Swimming/Outdoor Education: Cold Water Survival Methods | PE Update.com - Physical Education Lesson Plans, Activities, Games, Tips

Swimming/Outdoor Education: Cold Water Survival Methods

Dick Moss, Editor

Cold water can kill. For example, a person immersed in 40°F water, can become incapacitated within 30 minutes and die—usually by cardiac arrest due to cooling of the vital organs—an hour after that.

Here are some guidelines that will help your students survive in cold water. 
1. Get Out of the Water
In almost all weather conditions, the body will lose its heat faster in the water than in the air.  This means it's important to climb onto floating wreckage or the overturned boat and to keep as much of the body out of the water as possible.

HELP Position
HELP Position

2. Immersion techniques
However, if your students must stay in the water, there are two ways to stay warm longer.

A.  HELP Position
One is the HELP (Heat Escape Lessening Position) technique.  This position—which is easier to assume if wearing a flotation device—involves holding the arms tight to the chest while shielding the groin by raising the thighs and pressing them together. If in rough water, the mouth and nose should be covered by one hand to prevent the swimmer from swallowing water. Cold water survival studies show the HELP method can increase predicted survival time by 50%.

Huddle Technique
Huddle Technique

B. Huddle Technique
The second method, used in group situations, involves huddling together so the chests are touching. This technique can also increase survival time  by 50%.

3. What Not to Do
     There are two things your students should be warned not to do in cold water.

A. Don't Swim for Shore
First, they should usually not try to swim for shore, since it speeds heat loss. Also, swimmers tend to over-estimate the distance they can swim in cold water. In cold water, they may be able to swim at only 1/10 of their normal warm-water ability.

Avoid the Traditional Drownprooding Technique (Shown Above) in Cold Water
Avoid the Traditional Drownprooding Technique (Shown Above) in Cold Water

B. Avoid Drownproofing
Second, discourage them from using the traditional “drownproofing” technique that is often taught in swimming courses. This technique involves floating face down, lifting the head only to breathe.  This is a recipe for death from hypothermia, because the head is underwater and the body core is exposed.  Encourage students to tread water instead.


1. Cold Water Survival, A Brochure from the Canadian Red Cross Society, Small Craft Safety Program. 1989.
2. Lynne Cox, Open Water Swimming Manual: An Expert's Survival Guide for Triathletes and Open Water Swimmers, Vintage, 2013.

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