Clawless Self Rescue

Abreviated Key Points


  1. Turn back to where you came from
  2. Legs and body horizontal
  3. Lift up with elbos
  4. Frog kicks
  5. Roll to good ice



If you have cold shock get it under control 

Turn around and come back the way you came in

Put your elbos on the ice (or what ever works best)

Use your legs to get your body and legs to a horizontal position behind you

Lift your chest straight up with your elbos

Use strong frog kicks to ooch yourself onto stronger ice

If the ice breaks,  repeat until you get to ice that will support you.

Keep going until you think the ice is thick enough, then roll or belly crawl, then crawl then walk

Make decisions about how to get to warmth


While you ALWAYS should have your ice claws with you if you break through the ice without them you still have a good chance of getting out (especially if you read the following).  Most of the people who fall in don’t drown. 

  • When you go in,  if you have any control of the situation, make your entry slow and  try to keep your head out of the water.  Keep your mouth closed and try to put your hand over your mouth and nose to reduce the chance you will gasp in water (gasp reflex). A life jacket or other flotation helps with this. 
  • Once in the water, get your breathing under control (may take 30 seconds to a minute). 
  • Don't panic but act promptly: you will lose strength in your hands and arms in a few minutes
  • Shout for help.  If you have a whistle, now is the time to use it.
  • Turn to the edge of the ice you fell in from (unless there is good reason to go elsewhere)
  • If you have spiky shoes, poles, or anything else that can substitute for claws, use them. 
  • If you have skis on, get them off your feet if you can.    
  •  When you hang onto the edge of the ice with your arms there is a tendency for your legs go forward under the ice.  This is NOT the position you need to be in. It is difficult or impossible to get out of the water with your legs under the ice in front of you.  You need to swim your legs behind you and into a horizontal position.  The stroke is a dog paddle type kick. and with feet retracted on the return stroke. If you have any question about what this looks like, just hang onto the side of a pool with your legs vertical and swim them to a horizontal position behind you.
  • Lift your upper body straight up on your elbows.  Don’t try to pull yourself out with your arms unless you have some meaningful traction on rough spring ice or snow covered ice.  You are trying to get your upper body high enough that it does not drag on the edge.
  • Use strong frog kicks to ooch yourself onto the ice. Some times you can push against the ice on far side of the hole with your feet. 
  • It usually takes a bunch of frog kicks to get you far enough out to roll away from the edge. 
  • Just to make things a bit more challenging, if the ice is thin it will usually slope down from your weight, making this a bit of an uphill battle.
  • If the ice breaks or you slip back repeat the above. It may be helpful to push bigger pieces underneath you or under the ice to get them out of the way.
  • Once you are on the ice, roll  or belly crawl away  from the edge until you are reasonably sure the ice will support you crawling or standing up. 
  • If you are a long way from getting to someplace where you can rewarm call 911 to get help on the way and do what you can to promptly get in some warmer clothes. The Swedes all carry a pack with a change of clothes in a water proof bag that is set up to be flotation and dry clothes.  If one of you is dry it may be appropriate to share some of what you are wearing for the trip back to warmth. 
  • The next day, make or buy claws to give away to people who do not have them and read the Cold Water Clothing page.


  1. Frog kicks appear to have the most power for getting you back on the ice sheet.  Double leg kicks are not as good.  Normal freestyle kicks are least effective. 
  2. Consider practicing this ahead of time with a wet suit or  dry suit and a belay.  
  3. Or  practice this in warm water using a 4'x4'x2" piece of styrofoam.  Try different kicking styles and lifting your body onto the 'ice'.
  4. Falling through thin ice over a hole is common.  As you fall in you can often park your butt on the  edge of hole.  Leaning toward the thick ice may allow you to keep your torso dry.
  5. Life jackets or float clothing makes everything easier.  A test pole will make it much less likely that you will find weak ice by stepping onto it.  The body weight test method is is not a good way to test dodgy ice.  A throw rope makes rescuing less risky for you to fish out someone else. And ice claws make getting back on the ice easier and more certain.
  6. The procedure for using getting back on the ice with ice claws is the same except you use to claws to provide more traction for pulling yourself out. Use the same 'legs behind you, bent elbos' stance.  You will be able pull yourself more strongly on ice that is strong enough to support you and to claw more quickly through weak ice to get to thicker ice. Keep you claws where you can get at them easily when you are in the water. 
  7.  If it is cold enough and nothing else works and you don't have a life jacket on you can place your arms on the ice and after a time (I am not sure how long) your sleeves may freeze to the ice enough to get yourself out. This is more likely to work on thicker ice and colder conditions.  Thin cold ice and warm ice do not have enough 'cold' in them to freeze wet selves.  The material on your sleeves is also important: smoother synthetics to not adhere well. Cotton  sticks well when frozen although it is less than great as insulation in cold weather clothing. Fleece, wool and other fuzzy surfaced fabrics may also stick reasonably well. Even if you can’t get out, it will help you keep your head out of the water longer, giving rescue personnel more time to get to you. Even if your sleeves don't fully freeze, pressing your elbows and forearms into wet ice for 10 or 15 seconds will usually  provide a little grip.  That grip is lost as soon as your elbow moves even a small amount.  That little bit of grip may be enough to let you swim out, just try to lift straight up and to be smooth and with minimal jerking your elbows and forearms. 

I find it is easy to get out when I am in my dry suit: there is lots of flotation, little added weight from wet clothes  and there is little sense of urgency.  

I have talked to a couple of people who have gotten out, with considerable difficulty, by swinging their leg onto the edge of the ice.  The water slows your leg down during the swing making it difficult to get the leg over the edge enough that it does not slip back off.  In one case on Lake Dunmore (VT) it took the victim many tries and almost all his reserve of warmth/energy to be successful. 


Here are links to three videos that demonstrate self rescue with and with out ice claws

Pike Pole Fishing Guide Service   Hi is going into open water and goes in a few inches over his head, even with a life jacket. The ice is snow covered and has better traction that bare, smooth ice.

Rewild University  The ice appears to be well thawed snow ice (maybe some black ice on the bottom??) and the hole is the same size as the victim.  He is able catch himself without going through. The surface looks to have reasonably good traction (not as as good as claws but better than bare, smooth ice).

Kitt Badger  This is bad ice and he captures the realtity of getting out several feet onto ice that breaks under him as he works his way out.  He uses a mix of kick styles.  This ice is likely to have better traction than bare, smooth ice that is probably the worst situation for self rescue without claws

 Click here for information on the 1-10-1 principle. It outlines the three phases of cold water immersion and how to best respond to them. 

Don’t be clawless: ALWAYS HAVE ICE CLAWS!