Sunday, May 08, 2022

Cold Water Immersion: A Threat to Life for Outdoorsmen

By Derek Benoit September 29th, 2021

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A victim being pulled from icy waters by passer-by. Courtesy:

Cold water immersion can kill you… at any time of the year. Surprisingly, the most pleasant days of the season can be the most deadly, depending on location, local waters, and level of preparation. Please consider the following whenever you consider interacting with water in ANY way outdoors!

If Cold Water Immersion Happens to You:

Cold Water Shock is the First Danger

  • The body’s response to cold water is to divert precious body heat to the core
  • Muscles often fail to work, breathing, let alone swimming, are painfully difficult
  • Suffocation occurs from drowning; water is swallowed
  • Stay calm and “wait out” the initial pain and sensations
  • Retains heat more effectively (Transport Canada, 2010)
  • Pulse increases substantially
  • Blood pressure spikes
  • Cardiac arrest may result (ACA,  )

If You Survive the Shock, Next Comes Hypothermia Proper

Cold Water Immersion Risk: Stage 1 of Hypothermia

Hypothermia BEGINS when body temperature drops below 37 degrees C.

  • The classic symptom of shivering
  • Circulation decreases as the blood is redirected to vital organs (Transport Canada, 2010)

Cold Water Immersion Risk: Stage 2 of Hypothermia

  • Loss of Coordination
  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness
  • Irritability or combativeness
  • Pulse slows significantly and weakens (Transport Canada, 2010)
  • Shivering may decrease, or actually stop (ACA, )

Cold Water Immersion Risk: Advanced Stage of Hypothermia

  • Loss of consciousness (but not always)
  • Breathing slows to a crawl
  • Pulse is almost undetectable but still there (Transport Canada, 2010)
  • Shivering often stops (ACA, )

 Victim Actually APPEARS Dead

  • Little if any detectable respiration
  • Zero detectable pulse
  • Body is stiff, rigid

For more on treatment of hypothermia victims, please follow the below Link:

Avoid Cold Water Immersion while Wading

Preventative measures include:

  • Dress for water temperature and immersion!
  • Layer appropriately to deal with air temperature
  • Feel the bottom with your feet, avoid standing on rocks
  • Avoid loss of balance via high traction boots
  • ALWAYS wear a wader belt-keep that water out!
  • Assume water is deeper than you think
  • “Go with the flow” in water crossings, OR being swept downstream (Deeter, 2011)
  • Stand “side-to” the current- the slimmer profile has less resistance to current
  • Beware of sudden rises in water level
  • Using a wading staff for extra stability
  • Beware fast currents, stream exits as well as soft bottoms-their more dangerous than you might think
  • Cross at easier, shallower spots either upriver of or below the fishing location (Schulz, 2019)

Cold Water Boating, Paddle Sports, and Immersion

  • Make sure that the PFD is rated properly for your size and the water you’ll encounter
  • Whenever possible, climb on top of your watercraft, up on rocks, etc.
  • Air draws body heat more slowly than does the water
  • If alone in water, take on the fetal position, with knees in tight to the chest, and arms wrapped around your knees-conserve heat!
  • Avoid swimming unless safe shelter or others are within easy reach
  • If you’re able to reach a group, “huddle up:” form a tight interlocking ring-share the heat!
  • Swimming with pull warm blood to the extremities, cooling you faster (Transport Canada, 2010)

Ice Fishermen and Cold Water Immersion

  • Lay off the alcohol… it’s a myth that it warms you up
  • Strongly consider some sort of flotation device or float coat!
  • Keep a quality pair of ice picks on your person at all times!
  • Keep an eye on the weather forecast!
  • Learn & recognize the signs of unsafe ice!
  • If you DO go in the drink, get traction with your ice picks, and ROLL onto the ice (NJ Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, 2009)


American Canoe Association. (No publishing date provided). Cold Water Survival. ACA Paddle Safe-Paddle Smart Series.

Deeter, K. (7/13/2011). Wading Safety 101. Home. Take Me Fishing Blog. July 2011.

New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. (August 2009). New Jersey Fish & Wildlife Digest. 2009 Hunting and Trapping Issue.

Schulz, K. (8/6/2019). 14 Important things to know about safe wading Techniques. Home. Take Me Fishing Blog. August 2019.

Transport Canada. (Updated 3/25/2010). Hypothermia and survival in cold Water.  Transportation Publication TP 14659-E. Government of Canada.

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