Based on my assessments when I was younger, I thought that quicksand would be a much bigger hazard as an adult. It used to be everywhere, but now you’d be hard pressed to find a modern Hollywood movie showcasing a quicksand rescue attempt.
This imagined threat was so severe that even NASA scientists speculated that the surface of the moon might have been host to deadly oceans of quicksand that would mire a lander hopelessly, stranding our poor astronauts.
The fascination with the threat of quicksand peaked in the 70’s, but it’s still out there in the wild waiting to suck you in even though it has been relegated more or less to joke status today.
Quicksand is a legitimate concern when exploring the wild, especially when on your own. The quicksand itself probably won’t kill you, but you do risk dehydration or exposure to the elements if unable to free yourself.
Being stuck in the open, wet and growing colder, will quickly induce hypothermia, itself a major killer. Only if one becomes fully submerged in deep quicksand is the risk of drowning or suffocation likely.
Before we look at how to escape from quicksand, we’ll try to understand what it exactly is and some environments you might find it in.
Quicksand can occur in any environment with the right conditions. Water is an essential part of the formula.
Quicksand is basically soil other substrate that has become oversaturated with water and, at a certain density, becomes a sort of Newtonian fluid which negates the normal friction that occurs between soil particles. So the sand particles cannot hold on to each other, resulting in a soupy mixture of liquefied soil.
On the open coastline you’ll find the occasional quicksand pocket on the shore near the ocean. Small pools will sometimes form as the tide moves in and out, fed by underground springs or runoff water. As the sand becomes saturated quicksand forms.
On an open sandy beach, free of foliage or grass, these tide pools should be fairly easy to spot and avoid. Telltale signs are bubbling, murky sand at the bottom of a tide pool with clear water above. Wandering through tide pools, you will usually encounter some form of liquid sand. If you want to avoid the quicksand on the beach, avoid the tide pools.
The rising ocean tide is your biggest threat if caught in quicksand on the beach, and drowning is a real possibility. Here’s a short clip of quicksand on a beach:
Riverbanks and Shorelines
Quicksand is pretty common on the banks of rivers as well as near river deltas that form as streams run into larger Quicksand is pretty common on lake shorelines, banks of rivers as well as near river deltas that form as streams run into larger bodies of water.
Look for saturated ground near the edge of a river when near, though the ground will sometimes appear fairly firm. The two videos below detail just how deceptive quicksand can be.
What can appear and feel to be solid ground can quickly turn to dirt soup if activated. In one of the videos linked above the guy is sitting on what appears to be solid ground, then with a few quick stomps he turns it into quicksand and starts sinking.
This type of quicksand is the most dangerous, as it gives no outward appearance of its true nature. If walking in a group, this type of quicksand won’t take hold until the second or third person walks across.
It is also fairly common to find quicksand beneath the surface of the water, away from the bank. Precautions should be taken when trying to cross rivers; especially silty and muddy waters where you cannot see the bottom.
Sometimes it may be better to swim than wade across, but each situation should be evaluated on an individual basis.
Marshes and Swamps
Where the ocean meets freshwater bays and marshlands is another common spot for quicksand. The marshlands are great areas for fishing, shellfishing, and hunting fowl.
The abundance of water plants and grasses can also hamper the ability to detect potential quicksand threats. Great care should be taken when exploring marshes and beaches at low tide to avoid potential quicksand and sinkholes.
Interesting video below of a bay in the UK with quicksand potential.
Swamplands also breed quicksand due to their standing water coupled with underwater springs.
The visibility and ability to detect potential quicksand is even lower in the swamps due to the abundance of foliage, grasses, fallen trees and limbs, and standing water.
Swamps are heavily saturated areas fed by runoff, underground springs, rivers, and streams.
Long tracts of standing water going through a forest, with no trail or clues to solid ground should set off internal warnings about quicksand danger.
Additionally, swamps in the U.S. are home to several varieties of poisonous snakes, alligators, crocodiles, and even the occasional python. Being stuck in quicksand here is the least ideal, as swamps don’t get many visitors.
Near Underground Springs
Most year around ponds or lakes that you will come across are fed by one or more underwater springs in addition to any runoff or streams that flow into them. Underwater springs feeding upwards through already saturated soil can create quicksand along the banks, or in the water itself.
Underwater springs can be found anywhere, even in the desert.
In floods and other natural disasters, quicksand can form near broken water lines that function in the same way as natural springs to disrupt the soil.
Pretty interesting underwater video of quicksand bubbling up through freshwater springs.
As always the best remedy is prevention. Through all the places you might find quicksand, water is the common element. If you find yourself nearing waterways, or heavily saturated ground keep the possibility of quicksand on your radar.
When testing unknown waters, it is best to remove your backpack and other cumbersome items. The last thing you want is to have all your gear soaked, and if you do encounter quicksand or find yourself taken by the current, it will all weigh you down and may have to be abandoned.
It also doesn’t hurt to have some sort of walking stick handy when you’re out exploring, especially when dealing with a river or stream. You want to have a sturdy hardwood stick or pole that is at least shoulder height that you can use to steady yourself near riverbanks or lakes.
A good idea for navigating potential quicksand areas, is to just use your walking stick or trekking pole as a probe for the area ahead of you as you walk. If your probe gives a little too easily, or you see the soupy ripples of quicksand, use your walking stick to navigate firm passage around the area in question.
