It used to be everywhere, but now you’d be hard pressed to find a modern movie showcasing a quicksand rescue attempt. The fascination with the threat of quicksand in movies peaked in the 70’s, but it’s still out there in the wild waiting to suck you in. More or less.
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 exposure to the elements if unable to free yourself.
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 that has become oversaturated with water, 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 liquified soil.
A good breakdown of quicksand can be found here.
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:
Quicksand is pretty common on the 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 a 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 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.
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 :
#1. Relax, don’t fight it.
As soon as you realize you’ve hit quicksand, you must fight the urge to panic. The more you struggle, the deeper you dig yourself.
Instead, take an immediate survey of your surrounding area and begin to plan your extraction.
Alert any persons in your group to stay back, and try to determine the boundary of the quicksand. Try to quickly assess any immediate dangers ( tide coming in, fast moving river, poisonous snakes)
#2. Use slow, deliberate movements
If you are stuck below your knees in quicksand, chances are you can get yourself back to solid ground with a little effort and less mess. Try to slowly pull one leg free towards safety, with the least amount of unnecessary motion possible. If you can get one leg free, chances are you can get the other one too.
If you find yourself sinking very quickly and going past your knees, make sure your arms are up, and prepare to try to float and do some “mud-swimming”.
#3. Disperse your weight
The reason you sink so quickly in quicksand, is all of your weight is balanced onto your two feet. If you can lay back and try to allow yourself to float before you sink too deeply in, you will have less work to do. The deeper you sink, the denser the quicksand and the more suction is created as your feet sink into the muck.
Quicksand is denser than water, so you can float in it. The thickness and viscosity of quicksand varies widely however, with some more perilous than others. You will need your legs free, and the longer you wait to try disperse your weight, the deeper you will sink.
Video of a guy attempting to escape quicksand near a river:
#4. Grab On
Any tree roots, branches, firmly rooted grasses, or other items within reach can be used as leverage. If you are with a group, use a rope or tree branch to pull person out, not your hands. You want to have the rescuer safely away from the quicksand’s edge. If there’s nothing within reach, you’ve got to do it yourself.
#5. Swim and then Crawl
Once you get your legs free and your body horizontal, slowly make your way towards the edge of the pit. You will have to use a sort of army crawl, slow swimming breast stroke motion to escape. Keep in mind that the more frantic your motions, the more soupy the quicksand becomes.
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.