Gordon Giesbrecht

Dr Giesbrecht is a professor of thermophysiology at the University of Manitoba.  He has done a large amount of work sorting out what makes the difference between survival and death in a range of situations.   His approach is practical and he has often been the test subject.  This has earned the nickname 'Dr Popsicle'. He and others have developed an extensive body of public safety videos and reports.  Among the areas he has explored are:

  • How humans respond to cold water: summarized in the 1-10-1 principle.
  • The critical importance of wearing a life jacket on cold water or on ice.
  • The most likely way to survive if you find yourself in the water in a car. 
  • The reality of driving a snowmobile onto open water at 60 mph
  • Surviving a night in the woods after falling through the ice on a snowmobile

 Dr Giesbrecht  understands the value of concise and memorable guidelines; for example:

On ice travel he says:  Stay off the ice or prepare to go through1

On car egress: Seatbelts, Windows, Children, Out2

On cold water immersion:  1-10-1 principle3


Click Here for a list of about 40 videos.  They are especially compelling because they show the ground truth.  It is real people, getting real cold, showing the reality of cold water shock, cold water incapacitation, hypothermia and post rescue collapse.  They provide valuable perspective on what the likely outcomes would be without the rescue support that is in place while making the videos. 

His Home Page at the University includes links to a range of information including three videos of programs he did with the Discovery Channel in 2002. There is a link to an Outside Magazine article that is a biography of the man and his work.   The FAQ link leads to well researched and concisely presented information. A summary of the Vehicles Sinking in Water report can be found  about half way down the page. 

Dr Giesbrecht's report:  Operation Alive (Automobile submersion: Lessons In Vehicle Escape)  gives new and important understanding of how to get out of a sinking car.   He has done 35 submersion experiments to sort out the factors affecting the outcomes of being in a car in the water.  This is a particularly insightful look at the reality of what you need to do to prepare and how quickly you need to act if you find yourself in a sinking vehicle.

His book Hypothermia, Frostbite and other Cold Injuries (Gordon Giesbrecht, PhD and James A Wilkerson, MD) should be on the bookshelf of any serious ice traveler.  It is practical and up to date and it has additional details that do not show up in the videos. 

Cold Water Boot Camp: A comprehensive look at the effects of cold water immersion, ways to maximize your chance of surviving and how to handle and treat victims of hypothermia.  The following is their easy to remember 1-10-1 principle of how things go during cold water immersion.  The italicized  text below is mine and is oriented toward ice rather than the general cold water immersion situation. It is important to read the the actual 1-10-1 web page or watch the video on that page to get a more complete understanding of this important information.


  •  1 minute: it may take a minute to get control of your breathing,  Work at this first. Panic must be avoided.    In the initial plunge try to prevent your head from going under.  Obviously, if you have any choice in the matter, a slow entry is best.  Keep your mouth closed.  If you gasp in water, you will at least make it much harder to breathe and you might drown instantly.  Rescue personnel are trained to cover their mouth and nose when they get in the water. 
  • 10 minutes: you have only about ten minutes to use your hands and arms for swimming, self rescue or to assist others rescuing you. The more active you are the less time you have: make the time count.  If you have ice claws, get to the best ice (probably where you came from) and use them.  If you don't have claws, get to the best ice edge, swim your feet up behind you, lift your upper body on your elbows and use frog kicks to push you out on the ice.  It may take several tries. Click here for more on clawless self rescue.
  • 1 hour:  IF you have flotation (a life jacket, float coat, float suit, etc) you have about an hour before you become unconscious.  If you don't have a way to keep your head out of the water without swimming you may drown in as little as 10 minutes as a result of swimming incapacitation.  In some cases, people without floatation have saved themselves by letting their wet sleeves freeze to the ice, allowing them to get out or at least holding them on the surface until rescue arrived. This does not work particularly well at temperatures near freezing.   Draping yourself over a half submerged iceboat has worked in a number of cases.  Some iceboats (Skimmers for example) do not float. As a practical matter, a shore mounted rescue is likely to take half an hour or more which is one of several reasons why flotation is so important.
  • See note four for more commentary about possibly extending the survival time after you become unconscious. 


1) Thin Ice

2) Operation Alive (Automobile submersion: Lessons In Vehicle Escape) -Page 7

3) 1-10-1 Principle 

4) Article in NY Times that discussed extending the survival time if you can't get out of the water.

 Bob,  Last updated 12/5/2012