Quicksand is not a myth – What you need to know to stay safe

Peter Brandon

I had just finished rappelling out of a sandstone slot canyon in Utah, and now I had to make the long trek back to the car. I was tired, it was hot, and there was sand everywhere. Luckily, the return route followed a dried-up stream-bed that would be simple to follow and give me a nice easy walk back to the parking lot…or so I thought.

As I was hiking along, following the winding trail of a seasonal stream, there were patches of wet sand every now and then.  This should have been setting off red flags in my head, but hey, quicksand is just a myth, right? I continued on, admiring the towering canyon walls and wavy sandstone structures decorating the landscape, blissfully unaware of the danger surrounding me.

Stuck in Quicksand – Author: Pierce Martin – CC BY 2.0
Stuck in Quicksand – Author: Pierce Martin – CC BY 2.0

All it took was one misplaced step. It looked like any other patch of wet sand, but it wasn’t. This time, it was quicksand.  I took that step but the ground wasn’t there. The earth had been pulled out from under me and I fell into this hidden hole, as if someone had placed a trap waiting for me to walk into it.  It was like stepping into a seemingly shallow puddle, only to find out it’s really four feet deep.

When the weightless feeling of falling subsided, I realized I was stuck. The gelatinous sand mixture had settled, and I felt like I was buried up to my waist in sandy pudding. I tried to move, but every inch I gained, the sand took back. It was exhausting, and the more I moved the more it felt like the sand was pulling me down.  It was at that moment I realized quicksand wasn’t just a Hollywood creation.

Luckily, I wasn’t all on my own. My partner ran up to help, and standing on solid ground he reached out with a long branch for me to grab onto. He pulled as hard as he could, and I kicked and wiggled my legs as he slowly managed to drag me out.

Quicksand warning sign at Little Paxton Pits near St Neots, Cambridgeshire, England. – Author: Andrew Dunn – CC BY-SA 2.0
Quicksand warning sign at Little Paxton Pits near St Neots, Cambridgeshire, England. – Author: Andrew Dunn – CC BY-SA 2.0

So much for being a myth! Trust me, quicksand is very real, and if you go hiking anywhere with large amounts of sand and sediment, you could fall in too. Here’s what you need to know about dealing with quicksand.

The best way to safely deal with quicksand is to avoid it. Had I known quicksand wasn’t just a myth, I would have recognized that those patches of wet sand in the desert stream-bed didn’t quite add up. It hadn’t rained, and the sand around those patches was perfectly dry. So where was the water coming from keeping those patches wet in the hot desert sun?

Quicksand forms when underground springs bubble up into the sand. It mixes so perfectly that the sand particles are suspended in the water, and float peacefully until someone comes along and disturbs them. That’s when the whole structure collapses, and you fall in. Once you’re in, the sand begins to settle, and then you’re trapped.

So where might you find underground water sources forming quicksand?  Common areas are in sandy deserts, and especially along shorelines of rivers, streams, and even oceans. Swampy marshlands may have patches of quicksand as well. Any time you’re hiking in areas with a lot of sand and sediment, like in the deserts of the American Southwest, swampy marshes in the Southeast, or along sandy coasts, you should be wary of potential quicksand. But what if you don’t see it in time, and fall in?

Regular old sand, or quicksand?
Regular old sand, or quicksand?

Don’t panic, and don’t try to fight it. If you thrash around you’ll only upset the sand particles more. The density of the human body is less than the sandy mixture, so if you stay calm, you won’t go under. In fact, unlike the movies, if you avoid moving around too quickly, the average person will go no deeper than their waist.

While you want to avoid moving around too much and too quickly, you need to get your backpack off as soon as possible. Your body may float, but the added weight of your backpack could drag you down. Now that you have your backpack off, you can take a deep breath, and start thinking about how to escape.

Hopefully you’re hiking with a partner, and hopefully they didn’t fall in with you!  The best way to escape quicksand is to have someone throw you a rope, or hand you a long stick or pole to grab onto, so that they can help to pull you out. It’s not quite that simple, though. If all they do is pull, nothing is going to happen, and you’ll practically get pulled in two. The quicksand is simply too strong.

Just a little bit of Paria River quicksand – Author: urbandispute – CC BY-ND 2.0
Just a little bit of Paria River quicksand – Author: urbandispute – CC BY-ND 2.0

What you need to do is wiggle, swirl, and kick your legs around to disturb the sand in order to force it to liquify again. As you slowly release your legs from the sand’s grip, your friend can begin to pull you out. As you begin to move, allow your body to stretch out and lay down on your stomach or back. It might be scary getting your head so close to the sand, but laying down will increase your surface area so that you can more easily float over the surface of the quicksand and back to solid ground.

Now what if you don’t have anyone to help? Luckily, if you stay calm and follow these instructions, you can still escape.

First, think about what it’s like trying to float in a pool. You don’t float very well standing straight up and down, but you can float quite well laying on your back with lungs full of air. The same is true with quicksand. Lean back, and allow your body to slowly rise to the surface.

Wiggle and kick your legs to loosen up the mixture, so that eventually your legs and torso are mostly free of the quicksand. With your legs free, move your limbs horizontally and crawl along the surface of the sand as best you can.

Quicksand warning sign near lower king bridge Albany WA – Author: Hughesdarren – CC BY-SA 4.0
Quicksand warning sign near lower king bridge Albany WA – Author: Hughesdarren – CC BY-SA 4.0

Remember to lean back, spread out your arms, and take deep breaths, as this will help you to stay afloat.  As you reach the edge of the pit, you may be able to grab onto some vegetation, or dig your hands into solid ground to help pull yourself through the final few feet to safety. Back on solid ground and allowing some time for the adrenaline to dissipate, you now have one heck of a story to tell once you wash off all that sand.

If you have any comments then please drop us a message on our Outdoor Revival Facebook page

If you have a good story to tell or blog let us know about it on our FB page, we’re also happy for article or review submissions, we’d love to hear from you.

We live in a beautiful world, get out there and enjoy it. Outdoor Revival – Reconnecting us all with the Outdoor


peter-brandon is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival