The 1-10-1 Myth

The 1-10-1 myth was invented by physiologist Gordon Giesbrecht, who publicly introduced it on February 19, 2004 on the television show Late Night With David Letterman.

 

The 1-10-1 paints an inaccurate and misleading picture of cold water immersion by claiming that “You Have”:

 

  • 1 minute to get your breathing under control.

  • 10 minutes of meaningful movement.

  • 1 hour before you become unconscious due to hypothermia.

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Unscientific

It's important to understand that the 1-10-1 myth isn't based on the science of cold water immersion. It's also directly contradicted by what Giesbrecht himself wrote in the 2006 edition of Hypothermia, Frostbite, and Other Cold Injuries, a publication of The Mountaineers Books. In that publication he states:

 

"In water near 32F, incapacitation can occur within two to ten minutes, but takes progressively longer at higher water temperatures. In a demonstration, the writer, while wearing a snowmobile suit in ice water, was completely incapacitated within six minutes after swimming only 50 feet."

 

He also gives the following timeframes which contradict the 1-10-1:

Cold Shock – “can kill within seconds to two minutes”.

Cold Incapacitation – “occurs within two to thirty minutes”.

"You Have"

Language shapes attitudes, and using the term “you have” is particularly misleading, because what you actually “have” in a cold water immersion is a complete loss of breathing control for much longer than one minute.

 

When you tell someone “you have 1 minute to get your breathing under control”, they conclude that their breathing during the cold shock phase is controllable. It isn't.

 

Likewise, when you tell someone “you have 10 minutes of “meaningful movement”, they mentally translate that to mean “as long as I can do what I need to do within ten minutes, I don't have to worry about that part of the equation; it's a non-issue”.

A Progressive Problem

In fact, physical ability isn't suddenly lost at the end of a specific period of time like 10 minutes. During the entire time that you're in the water, your ability to physically help yourself is declining. With each passing minute, you're becoming weaker and weaker. At first, your muscles and nerves work and you can use your hands. At the end - however long that takes - you're hanging helpless in your lifejacket, unable to move your arms or legs.

 

When you tell someone that they have 1 hour before they become unconscious due to hypothermia - and an additional 2 hours to be found and rescued – and furthermore, that even if they become physically helpless and lose consciousness, their lifejacket will keep them alive, you have completely misled them about the nature of the survival problem.

 

Cold Water Boot Camp

The 1-10-1 myth gained widespread attention in the United States when it was featured in Cold Water Boot Camp, a 2007 video produced by the National Water Safety Congress with funding from the US Coast Guard. As a result, 1-10-1 misinformation can now be found in government outreach materials, news and magazine articles, videos, and even wilderness medicine curricula.

 

Cold Water Boot Camp misrepresents the science of cold water immersion, places all its emphasis on lifejackets, and greatly exaggerates their value. In addition, it downplays the value of thermal protection like wetsuits and drysuits. Promoting the idea that a person can safely paddle on cold water simply by wearing a PFD is not only dangerous and inaccurate, it’s also contrary to every bit of scientific research that’s been conducted for the past 50 years.

 

Further Reading:

This 47-page Special Report by the National Center for Cold Water Safety divides criticism of the 1-10-1 into three categories and demonstrates that the myth is unscientific, unrealistic, and misleading.

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