Polar Bear Swim




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Bob Amick 

Q: My PLC has made a request to do a "Polar Bear Plunge" (cold weather jump into a cold lake) on our next campout, and I'm looking for some advice.   

A: I would recommend discussing this with your Council's Risk Management Committee and/or Scout Executive to be sure that they are aware of the proposed activity. I would be surprised if they would approve it. They in turn, may also want to review it with the National Director of Health and Safety/Risk Management. 

A lot depends on the actual water temperature. As you probably know, immersion hypothermia occurs about 30 times more quickly than wind chill conductive/convective hypothermia due to a complete lack of insulation and direct exposure to chilled water. 

While short term exposure such as a "polar bear" plunge and immediate exit from the water may not cause any serious or lasting effects, there are other possible impacts. 

Although not a "popular" solution, a safer alternative might be to use some form of exposure suit or wet suit which would lessen the effect of the chilled water. Assuming the water is more than waist deep, each person would have to wear a PFD and of course appropriate BSA Safe Swim Defense precautions would have to be implemented. . 

For some folks, this sudden exposure to very cold water can have a dramatic effect on the neuromuscular physiology of their bodies such as the "diving reflex", and may cause unusual and adverse responses. 

Remember that children are far more susceptible to hypothermia than adults are due to lack of musculature and fatty tissue which serve to better reduce heat loss and generate heat more quickly. 

Immersion hypothermia also results in impaired breathing, and impaired ability to move muscles. Although many "polar bear" clubs do conduct such events in winter, there have been cases where individuals (usually adults, but youth are not immune) suffered heart attacks or other dramatic and severe responses from this exposure. 

If you get clearance to proceed, it would also be wise to have each person medically cleared by a physician for this activity specifically, and to have the participants and parents sign "informed consent and release of liability waivers" where the scope and risks of the activity are clearly explained and all participants and their parents are made fully aware of the potential risks. 

There is no "direct" recommendation/restriction about these issues in the G2SS probably because it is a very uncommonly attempted activity and/or no mishaps have been reported that would create a need to address the activity in G2SS. As you know, the guide is frequently revised to address new findings and restrictions resulting from mishaps. 

There is the notation that exposure to very cold water (e.g., falling into the water on a river raft trip during Spring runoff where water may be 40 degrees F. or less) can be dangerous or fatal. 

When we do sailing, canoeing or boating in the late Spring or Summer, on chilled water where there is even a small risk of going into the water, we require our youth to wear wetsuits just in case they do fall in. Some mountain/high altitude lakes such as those in Yellowstone park are always so cold even in the Summer, that boaters and canoeists that do fall in have been known to quickly succumb to immersion hypothermia before they could attempt to self rescue, or even be rescued. Only those who take the precaution to wear an exposure suit are likely to survive. 

Routine swimming activities in water below 65 degrees F., is generally prohibited by BSA camp inspection guidelines, so that might be an avenue to look at as well. 

All things considered, my take on it would be to educate the Scouts about these risks, and let them determine if they really believe the risks are worth any perceived benefits; I would venture to say that they would willingly and advisedly consider a different, less risky form of fun. Most of the time, the Scouts make good choices especially when they are given guidance about safety issues that they may not previously have been aware of. 

Bob Amick, EMT-B, Advisor, Venturing Crew/Sea Scout Ship 72, Boulder, CO Longs Peak Council Venturing/Exploring/Risk Management/Training/Jamboree Committees American Red Cross Community Disaster Education Instructor (amick@SPOT.COLORADO.EDU) 






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.