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Jumping off of a cliff into water - survival tips

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Another scary scenario:

Let's say you're in a situation where you have to jump off of a cliff into the water to survive.

The cliff is at least 100 feet high.

What would be the best way to survive the fall and ensure that you don't break a thousand bones when landing in the water?

Dive head first and break water with hands? Cannonball? Or do a pencil drop and break water with feet?

Seems like any one of these would end up hurting quite a bit and might compromise being able to swim away afterwards.

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Feet first is always best - you might break your legs if you hit the bottom, but at least you won't break your back, neck, or be knocked unconscious - all of which can kill you, either through the damage to the spine or through drowning.

I would aim to jump in angled away from the cliff (i.e. body not totally vertical), arms across chest or covering mouth/nose (not holding nose - you'll break your nose when the water shoves your arm), and aim to use the momentum of the jump to cause me to swing rapidly under the water dissipating the momentum, so as to not go too deep. See rather crude drawing I just whipped up:

Basically the jump should look like the out-of-helicopter jumps that you might see the Coast-guard do, such as the one in the linked Youtube video.

Edited to add: there's some physics on the jump here, and within that the top answer indicates that they were trained to survive a fall from 100 ft (30 metre; aircraft carrier height), not that they had to do it. Other answers indicate that the max survivable seems to be about 250 feet (75 metre) into water.

Also edited to add: It's not as easy as you might think - in my experience, if you do it right, making yourself as hydrodynamic as possible, a simple jump off the side of a pool (~ 1 ft / 30 cm) into the water can get you to the bottom of a dive pool (~20 ft / 6 metre) pretty handily, so there's a real risk of breaking bones jumping from any substantial height into water, even if it is quite deep.

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Well, first thing first, 100' (30 metre) is likely not to end well for you. So really the question stops being valid way before that.

Second, if you've ever spent anytime diving and had the pleasure of a bellyflop, you know you don't want to put yourself into any kind of uncontrolled tumble, and that means minimizing your rotation from your starting position. Feet first on land, feet first in the water, would be my thinking. Of course, if you know what you are doing diving then you can certainly aim for a cleaner jump and go in head first. That's what the Acapulco cliff divers do. But they wouldn't be asking this question.

Third, even if you know how to dive in cleanly, you don't necessarily know how deep the water is at the bottom of the cliff. That means that diving head first puts you at extra risk - better to hit the bottom with your feet than your head.

So, don't do this. Don't jump off cliffs without knowing exactly what's underneath. Ever.

I personally know one guy who is paralyzed for life because he forgot how much of a tidal difference there is where I live. And just saw a plaque commemorating someone who died for the same reason yesterday (there are 2 plaques there, Wiki's is about the legend).

If I had to jump, I know I would jump feet first however. I am not that comfortable doing head first, even though I have done it up to about 20-25' (6-8 metre) high. If you're a beginner at high jumps, head first is just that much trickier to get right and in any case it leaves you more at risk from hitting your head.

From wikipedia, High Diving:

Health implications Some research suggests that the impact associated with high diving could have negative effects on the joints and muscles of athletes. To avoid injury to their arms upon impact with the water, divers from significant heights may enter the water feet first.

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Jump feet first and rotate like a drill. This will slow you down upon entering the water so you dont hit bottom.

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Feet first. This has been well covered in other answers.

Keep your body nice and straight, use your abs to support yourself, point your toes. All the things that competitive divers do to make less splash will also make your entry into the water easier. Take a deep breath, you will need it (about 2.5 seconds of fall time, plus however long it takes you to get back to the surface!).

However, once you enter the water you should do a modified "save". Basically the opposite of above, after you enter the water you make your surface area larger so that you stop going down as quickly as possible. There are complicated techniques for doing this in competitive diving to create the appearance of a perfectly straight dive, but you don't care about that so yours can be much simpler. 1) Wait until you are fully in the water. 2) Go limp. Let your legs bend up a little, almost like you're sitting in a chair. 3) When you feel comfortable with your speed relative to the strength of your arms, use your arms to do a flip under water.

Then kick kick kick back to the surface, you will be low on air.

(I used to do not-very-competitive diving, and the same dive with and without a save was the difference between landing hard enough to stub a toe on the bottom of 13 feet, vs barely going below the surface.)

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There's an abandoned quarry near me where local kids used to jump off the topmost cliff edge, 100 feet up, every summer. When done properly it is survivable without injury.

You have to break the surface tension with a part of your body that can take the blow, and you have to keep all your muscles clenched and your body absolutely rigid, and you have to hit absolutely perpendicular to the surface.

If you do it wrong, you are likely to be knocked unconscious and drowned.

I do it head first, which means keeping the hands locked together in a double fist, elbows and shoulders locked and rigid, hands directly between the top of head and the water, spine absolutely straight. Do not bend your neck to try to look at the water!

If your arms are not locked and rigid your fists will hit your head and knock you unconscious or your arms will be ripped back and dislocated and the water will knock you unconscious.

It can also be done feet first, which means keeping the knees locked, all muscles in legs, thighs and butt absolutely clenched rigid, heels sharply pointed down, looking straight ahead and hitting the water again perpendicular to the surface.

If your feet spread you will crush your genitalia, and if you're male will require medical treatment. If you do not clench your butt you may intake water with damaging force. If you look down you will get smacked in the face hard enough to break your nose and possibly knock you out.

I did it wrong once, and hit at an angle instead of perpendicular. Striking the water felt like hitting concrete. My left arm was ripped backwards, completely dislocating the shoulder. I was knocked unconscious and concussed. The rapid compression of my chest ruptured my left lung and my legs were temporarily paralyzed, perhaps by the impact to my spine or skull. Although I survived, my body was permanently damaged by the injury - my left shoulder dislocates more easily than my right, and I have a scar tissue mass in my lung from the haemothorax.

