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Your chance of surviving a cold water immersion depends on having sufficient flotation to keep your head above water, controlling your breathing, having timely rescue by yourself or others, and retaining heat.

Prepare for boating in cold water conditions by always wearing a secured life jacket. Also wear layered clothing for insulation. Equip your boat with a means for re-entry (ladder, sling, etc.) to use if you should fall into the water.

Of course, the best prevention is to take all measures necessary to avoid capsizing your boat or falling into cold water in the first place. If you do fall into or must enter cold water:

  • Don't panic. Try to get control of your breathing. Hold onto something or stay as still as possible until your breathing settles down. Focus on floating with your head above water until the cold shock response abates.
  • When your breathing is under control, perform the most important functions first before you lose dexterity (10-15 minutes after immersion).
  • If you were not wearing a PFD when you entered the water, look to see if one is floating around you and put it on immediately. Don't take your clothes off unless absolutely necessary. A layer of water trapped inside your clothing will help insulate you.
  • Focus on locating and getting everyone out of the water quickly before you lose full use of your hands, arms, and legs. Try to reboard your boat, even if it is swamped or capsized, or anything else that is floating. Get as much of your body out of the water as possible. Even though you may feel colder out of the water, the rate of heat loss will be slower than if immersed in water.
  • If you cannot get out of the water quickly, act to protect against rapid heat loss. In as little as 10 minutes, you may be unable to self-rescue. Your focus now should be to slow heat loss.
    • Stay as motionless as possible, protecting the high heat loss areas of your body, and keep your head and neck out of the water.
    • Safety typically looks closer than it actually is, so staying with the boat is usually a better choice than swimming.
    • Adopt a position to reduce heat loss. If alone, use the HELP (Heat Escape Lessening Posture) position; or if there are others in the water with you, huddle together.
    • If you must swim, conserve energy and minimize movement. Swim on your back with your upper arms against the sides of your chest, your thighs together, and your knees bent. Flutter-kick with your lower legs.
  • Be prepared at all times to signal rescuers.
HELP: Heat Escape Lessening Posture
HELP
Heat Escape Lessening Posture
HUDDLE technique for conserving body heat when in water
Huddle
Retains body heat and increases survival time