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05 September 2007

Worst Case Scenario - Quicksand

Uh oh. You're hiking alone in the wilderness, looking up at the birds and whistling a happy song, when suddenly you find yourself trapped in quicksand and sinking fast. Certain muddy death? Not quite. While quicksand isn't nearly as dangerous as it looks in the movies, it is a real phenomenon. Just about any sand or silt can temporarily become quicksand if it is sufficiently saturated with water and/or subjected to vibrations, such as occur during an earthquake - thus it can occur nearly anywhere. Quicksand should definitely be avoided, if possible, but you needn't fear it. Here's what to do.
  1. Avoid quicksand. Kind of obvious but any time you are in an area of wet ground, such as along beaches, marshes and rivers, or if you are in a place where underground springs bubble up, you might encounter quicksand. Be on the lookout for ground that appears unstable. Often, you can't detect quicksand just by looking at it. If you step on ground that ripples or shifts beneath you, step backward quickly and smoothly: quicksand usually takes a second or two before it liquefies.

  2. Walk softly and carry a big stick. When hiking, especially in an area you suspect contains quicksand, carry a long, stout pole. You can use the pole to test the ground in front of you, and you can also use it to help extract yourself should you sink (see step 9).

  3. Drop everything. Because your body is less dense than quicksand, you can't fully sink unless you panic and struggle too much (which will cause the sand to further liquefy) or you're weighed down by something heavy. If you step into quicksand and you're wearing a backpack or carrying something heavy, immediately take off your backpack or drop what you're carrying. If it's possible to get out of your shoes, do so; shoes, especially those with flat, inflexible soles (many boots, for example) create suction as you try to pull them out of quicksand. If you know ahead of time that you are highly likely to encounter quicksand, change out of your boots and either go barefoot or wear shoes that you can pull your feet out of easily.

  4. Relax. Quicksand usually isn't more than a couple feet deep, but if you do happen to come across a particularly deep spot, you could very well sink quite quickly down to your waist or chest. If you panic you can sink further, but if you relax, your body's buoyancy will cause you to float.

  5. Breathe deeply. Not only will deep breathing help you remain calm, it will also make you more buoyant. Keep as much air in your lungs as possible. It is impossible to "go under" if your lungs are full of air.

  6. Get on your back. If you sink up to your hips or higher, bend backward. The more you spread out your weight, the harder it will be to sink. Float on your back while you slowly and carefully extricate your legs. Once your legs are free you can inch yourself to safety by using your arms to slowly and smoothly propel yourself. If you are very near the edge of the quicksand, you can roll to hard ground.

  7. Take your time. If you're stuck in quicksand, frantic movements will only hurt your cause. Whatever you do, do it slowly. Slow movements will prevent you from agitating the quicksand—the vibrations caused by rapid movements can turn otherwise relatively firm ground into more quicksand. More importantly, quicksand can react unpredictably to your movements, and if you move slowly you can more easily stop an adverse reaction and, by doing so, avoid getting yourself stuck deeper. You're going to need to be patient; depending on how much quicksand is around you, it could take
    several minutes or even hours to slowly, methodically get yourself out.

  8. Get plenty of rest. Other than panic, exhaustion is your worst enemy. Since it can take a long time to get yourself out of quicksand, be sure to take breaks and just float on your back if you feel your muscles getting tired. If you're in a dangerous tidal zone, however, you may be in a race against time (see warning

  9. Use a stick (optional). A stick is not necessary to extricate yourself from quicksand, but it can be helpful if you have one.
    • As soon as you feel your ankles sink, lay the pole on the surface of the quicksand horizontally behind you.

    • Flop onto your back on top of the pole. After a minute or two, you will achieve balance in the quicksand, and you'll stop sinking.

    • Work the pole towards a new position, under your hips. The pole will prevent your hips from sinking, so you can slowly pull one leg free, then the other.

    • Stay flat on your back with your arms and legs fully touching the quicksand and use the pole as a guide. Inch sideways along the pole to firm ground. [via]

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