Hiking in the hills of Devon County, UK as a kid, I stepped into a small pool of quicksand, which started to slurp up my entire right leg. Somehow, my dad managed to pull me out, but the boot was absorbed for good. It left me with an eerie feeling about these hidden pools, imagining what could have happened if I had been alone and the bog ten times bigger.
Quicksand is a mean phenomenon, occurring near bodies of water, in forests or even in deserts. But is it really as dangerous as we think? And how to survive when falling into it?
Is quicksand really that quick?
Contrary to what you might think, the word quick in quicksand does not come from the speed with which it allegedly sucks you down into the core of the earth. For starters, it’s not that quick at all, but we’ll save that for later. The source of the word quick can still be found in the Dutch- and German-speaking world, where the words kwik or kwiek mean lively. So, lively sand, which is a lot more accurate than fast-devouring sand we remember from old or bad movies.
Like me, most people never give quicksand much thought. It seems that our generation mostly associates it with these heavily exaggerated movies, and therefore don’t take it very seriously. Yet, quicksand can be a cruel killer, especially in remote areas without phone signal and where help can be hours or even days away.
What is quicksand?
Quicksand is sand that is saturated by water, causing it to act like liquid. More specifically, it usually contains an interesting ratio of sand, water, clay, and salt, which will determine how it behaves. So, on the surface, quicksand looks like common sand or soil but isn’t. As soon as you step onto the sand, it immediately starts to liquefy, making you sink down into it.
What to do when you get sucked under by quicksand?
Trust science. You won’t. Maybe, unless you wear one of those 19th century diving suits that weighs over 190 pounds. Otherwise, follow logic. What do you think is denser? Your body or a similar sized amount of sand completely saturated with water. Got the idea? Since our bodies are less dense than quicksand, and equipped with internal floaties (your lungs), it’s basically impossible to be sucked in all the way. Yet, your legs will, and you may sink down up till your waist or a bit higher.
Can we drown in quicksand?
You’re not buying the body density theory, and still think you’ll drown in quicksand? A whole episode of the tv show MythBusters was dedicated to it. Hosts Jamie and Adam filled up a tank with 20,000 pounds of fine sand and water. Adam got in, and guess what? Even though his legs got badly stuck, he wasn’t sucked in any further. So, this myth indeed got busted. More scientific even was the approach of Dutch physicist Daniel Bonn, who collected quicksand from near a salt lake in Iran and experimented with it. After many tests, his conclusion was that a person would never sink deeper than up to his armpits.
Not that Bonn or the MythBusters duo were the first to figure this out. More than 2000 years ago, Greek physicist Archimedes already concluded that a floating object just displaces its own weight but will never sink all the way.
Can falling in quicksand be deadly?
Even though we now concluded you can’t be eaten up by quicksand, people have drowned due to getting stuck in it. This is because quicksand often occurs near coastal areas that flood. Despite the fact that you won’t drown in the actual quicksand, if you don’t find help or manage to free yourself, you can still get dead stuck with high tide slowly approaching. Another extremely rare way to drown in it is to fall into it face down, and then getting stuck or unable to move due to the weight of your gear.
So, most people who die in quicksand die due to secondary causes, such as drowning by the tide, exposure to extreme cold or heat, dehydration, or starvation. Even if quicksand may be less dangerous than we think, Bonn states that in extreme cases, it can take the same force needed to lift a car to get your legs out of the bog. So, without help you may not drown in the actual quicksand, but your life is still in danger if you can’t reach out for help.
What types of quicksand are there?
Quicksand usually comes in varied ratios of sand, water, clay and salt, acting differently depending on how saturated it is with water, the predominant type of soil, and the surrounding climate of course. Below are some of the stranger types.
- Dry quicksand
An odd one out is known as dry quicksand. This is a crust formed by a specific type of bacteria around quiet drying bodies of water. This crust seems solid, but can collapse, and if the space underneath it is sufficiently deep, it could be extremely dangerous. Luckily, scientists concluded that these potential death traps are very rare, and rarely deeper than the height of a human being.
- Grain entrapment
Another similar phenomenon that’s not really quicksand but acts similarly is grain entrapment. This happens in huge grain silos all over the world and may claim more lives than actual quicksand. There’s the case of a German farmworker who fell into one of these silo’s and got stuck up till his armpits and felt like he was being sucked down. Whenever he exhaled, his chest volume reduced, and the grains would fill up the gap, making it harder and harder to breathe. After a few failed attempts, they managed to free the man with the help of an industrial vacuum machine.
- False quicksand
The truth is, most quicksand isn’t really quicksand, but either deep mud, a bog, a mire, marsh or just spongy ground. However, you can get stuck in any of these just as easily and end up in the same trouble!
How deep is quicksand?
