Plan & Prepare


Safety is a critical concern for any activity around water, especially when children are involved. It can take less than 60 seconds for an adult to drown — and just 20 seconds for a child.

Stay safe and keep your adventure going by staying aware at all times and by utilizing proper flotation devices.

You can also learn the proper resuscitation techniques in case of a drowning emergency. They might just save a life.

Symptoms and Description

Drowning happens when a person inhales enough water to impair breathing. Impaired breathing interrupts oxygen flow to the brain, which can lead to unconsciousness and further lung and brain injury. Drowning occurs after a person is submerged and their airways have gone below the water surface.

Drowning outcomes can present as a range of problems from cough, to mild breathing difficulties, to death.

If water is inhaled into the lungs, symptoms present quickly and may be progressive from worsening lung irritation and inflammation. There may be coughing, shortness of breath, crackly lung sounds, possible frothy sputum, and worsened difficulty breathing or altered level of responsiveness. This occurs over minutes to hours, symptoms do not suddenly appear hours or days later.

There is not a difference in salt-water versus fresh-water drowning, as it is the effect of water on the lung tissue that produce symptoms.

Consider a possible spinal injury in drowning victims if they have lost consciousness after diving into shallow water or not moving their arms or legs after diving into the water. Spinal precautions may be warranted.

Defining Your Risk Category

Consider the following to define your risk category and plan accordingly.

High risk

  • Children (regardless of their ability to swim)
  • Water that is very cold, with fast currents or waves
  • Anyone swimming alone
  • People engaging in reckless behavior around rocks, boats, or other water hazards
  • Swimmers and boaters under the influence of alcohol

Guidelines for Safe Travel

Water Safety Awareness

  • Utilize the “buddy system,” do not swim alone.
  • Be aware of weather conditions. If strong winds or thunderstorms and lightning are in the area, get out of the water and seek shelter.
  • In the mountains and canyons, uphill rain and storms can cause downstream flooding, fast currents, and water levels to rapidly rise.
  • Be aware of waves and rip currents. If you are caught in a rip current and being taken away from the beach, swim parallel to the shore until you are free from the current, then swim toward the shore.

Floatation Devices

  • Everyone involved in a boating activity should wear a properly fit life jacket.
  • Consider a floatation device on children playing next to cold or fast moving water.
  • A flotation toy is not an appropriate substitute.
  • Packing List: Property fitted flotation devices

Precautions for Children

  • Kids Don’t Float. All children involved in water-related activities should be fitted with a flotation device and supervised by a responsible adult. It only takes seconds to inhale small amounts of water, and a child can drown in seconds when an adult is not looking.


After drowning, the heart has usually stopped beating because of a lack of oxygen to the brain. Immediate resuscitation efforts can help get oxygen back to the brain and the heart and save a life.

Do not attempt to push the water out through a Heimlich maneuver, abdominal thrusts, rolling a person onto their stomach, or lifting and pushing on their legs. The problem is not that there is too much water in the lungs, but rather there is too little oxygen getting to the brain. Approach the resuscitation like you would with anyone requiring CPR but start with rescue breaths.
Begin rescue breathing as soon as possible.
CPR should be continued for longer periods in very cold conditions.
Remember that after someone has been removed from the water they need to be protected against subsequent cold injury (see hypothermia).

Are you or a companion experiencing any symptoms consistent with drowning?
If yes, launch medical assessment below.

Emergency Red Flags

Keep an eye out for the following symptoms. These red flags may be cause for evacuation.

  • Any breathing difficulties or persistent coughing for more than 15 minutes after submersion
  • Rapid breathing rate, shortness of breath, persistent cough, wheezing
  • Altered level of responsiveness, unconsciousness.

Are you or a companion concerned about drowning?

Download GOES to launch a digital medical assessment or speak with a wilderness medicine physician.