How to avoid becoming a “Cold Water Challenge” casualty

CLEVELAND – The Coast Guard 9th District urges swimmers to consider potentially lethal risk factors before entering cold water without adequate supervision.

This warning comes in response to the Cold Water Challenge, a trending video topic on social media sites, which calls for participants to record themselves plunging into frigid water or else make a donation to a selected charity, and then encourage a friend to do the same.

While such a dare may seem to support a good cause and similar to events such as the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics that take place across the country, if challenge participants do not take the same safety precautions as the Polar Plunge, they endanger the lives of all involved.

“The Coast Guard cannot prevent individuals from participating in the challenge and that is not our goal,” said Master Chief Petty Officer Robert Pump, officer in charge of Coast Guard Station Duluth, Minnesota, and a trained ice rescuer.

“Our personnel have ice rescue experience and, as a part of our training, we spend time in very cold and icy water. We know how dangerous these conditions can be. By making ‘challengers’ aware of the hazards involved and how their bodies may react to cold water immersion, it is my hope that we may prevent injury or death.”


“Although motivations to participate are noble, this is a fundamentally unsafe activity,” said Pump.

The popular Polar Plunge events are carefully organized. Medical professionals are present at each event with emergency vehicles to transport injured or hypothermic individuals to the nearest medical treatment facility. Many Polar Plunge events utilize volunteer police or Navy divers to assist participants should they succumb to cold exposure. Even small decreases of water temperature can significantly impact functional time and survival time.>

“Don’t become a casualty for a good cause,” said Pump.

“Entering cold water without proper safety precautions is needlessly reckless and I don’t condone it, but I realize that some people are going to do it anyway. My main concern is protecting life on our Great Lakes. If you or someone you know is going to attempt this challenge despite my warning, I encourage you to go slow, go with friends, and go where you know.”

Go Slow

Cold water immersion should occur slowly to minimize the shock to the body and to prevent impact trauma. If a swimmer enters cold water too quickly, their body reacts to the rapid skin cooling with a sudden and involuntary gasp, which can bring water into the lungs if the swimmer’s head is submerged. Even if the swimmer’s head is above the water, the shock can cause hyperventilation and fainting, which may drown them.

How swimmers enter the water is critically important, too. Recently, an individual participating in the challenge in the Midwest, suffered a severe neck injury after he dove into shallow pond. Entering the water feet-first will significantly decrease the risk, as will entering the water by walking instead of jumping.

Go with friends

At best, the average cold water challenge incorporates the challenger and a camera person to document the event.  At worst, the challenger has personally set up a camera to record their solo entrance into the frigid water. Swimmers who choose to participate in the challenge should not go alone, and should take more people than just a friend with a camera. Ensure someone in the group knows the signs of hypothermia and Red Cross recommended treatments, and that someone in the party has the means to reach the swimmer without entering the water.

Go where you know

Trespassing on state or federal facilities to reach the water is illegal. Avoid jumping or diving from break walls, canal walls, or bulkheads. Shallow water, murky water, and unfamiliar water can conceal hazards not visible from the surface. Avoid walking on ice because warmer air temperatures and rain are sure to have weakened it.

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