Foot Entrapment Rescues

By Jamie Orfald-Clarke, Boreal River Rescue instructor

Foot entrapment is a dangerous and potentially life threatening situation that no rescuer wants to encounter.The focus should be on prevention, and effective coaching of people who are new to moving water. But when a foot entrapment does occur, the rescue must be fast and well executed. To prepare for this possibility, a rescue team should know and practice the following techniques, and be ready to immediately employ the most effective one for any given situation.

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Anyone entering moving water for the first time, whether in a boat or as a swimmer, should be introduced to the risks of foot entrapment, and safe swimming techniques. It is especially important to make time for multiple practice swimthroughs with safe swimming technique; just like with any skill, repeated practice develops muscle memory, and affects automatic responses in higher stress situations.

Instruct people to keep their feet at the surface, and to not attempt to stand up while floating downstream. A swimmer should only attempt to stand after coming to a complete stop. If swimming over a ledge, a steep drop, or a pourover, the swimmer should ball up by pulling their knees towards their chest while on their back. This will prevent their feet from dangling down and possibly getting entrapped in the river bottom as they go over the drop.


As with any rescue, it is important to choose the most effective technique within the team's acceptable level of risk. While speed is a very important part of an effective foot entrapment rescue, special care should be taken not to destabilize a subject who is able to breathe. In all cases, direct contact has been shown to be the most effective technique, when possible and within an acceptable level of risk. Use the following flow chart to quickly determine the most effective action to take:

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There are a number of ways that a rescuer can physically get hands on a subject who is foot entrapped. Often the most effective rescues are simple and do not require much equipment. Consider the effectiveness of shallow water crossing, swimming, or paddling to the subject before adding unnecessary ropes. Because this type of rescue is time sensitive, if numbers allow, some rescuers could immediately initiate more technical rescues while others attempt the less technical direct contact options. Getting a line across the river right away will get the rescue team ready for a V raise or lower, or the 2 bank rope rescues explained below.


Effective approaches differ between a conscious subject with their head above the water, and an unconscious subject without an airway. A subject who is completely submerged may be difficult to see, especially if approaching as a swimmer. If someone on shore knows the location of the subject, they can assist in landmarking. By choosing a position on shore level with the subject, and giving left, right, or go signals, they can communicate to a rescuer approaching from upstream where they are in relation to the subject. A rescuer attempting to swim to a subject can also open their eyes under water to get a better idea of the exact location. When possible, it is more effective for a rescuer to reach between the legs of an unconcious subject, rather than grabbing on to their PFD. PFDs are more prone to sliding off of an unconcious subject, since their muscles have relaxed.

  • This technique is used for a subject without an airway (head below water), who is in a spot that is either too dangerous or too difficult for rescuers to access with direct contact.
  • Other shore techniques will not work since the subject will be at, or below the surface of the water. The only way to get a stabilization line under the subject is to sink the line. This must be accomplished by lowering the anchor points of the rope below the surface of the water, causing the middle of the rope to sink when under tension. Past techniques of filling a throwbag with rocks have not been successful; when the line is pulled taut, it raises to the anchor points - the rescuers on shore.
  • For this technique to work, rescuers need access to two banks (or islands) on either side of the subject. Generally 20m/60' is the maximum width of channel where this would be effective.

STEP 1: Get a rope across the channel, and at least two rescuers and one paddle on each side.

STEP 2: If there is a chance that the subject is still conscious, it may be possible to hold the rope above them, and swing it to hit their back. This could allow the subject to grab hold of the rope and put it under their chest.

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STEP 3: Have the two rescuers with the paddles use an accessory cord already tied in a loop, and use a girth hitch to tie this to the paddle. Clip in a carabiner and use this to attach the two paddles to the line.

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STEP 4: At the same time, have the other two rescuers move upstream of the subject with the ends of the rope. The rescuers with the paddles should then position themselves in the water, in line with the subjects legs, and as close to the subject as is safe and possible. There should be enough slack in the line so the apex is just downstream of the outstretched arms of the subject.

STEP 5: When all 4 rescuers are in position and ready, have the two rescuers with paddles sink the end of each paddle as low as possible, while the other two rescuers pull tension on the line. When the apex of the rope is at the legs of the subject, the paddles can be lifted. If the rope lifts the subject, it may be possible for rescuers to pull upstream and dislodge the foot of the subject. If this is not possible, or the rope seems likely to flip past the subject, it may be effective to proceed as with stabilization line with cinch. If the rope has not successfully gone under the subject, return to positions and try again.

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