body and mind to the newfound reality and immediacy of the danger of your situation. If you’ve ever fallen into very cold water, you know what I’m describing.
Surviving in Cold Water
As autumn gives way to winter and we quickly approach the winter solstice that occurs on December 21, 2012, new dangers to survival in the bush emerge. Hypothermia due to exposure becomes a real threat.
Recall the Rule of Three. It’s a way to prioritize your needs during an emergency survival situation. To summarize, you can live for 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food.
There’s a reason that shelter is second only to air. Without a way to protect yourself from a harsh environment, hyperthermia or hypothermia can set in very quickly. A few hours in the baking sun can bring on hyperthermia in short order. Likewise, a few hours in the frigid cold can usher in hypothermia for the would be survivor.
In an prior article, I described 5 Ways Your Body Loses Heat and How to Avoid Them. One of the more noticeable ways that heat escapes your body is through conduction. That’s where your body comes into direct contact with a solid or liquid that is at a lower temperature than your balmy 98.6F. The solid or liquid will steal heat from your body much more effectively than air. That’s why a swimming pool at 70F feel very cold while a 70F day feels pretty comfortable.
The 1-10-1 Rule of Cold Water
Research has found that when a person falls into very cold water, his body goes through a fairly predictable sequence in reaction to the submersion. Knowing the natural progression can help you react appropriately, giving you the best chance of survival.
1 Minute to Control Your Breathing
As I described earlier, as soon as your body falls into extremely cold water, your natural inclination is to gasp, sometimes violently. The cold is a shocking to your system is your body reacts by sucking in air quickly.
If you’re not careful, the next 60 seconds could spiral out of control quickly. You body begins taking very rapid and sometimes deep breaths known as hyperventilation. This causes your body to exhale more carbon dioxide than normal and that, paradoxically, reduces the amount of oxygen to your brain. If not controlled, you’ll pass out and drown.
So, it’s critical that within the first 60 seconds of exposure to the cold water, you control your breathing. It won’t be easily, but it’s your number one priority.
10 Minutes of Manual Dexterity
Once you’ve controlled your breathing, another clock begins ticking. Your body begins adjusting to the new temperature. It attempts to keep your core body temperature at safe levels so it reduces the blood supply to the extremities where narrow capillaries near the skin’s surface will hasten heat loss.
As less blood become available at the extremities, your fingers begin to numb and you cannot control them as well. Simple tasks such as putting on a life preserver become difficult, if not impossible.
Swimming seems like a good idea, after all, it’ll raise your temperature as you exert yourself. In fact, it’s seldom a good idea. As your heart pumps blood into the extremities, it quickens your heat loss since the blood returns back to your core very cold. Besides, few people can swim a long distance in cold water. If you are close to the shore, this may be a good idea.
1 Hour Until Hypothermia
The final countdown is for hypothermia. An hour after plunging into extremely cold water, most people begin to suffer the affects of hypothermia, including losing consciousness.
Of course this is just a round figure that will change with the temperature of the water, the body mass index of the individual, and the clothing they are wearing. In ice water, survival can be as short as 45 minutes. With water temperatures in the 50’sF, survivals can last several hours.
What to Do
If you fall into cold water, knowing the effects can help you plan and survive. If you’ve broken through ice, getting out quickly is critical. Find the strongest part of the ice and begin trying to haul yourself out of the water. Use your arms to push up while simultaneously kicking your legs. Get your body onto the ice and then slide the rest of yourself (your legs) onto the ice as well.
Once you’ve gotten out of the ice, slide or roll away from the hole; don’t stand up immediately as that may break the ice again. You want to distribute your weight over as much of the ice as possible.
If you’ve fallen overboard, conserving heat is key. Use a Personal Floatation Device if possible and ball up to conserve your body heat. If you are in the water with multiple people, a group hug helps to keep you all warmer, longer.
In another post, I’ll discuss how to treat hypothermia.