It is best to use your probe to survey an area at least wide enough to walk, and keep your steps within that area as there can be sharp variations between firm ground and quicksand. Keep your weight balanced and not leaning forward so that you don’t go swimming in after your pole if it does find quicksand.
Take care whenever you are moving through any wetland or coastal areas, or areas with substantial underground aquifers, that have recently endured an earthquake. The immense vibrations massive fracturing and erupting of soil could quickly flood quicksand-prone strata with water, creating large and especially hazardous pools.
If you do slip in, hold your walking stick horizontally to try to catch the edges of the quicksand pit for leverage rather than trying to push it vertically for traction. When you come across quicksand, mark its boundary clearly with an obstacle for yourself on your return trip or for others in the future.
If you find yourself stepping in quicksand, consider trying to sit or fall backwards toward solid ground if possible. The sooner you react, the less chance you have of being really stuck. If you do find yourself sinking quickly, unable to turn back follow these 7 steps and you’ll be free in no time:
Step #1: Know what you are dealing with in quicksand prone areas
The first thing to know about getting out of quicksand is how not to get into quicksand in the first place! Know when you are in an area that is prone to quicksand formation, and recognize the fact that quicksand is nothing more than soil, clay, sand or some other substrate that has become suspended in water.
It isn’t anything magical, and is highly unlikely to kill you so long as you stay a little cool and act logically.
An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes, and so long as you pay attention and stay reasonably alert you can probably detect the presence of quicksand before you literally get in over your head. Not to fear, as most bodies of quicksand are rarely more than waist-deep. But, if you are unfortunately passed this point already, keep reading!
Step #2: Don’t panic, keep still and move slowly
You stepped into quicksand and found yourself well and truly stuck, and it feels like your feet are glued down. The first thing you need to do is stop thrashing and stop moving. Panic will only ever make a bad situation worse and leads to you gulping oxygen and wasting energy. So don’t do that.
Next, stop moving and stand still. Rapid movements open up voids in the quicksand which will generate suction and this suction will only keep you stuck in place even harder or even pull you down lower into the quicksand. The notion that you are sinking into this sticky stuff is likely to send you panicking again which leads to more thrashing and ever more sinking.
That is a vicious cycle that can lead to your death. Keep cool and stop moving!
Step #3: Ditch your luggage and other gear
Once you have come to a stop and gather your wits about you is time to get rid of anything which will hamper your efforts to escape. Bulky belts loaded with equipment and backpacks in particular need to go.
They generate considerably more resistance when attempting to move through the quicksand, become inundated with water and will quite literally drag you down to the bottom and drown you if you let them.
The solution is to take them off, but do so slowly and deliberately so that you do not make the situation worse as described above and step number two. Perhaps easier said than done if you have already sank up to the waist, but you should still be able.
If you are able, throw your valuables clear to be retrieved once you are out of danger. Even if the item in question is fragile, don’t take the chance because it is not worth more than your life. Get rid of it!
Step #4: Free your feet
You’re halfway home; the next step is to get your feet unstuck from the bottom of the quicksand enclosure. One of the things that makes quicksand so frightening is the powerful suction that can seemingly hold your limbs in place. Come on with a sticky, mucky bottom you can feel properly trapped, your boots welded in place and unable to move. While frightening, this is not true.
To free your feet from the clutching embrace of the quicksand, all you need to do is smoothly pull your feet up using an increasing amount of strength until the suction is broken and you can move them again. Focus on doing one foot at a time while taking care not to twist your hips more than necessary as this can induce more suction.
Once your feet have broken free of the initial grip of the quicksand, you should have greatly increased freedom of movement and you’ll soon be out.
Step #5: Once your feet are free try to float
The next step is to rely on your own buoyancy in the quicksand to help you get moving towards the perimeter and out to safety, and is the “trick” to escaping the killer grip of quicksand. Begin by spreading your arms in the classic cross pose and then leaning back, allowing the quicksand to take your body weight as you increase your surface area.
You should have no problems floating in the quicksand, especially once you have ditched your gear as mentioned above.
Once you have begun floating, you can either pick your feet up slightly or take short, gentle steps to help propel you along with the next step.
Step #6: Paddle in slow motion to reach the edge of the quicksand
Now it is time to start paddling our way to safety. The prescribed motion is a lot like doing the breaststroke, only doing it on your back.
Think like you are making a snow angel on the surface of the quicksand and begin paddling your way towards the shore. Note that your safest avenue of escape might not be directly back the way you enter the quicksand, but instead towards the shore where you have a solid hand hold that can help you get out.
Now as before, move slowly and surely without thrashing. Pretend like you are doing it deliberately in slow motion like you are mugging for the camera and you should have it about right.
Step #7: Grab something sturdy to haul yourself out
Once you have reached the banks of the quicksand, you may either carefully crawl out, taking your time and moving slowly as before, or grabbing on to something that is strongly anchored to help you pull yourself free.
The weight of the quicksand plus the ever-present suction means you might need to use some force and that is why we have been careful to conserve our strength this entire time.
Alternately, if you are traveling as a member of a group, you can try to rely on them to extend a branch or throw a sturdy rope to you to help haul you out of the quicksand, but instruct them to smoothly and gently pull you free according to the procedures laid down in this guide. Even when relying on help, sharp, frantic movements are likely to make the situation worse.
Good videos of Bear Grylls explaining and escaping quicksand.
Quicksand is not at the top of my list of concerns in the wild, but knowing what to look for and how to escape are good things to have in the emergency reference section of the brain. This kind of information could be the determining factor between just having some muddy clothes and a serious situation.