Quicksand is not a bottomless pit and will usually not be deeper than your waist.
How to prevent getting stuck in quicksand?
- Wear shoes that are flexible and can easily be taken off instead of heavy boots. You must be able to really feel the ground beneath your feet. Going barefoot is even better when you feel there’s a real risk.
- Always keep your phone within reach.
- As always, when venturing into the wilds, give people a detailed description of where you’re heading.
- Bring a walking stick to feel the ground before you step on it.
- Carry rope to pull yourself out if possible.
- One winner-tip is to carry an inflatable ball with you. It could be a real lifesaver, as it drastically increases your buoyancy.
- Stay alert in quicksand-prone areas such as wet terrain near riverbanks, lakes, marshes, tidal flats, glaciers, or underground springs. Double your awareness after heavy rainfall. Obviously, avoid patches of terrain where water seems to be bubbling up or that have a semi-solid, rippled appearance.
What to do when you get stuck in quicksand?
Most people stepping into quicksand will be able to get out relatively easily. Also, the theory that moving will make you sink deeper is a myth. Slow wiggling will actually help to free yourself. The problem is that it takes a lot of force to pull your legs out once they sink in, especially when wearing big boots.
So, if you did everything to not get stuck, but still get stuck in quicksand, here’s what to do:
If the quicksand hasn’t tied you down completely, see whether it’s possible to take a few swift steps towards where you came from. Big steps will probably end you up in an awkward position if the other leg decides to stay back. Take small steps!
- Lose those pounds
Welcome to the bog. If you at all have the chance to do this, throw off your backpack, boots and whatever may weigh you down. Leave your hat on though, and if you can, grab a water bottle. You may be in here for a while.
Before tossing the bag, consider grabbing your phone to call out for help. It would be the dumbest thing to wither away in quicksand after having thrown your phone just out of reach.
- Keep your head up
No matter how you end up falling, always make sure to free your head and arms.
- Time for swamp tactics
Okay, now that we’re in here, what are we gonna do to get out? First, calmly observe your surroundings. Is there anything near the shore to hold on to? A tree, a rock, a branch, or just a patch of dry land? Make these your target without rushing towards them. Patience is your greatest virtue in these circumstances.
- Lean back
The royal road out of quicksand is to lean backwards and relax. This has to be, hands down, the easiest way out from all of our survival scenarios. How it works? When you sink into the quicksand, you usually end up waist-deep, depending on the depth of the bog. Now, remember the density theory saying you won’t sink much further? Well, because of this, you can distribute your weight across the surface by leaning back and allowing nature to do its job. This may take a while, but as soon as your feet break through the surface, you can slowly start making your way out towards steady ground.
- Count clouds
As I said, floating to the surface takes time, sometimes hours. It’s essential to stay patient and to follow a routine to free yourself. While leaning back, slowly help your feet up, one inch at a time. The trick is to allow the quicksand to fill up the gap below your feet before moving further. Don’t strain yourself or try to be quick. Wild, desperate, and aggressive movements will liquify the sand and can undo hours of careful wiggling in a few minutes. Patience is king on this royal road. So, count clouds, lay back and wiggle!
- Stick it up
That walking stick that you found a bit unnecessary all along (and apparently didn’t warn you about the quicksand) will be your best friend today. Reach for it if you can and try to get it under your back. Any larger stick will also do the job. The idea is that it helps you stabilize and float a little better. Or another great use of the stick could be to push it down and, if it reaches the bottom, use it to move closer to dry land.
You’ll breathe anyway unless you went for a face-first dip into the bog, but it pays off to take extra deep ones when trying to get out. With your lungs full of air, your buoyancy increases, and as a bonus relaxes you too.
What not to do when you get stuck in quicksand?
As always in survival, it’s more important to know what not to do, as it’s usually our bad response to misfortune that kills us.
- Don’t panic. Think about the cheesy movie scenes and see how different the real thing is. Stay calm and consider your options.
- Quicksand is basically a vacuum, so brutal force isn’t the only way to get you out of it. Consider gentle movements to wiggle yourself from its liquid grip.
- Floating is a great aide, but don’t try floating on your stomach. A man in Texas was found dead face-down, and police suspects he got his head stuck and suffocated.
- Don’t go for a back stroke once you’re floating. Make no wild movements and stay small. This will only increase liquefaction of the surrounding quicksand.
Despite quicksand being far less dangerous than depicted in the movies, and it won’t pull you right under, even getting stuck up to your waist can be fatal if the tide rises before you can wiggle yourself out.
As soon as you get stuck, try to reach out for help as soon as possible, since setting yourself free can take many long hours. Then the main game is to remain calm and patient and accept that the winner of this survival story is the one who follows the protocol: lean back, wiggle and relax.