As summer starts warming the days the ice covering those ponds and streams gets dangerous. Dangerously thin. Something that was fine to walk on a week ago may no longer hold your weight. And that's how people die. Every year, there's accident after accident, as people trust the ice to hold them, and it fails. Once you're in the water, you've got under 10 minutes to get out and get warm.
That's not a whole lot of time.
But if you fail to do so you're in trouble. And for anyone interested in survival, or spends any amount of time in the wild, knowing what to do in this instance is critical. Get it wrong, and the situation you're in can turn deadly, fast. So pay attention, and make sure you know the rules when it comes to crossing an icy stream.
Before setting foot on the ice
This is one fundamental I've been drilling into my kids since they learnt to skate. Just because the ice looks frozen, it doesn't mean it is. My advice, is to always assume the ice is too thin to walk on until you know more. That way, you're prepared just in case you happen to break through. If you notice any warning signs, like slush on the banks or open water in the center of the river, it probably means the ice is starting to melt. Be very careful. Of course, you can drill into the ice to check how thick it is, I'd recommend it be at least 4 inches if you're planning to walk on it, and 5 inches or more if you'll be driving a snowmobile. Just remember, ice is never 100% safe. So, take care.
Staying safe with a river crossing
Now I want you to imagine a situation. You're bugging out, and you've hit a snag in your plans. There's a river crossing in front of you that will save hours from your hike, but there's a chance the ice is not thick enough to hold you as you cross. You want to cross it, but it's also a risk.
Here's what you do.
Toss a rope to the other side and secure it. Perhaps you can loop it over a rock or anchor it securely into a tree if you tie it onto your axe and wedge it into a fork in the branches. This is your lifeline and serves a dual purpose. You can pull yourself out if you break through, and you can tie the loose end to your backpack and pull it across after you once you've safely reached the other side. It's the quickest method to stay safe and means you can avoid putting too much weight on the ice at one time. But if it looks especially dodgy, I'd also recommend looping a rope around something secure on the bank you're starting from. Just in case your lifeline doesn't hold.
It goes without saying you should be crossing at the shortest distance possible and watch your feet as you start on the ice. If it starts to crack lie down flat and spread your weight and use your lifeline to pull you to the safety of the far bank. Having a walking stick can help here, as it gives you something to grip if you fall and may stop you falling through the ice entirely if you go down.
Getting out of the icy water
If you do happen to fall through the ice, you've got seconds to get your act together. It will be cold, and the change in temperature will feel like you've been punched in the stomach as you can't draw a breath. But you need to move. Take a short breath and focus.
From here, you want to head to shore. If you can go back the way you came that's usually safest (there was thicker ice that didn't break), so use your walking stick as leverage to get up and out of the water. If not, you can always pull on your lifeline to reach the other side. Any tools you've got handy can make a good "pick" for helping you grip the ice, like a pocket knife, or even one of our strikepens. Crawl (or roll) to the thicker ice, and only once it's safe should you stand and move back from the river bank. It's not a fun process, but with swift action you'll get out of the water.
Now comes the trouble. Your adrenaline is pumping but now you're out of immediate danger and this subsides you'll start getting cold. Really cold. Within minutes hypothermia can set in and you'll die. So, open up your bug out kit, and get out your fire-starting kit. If you've got a buddy even better. They can start this for you while you focus on getting into dry clothes. If not, get your fire going first. Use all the tinder you need, and pile on the sticks once its alight. Then you can change into dry clothes and start building the fire till it's roaring. It'll take a while for your body to get back to a normal temperature, so don't rush it.
By taking the proper precautions you can ensure you survive if you fall through the ice. It's important to have a lifeline, along with a change of clothes and a good fire-starting kit, if there's any chance you'll be crossing ice when you're bugging out. It's one of the biggest risks you'll face in a winter environment, but with the right techniques and a little practice, it's just one more skill you can rely on once the SHTF.