Deadly Rip Currents: How to Survive

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How to Survive a Rip Tide

The dreaded "rip tide" does not have anything to do with tides, so professionals prefer the term "rip current." A rip current is a long, narrow band of water that can pull swimmer away from shore and out to sea in just a few seconds. Rip currents are dangerous, and it's best to learn how to identify and stay out of them. If, however, you get caught in a rip current, the right response gives you a big advantage.


  1. Identify a rip tide.What most people call a rip tide is technically a "rip current": a narrow channel of water rushing from the beach to the sea (or sometimes along the beach). Stay aware of your surroundings and learn the warning signs:
    • Avoid channels of water that look different from the surroundings. A rip current can be choppier and foamier, or it can be a quiet gap in the line of breaking waves. It may be a slightly different color than the surrounding water.
    • Use special caution close to low tide and in high surf conditions, but be aware rip currents can happen at any time.
  2. Exit shallow water if you feel a rip current.If you feel a strong pull in shallow water, get out. A rip current is difficult to fight once you are chest-deep.If the water is waist-deep or shallower, you can likely walk to shore (or sideways out of the current) if you keep your footing.
  3. Remain calm.If you get caught in a rip current, don't panic: it takes a clear head to escape. Understand that a rip current does not drag you underwater, even if it feels that way when a wave hits you. Rip currents only pull you straight out to sea. Good swimmers are not in immediate danger of drowning unless they exhaust themselves by trying to fight the current.
  4. Call for help if you are a poor swimmer.Rip currents are especially dangerous to people who cannot swim well. If you do not think you will be able to reach the shore, get the attention of a lifeguard or of other beachgoers by waving your arms and yelling for help.
    • Trying to rescue someone by swimming into a rip current is very dangerous. People on shore should throw you a floating object to hang onto instead.
  5. Swim parallel to shore to escape the current.Most rip currents are less than 30 feet (9.1 m) wide, though they can reach 100–200 feet (30.5–61.0 m).Instead of trying to swim against the current — which is much stronger than you are — swim parallel to the shore to get out of its path. The rip current will carry you further away from shore as you swim, but don't panic. This is not a foolproof method, but it is a good option for a strong swimmer. If possible, look for these signs before choosing a direction:
    • The longshore current, a normal current moving parallel to the beach, is often strong enough to push you back into the rip current if you try to swim against it. Check the direction of the longshore current in advance by asking the lifeguard or observing the angle of waves on the beach.
    • Rip currents often form around jetties and other structures perpendicular to the beach. If you are near one of these structures, swim away from it.
    • Swim in the direction of the nearest breaking waves. These mark the edge of the rip current.
  6. Conserve energy when necessary.If you are not making any progress by swimming, or if you are getting tired, conserve your energy. or tread water instead of fighting the current. Once you are past the breaking waves, the rip current will slow down and fan out into multiple branches, becoming much weaker.If you do not have the energy to make it back to shore, stay afloat and relax until you are ready to begin. Continue to signal for help if there are people present.
    • Most rip currents subside or become weak enough to escape soon after the breaking waves. In extreme cases, a rip current can extend up to 1,000 feet (304.8 m) offshore.
    • Recent research suggests that many rip currents eventually circulate back to shore if you can stay afloat for a few minutes. This is still controversial, but it may be your best chance of survival if you are a weak swimmer.
  7. Swim diagonally toward the shore.Once you are out of the current, either because you have swum out the side or the current has carried you to its end, make your way back to shore. Swimming diagonally away from the rip current minimizes the chance that you will enter it again. You may be some distance from shore at this point, so stop and float periodically if you need to rest.

