The Water’s Cold

Be extra careful around cold water. Falling into cold water comes as a shock and the first impulse is to gasp.

The water is cold in all seasons

In Canada, open water is likely to be cold even in the summer months. During the other three seasons, you can be sure that open water will be very cold.

If someone falls in the water, they can expect cold water to have two impacts on their body right away:

  • They will experience a big gasp.
  • They will begin to breathe 10 to 20 times faster than normal (hyperventilate).

After a few minutes, cold water begins to rob us of our ability to move our arms and legs. Research has shown that in ice water you may have only 10 minutes of meaningful movement. This makes it very hard to stay afloat or to pull yourself out of the water, no matter how well you can swim or how strong you think you are.

Keeping your head above water during this time will be much easier for those who are wearing a lifejacket. If you gasp and your mouth is in the water, you will take water into your lungs. This is the cause of drowning.

How to survive in cold water

If someone is stranded in open water, the lifejacket they are wearing will help them stay afloat. It also offers some protection against cold water. Depending on the temperature of the water, the body type and the actions you take to conserve energy, survival time can be substantial and long enough to be rescued.

The HELP position can assist people in retaining warmth in cold water. HELP stands for "Heat Escape Lessening Position." To get into HELP place your arms across your chest, close to the sides of your body and pull your knees toward your body with legs closed. This helps to protect vulnerable areas from heat loss. Wearing a lifejacket will keep you afloat as you get into HELP.

If you are part of a small group stranded in cold water, HUDDLE in a circle with your chests and sides close to each other to cut down on heat loss (as in the HELP). Bring legs together and hook arms or shoulders to keep every one together. This will prevent anyone from floating away, improve spirits in the group and creates a larger visual object for rescue. Your lifejackets will keep you afloat and offer some protection against the cold water.

Even moderately warm water can cause hypothermia if the person is in the water for a long time. Children or youth who are outdoors on a cold day can begin to suffer mild hypothermia where they shiver and begin to have difficulty speaking. Wearing the right kind of clothing can protect everyone from hypothermia in both winter and summer.

Hypothermia is not the same as cold shock. Hypothermia is a medical term for a drop in core body temperature. Normal body temperature is 37.5 Celsius. It can happen over time to anyone who is exposed to cold air, wearing wet clothing or immersed in cold water. Severe Hypothermia is a serious condition that can cause unconsciousness and eventually death.

Refer to the website for more information about Hypothermia and its treatment.