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XY-question frame challenge.

The only way to win the game is to not play.

If you were to be jumping in, then the other answers give insightful food for thought. But that's a huge, colossal if, especially given your use case. So here comes the party-pooper...

As long as you are even moderately well prepared I would be willing to bet a lot of money that the odds of "I'm in a The Great Outdoors survival situation where I need to jump 100 feet off a cliff into water" are very slim. I think you're more likely to get struck by lightning on a clear day where no signs of lightning were present (supposedly, that happens).

Originally I was much stronger in my wording. But thanks to @BlackThorn for pointing out there are use cases similar enough to what the question asks for that they should also be seriously considered. BlackThorn wrote:

Fire on a cruise ship, fire on an aircraft carrier, friend falls off of cliff and you want to rescue him before he drowns (and you jump because you are confident you can survive the fall to rescue him). The last example literally happened to a friend of mine with an 80 foot cliff and he saved his life, holding his friends face above the water until paramedics arrived.

Ship Fire

Even if there is a fire on a ship, that doesn't mean you're likely to be forced to jump from the top, but that could be a possibility. If you are on a tall ship and concerned about fire safety, a safer strategy would be to review the ship's fire evacuation routes and procedures. In case of fire, a smart evacuation is better than a frantic high jump.

Cliff Rescue

In the case of a friend falling from a cliff, again, that does not automatically mean someone should immediately jump in after them, especially if you don't know the safety situation at the bottom. In all emergency rescue situations, you need to ensure your own safety as well otherwise you endanger both yourself and the other person.

If a friend falls from a cliff, do not immediately jump over after them. As quickly as you can, scan the bottom for safety hazards. Wait a second to see what is happening to the person who fell as well.

I am happy for BlackThorn's friend that the outcome was favorable. However, this anecdotal evidence does not mean you should throw logic to the wind, and hopefully the heroic friend performed the rescue safely.

An 80 to 100 foot fall takes between 2-3 seconds according to a quick Google query. Human reaction time means that a rescuer is likely to be at least a second or two behind to begin with. At that point you might as well wait the 1 second to see how the victim lands since they might not even need rescuing. And if you are wearing any very cumbersome clothing you should remove it first: I know some of my boots would make it impossible to perform a water rescue in, so taking even 10 seconds to remove them would be better than jumping in with them on.

So work quickly to save the person, but don't rush to the point of making the situation worse. The old "hurry up and wait."

It has also happened that people jumping from heights into water have landed on a person at the bottom and killed them. It would be a tragic accident if a heroic effort to save someone who would not have died anyway led to both the victim and the hero dying together in vain.

If you are absolutely sure that this is actually necessary, then jump in like a rigid vertical pencil.

Realistic possibility of survival jump

The "jump off a cliff to survive" trope is exciting but not realistic.

Maybe this question was inspired by a scene I've heard about where Bear Grylls supposedly did something similar and made some people thing it was a reasonable survival tactic. I haven't seen the scene myself.

This use case is simply not realistic and is a dangerous view of wilderness survival. Even if you create a highly contrived scenario where you make it seem like this is the best option, I would still take my chances sitting tight and doing my best on the high ground. Your survival odds are likely higher.

Even if you are severely dehydrated and need the water at the bottom of the cliff, in that case I still might stay up top. To be so dehydrated that you would risk the jump means you're probably also so dehydrated that you 1) aren't thinking as clearly and are more likely to make bad choices, and 2) lack the coordination and strength to perform the jump technique well and will have even higher odds of severe injury or death.

"I still want to prepare for this rare situation anyway!"

Ok, then here's what you can do that will benefit you way more. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Predators: To deal with predators bring defenses and learn to use them. Bear spray, knowledge of local predators and how to remain safe around them, defensible positions (ie: don't put yourself between a cliff and predator to begin with).

Forest fire: You might still be at risk at the bottom of the cliff. You might also make it harder for rescuers to find or reach you by making such a change to your location.

Wilderness Survival: Everyone needs to get the idea out of their head that such risky actions are a part of real wilderness survival training. If you're in a wilderness survival situation, you need to avoid such risks at all costs.

Out of all the rare cases where you might otherwise be tempted to jump, in most of them you would probably be better served by bringing bear spray and bringing an emergency locator beacon to signal for help and let rescuers know your location.

Climbed up a rock face and dropped your gear? Activate your beacon. Realize a forest fire is nearby? Activate your beacon. Being hunted or attacked? Active your bear spray. Any other situation where you don't have to jump right this second? Active your beacon.

"But what if the beacon fails?" That's possible, sure, but what are the odds that will happen coinciding with an animal attack coinciding with a cliff-you-animal sandwich, coinciding with survivable water at the bottom of it? Not convinced? Get a second beacon as a back up.

Think ahead for situation-specific emergency backups, like an emergency waist pack with an extra rope and/or beacon. Similarly, if this is a concern plan for it before a trip where you're around cliffs: What could go wrong, and how could I mitigate that so I wouldn't have to jump?

Summary

Don't jump! Just bring defenses and a beacon and plan ahead, as mitigating the situation beforehand has much higher chance of success than dealing with it after.

If you do somehow manage to have no choice at all but to jump, and you decide to jump despite your terrible luck at this point, then look to the other answers and pencil drop in straight and rigid.

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The New Yorker has an interesting and sad article on people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. According to the article:

The rare survivors always hit feet first, and at a slight angle.

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I just want to add one thing the other answers didn't emphasize enough : keep your arms along your body !

Don't put them above your head, don't spread them like if you were a bird ; keep them close !

If you don't... well, you're just Strappado'ing yourself.

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