Community Q&A

  • Question
    How are rip tides created and when do they appear?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Riptides (or Rip currents) are usually formed when water that has come on to shore via breaking waves flows out in one particular concentrated area. Imagine an underwater sand bar with a gap in the middle of it: waves break over the sand bar onto the shore and the water's only means of retreat is to rush out through the gap. This creates the strong force that swimmers cannot fight against. Once the water has passed through the gap in the sand bar, the power of the current diminishes and swimmers are able to swim out of it.
  • Question
    Can a rip current drag me in open sea?
    Top Answerer
    Rip currents usually last for only 30-40 meters, though they can be up to 200 meters. After that, the water returns to normal and you should be able to swim back to shore. So no, a rip current cannot take you out so far that you can no longer see the shore.
  • Question
    If a pet get caught in rip current, what should I do?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Try and get a lifeguard's attention. If there aren't any lifeguards, don't let your pet near ocean currents you think are too strong for him/her. Always test the water before you let your pet in.
  • Question
    If I can't get out of the rip current, what should I do?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Tread water and conserve energy until you reach the end (usually no more than 30-40 meters from the shore), then swim diagonally back to shore.
  • Question
    How can I avoid a riptide?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    If you're at a public beach with lifeguards, there are usually warning if there have been rip currents occurring that day. You can also ask the lifeguard on duty if there have been any riptides reported that day.
  • Question
    Do rip tides only occur on sand beaches?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    No. Riptides can occur anywhere that has a lot of water. They can happen at large lakes, dams or rivers.
  • Question
    What if I am at a lake with a small child?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Riptides don't tend to occur at small lake, only in lakes large enough to be like an inland sea. If you are with a small child and they get caught in one, take a float into the riptide and go in to save them using your own swimming knowledge from this article.
  • Question
    Can a kid do the same steps?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Yes, these steps apply to anyone stuck in a riptide.
  • Question
    If I get caught in a riptide, should I go under the water to break free?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    No. Your first and best option is to dig your feet into the sea floor (along with attracting help); removing your feet from the sand will only make you easier to carry away.
  • Question
    What if there is a shark with me?
    wikiHow Contributor
    Community Answer
    Sharks don't usually attack humans. It commonly occurs as mistaken identity when the shark mistakes you for another animal. Stay still as possible and don't splash in the water.
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  • Despite the common name "undertow," rip currents drag people out to sea, but they don't drag them underwater. In fact, there is no type of current that drags you underwater from the beach. A series of waves hitting you near shore can make you feel like you are submerging, but you do not need to struggle upward. Concentrate on staying afloat or regaining your footing.
  • Never swim alone.
  • Don't be ashamed to ask for help. If you are uncertain how to react while in a rip current and a beach lifeguard is nearby, wave at them. Beach lifeguards have experience and training with rip currents and are there to help you out.
  • Rip currents deserve respect, but they aren't a death sentence. Lifeguards sometimes intentionally swim in them to quickly reach someone beyond the surf, and surfers find them useful to easily get out to catch waves. Lifeguards and surfers, of course, are very proficient swimmers and have experience swimming in surf conditions, so most of us shouldn't intentionally enter a rip current. That said, if you do get caught in one, remain calm.
  • Technically, the term "rip tide" refers to a similar rapid, narrow current out to sea that happens at low tide. This is much more powerful than a rip current, but only happens in inlets or other narrow channels of water. These areas are off-limits to swimmers due to this danger.
  • Before heading out into the water, check for the latest beach condition updates. A quick internet search on a mobile device for the weather in the area of the beach will provide any warnings about observed rip currents, high likelihood of rip current formation, high wave warnings, strong wind/wave warnings, and structural current hazards.


  • Some rip currents travel parallel to the beach instead of the typical direction straight out to sea. Watch the beach to discover which way you are traveling.
  • Never swim against the current. Itwillbe stronger than you, and it will exhaust you, which could make you drown.
  • Stay out of rip currents if possible. Heed all warning signs and flags. When traveling, always make sure there are others swimming at the same beach as you. If not, it may be known to the locals as a dangerous beach.
  • Even if the current circulates back to shore, it can "spit you out" on the ocean side, or keep you in the current for multiple circuits.If you are trying the "float and wait" approach, be ready to attempt an exit (perpendicular to the current) once you are near shore. Try to regain your footing once you are in shallow water.

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Brian Morgan

Aug 20, 2019

"I often hear of rip tides on news stories. Usually they relate to swimming tragedies, but I have never known what arip tide was. The explanation here was excellent, and it was good to learn how to survive one and the fact that a rip tide does not drag you underwater."

Ashley Pert

Jul 27, 2019

"It's the summer season and schools are out, the more knowledge acquired makes for a stress-free trip to theseaside, and if all those people out there knew this information, the less deaths in the sea are likely to happen. It's good all around for everyone."

Teresa G.

Aug 12, 2019

"I learned the difference between rip current and tide; I also feel more prepared if I ever get caught in one.Currently on vacation sitting on the balcony as Search and Rescue is looking for 2 swimmers on red flag day. I thought it was for high/rough waves."

Joe Lapsen

Mar 24, 2019

"Friends were recently caught in a near-death experience in rip currents. All survived. One had to be rescued byprofessionals. They all tried to swim straight back to shore and were extremely exhausted. Good information to know at the shore."

Taylor Andrew

May 24, 2019

"I actually got stuck in the riptide during spring break this year and I couldn't get out. I didn't know what to do,so I thought it would be nice to know for if there is a next time! My family and friends saved me!"
Rated this article:

Greg Matthews

Apr 11, 2019

"Simple but knowledgeable. The sea can sometimes surprise us in drastic ways. This would definitely play a role insaving lives, especially in the holiday months, when holiday-makers enter our rough waters."

Sharon Mielke

Oct 26, 2019

"So many things I learned in scouts and swimming lessons as a kid in 1970's, but the rest of my family doesn't seemto learn/know, especially my daughter. Going to make this required reading. Thanks!"

Bill Dodson

Aug 10, 2019

"Keep calm, don't fight the current and swim perpendicular to the current if you can without exhausting yourself.Also float on your back to conserve energy if you feel that you are beginning to tire."


Aug 28, 2019

"Thanks, this article was great! I almost 'live' on the beach and I have always been SUPER scared of rip currents.Now I know what to do if I ever get caught in one. Thanks again wikiHow!!!"

Kay Callaghan

May 27, 2019

"This information about swimming away from the riptide was extremely helpful. It's best not to swim out too far andto always make sure other people are around. Don't swim alone! "

David Smith

Jul 23, 2019

"Perfectly clear description of a rip current, it's strength and size. With this knowledge, it is so easy to keepcalm, then swim, float, or drift out of the problem. Excellent."

Diane Busch

May 5, 2019

"I read an article about this subject somewhere else and didn't understand how to swim. Seeing the pictures reallyhelped me to understand. Thanks for the great advice!"

Erik Hunt

Jul 24, 2019

"Anne Dufourmantelle died a few days ago, and I wish not to meet that same end. Thnak you for educating the publicon safety such as rip tides. I love wikiHow."
Rated this article:

Ingrid Shaylor

Jun 22, 2019

"Very useful info here to understand the problems of riptide and how to cope with them. The additional Q & Asection is also very interesting to read."

Taylor Sowers

Jul 18, 2019

"I'm a lifeguard, also a surfer of 15 years, and I have never known how to get out of one. If a person needs help onthe beach, I know what to do."
Rated this article:

Isaan Bushimarad

Oct 15, 2019

"This really helped me a lot. It showed me that riptides are dangerous, yet fairly easy to escape if you know howto swim well, which I do."

Philip Dunne

Jun 3, 2019

"Saw a swimmer today caught in a rip current. Had I known then what I know now, I could have helped her. "
Rated this article:

Teresa G.

Aug 12, 2019

"Very informative, wish red flag on the beach could tell me this much. What did we do before wikiHow? "
Rated this article:

Bob Gest

Jun 27, 2019

"Great information. This could safe my life. I'll pass it on to my family. Thank you."

Jason Christie

Aug 24, 2019

"The whole article helped after today's events at Camber Sands. Thanks wikiHow. "

Marion Tracey

Jun 22, 2019

"I now understand what a rip current is and how best to survive one!"

Chevaldo Davidson

Jul 28, 2019

"Understanding the dangers of swimming without sufficient knowledge."
Rated this article:

Isabelle G.

Jun 21, 2019

"Very helpful. It happened to me and I, of course, freaked out."

Fred Jones

Apr 18, 2019

"The illustrations along with the text help for understanding."

Phyllis Dupont

Apr 8, 2019

"I am a senior, so this has been awesome for to see and read! "
Rated this article:

Angel Garcia

May 5, 2019

"This will save my life one day at the Santa Monica beach."

Denise Hamdan

Nov 14, 2019

"I got caught in a riptide once and this helped a lot. "
Rated this article:

Christopher Giblin

Jul 22, 2019

"Both the explanations and graphics were very good."
Rated this article:

S. Ryan

Apr 4, 2019

"Very helpful. Never knew this great information. "

Margaret Toala

Sep 29, 2019

"So scary because my girls love the beach.

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