'Like a Vice:' How Quicksand Can Trap and Kill—and How to Escape

Quicksand has been a favorite trope in Hollywood movies for years. Many think of quicksand as being able to engulf humans whole in a matter of a seconds, but does it work that way?

Quicksand is formed by sand becoming saturated with water and put under friction. This causes it to become mushy, meaning it collapses under any weight.

"Rivers transport clay, and if the clay and sand come in contact with salt water, this can lead to quicksand formation," Daniel Bonn, a researcher specializing in quicksand from the University of Amsterdam, told Newsweek.

Indiana Jones Film Still
A film still from Paramount Pictures' "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," starring Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. Hollywood has exacerbated people's fear of quicksand. Paramount Pictures

Where Is Quicksand Found?

Quicksand can be found all over the U.S. but is most often found near estuaries or rivers. It is particularly common in marshy coasts of Florida and the Carolinas, as well as the canyons of southern Utah, New Mexico and northern Arizona.

How Many People Die in Quicksand?

The fact is, quicksand is usually only a few feet deep, meaning deaths are incredibly rare, but it is not unheard of.

While it is certainly possible to get stuck, deaths do not usually occur from drowning in it, and the prospect of nearby bodies of water flooding while you are stuck is the main danger.

"One cannot drown in quicksand because of buoyancy. However, it is difficult to get out. So, if one is stuck near the sea, an incoming high tide may kill you," Bonn said. "It's like having your boot stick in the mud; if you just pull, nothing happens. So you need to wiggle your way out of it."

In 2015, a man from Texas died after becoming stuck in quicksand on the San Antonio River, the only death to occur in recent memory.

Jose Rey Escobedo, 50, used to take lone swims in the river, until he went missing one morning in July.

A search party eventually found his body three days later, lodged in quicksand 350 yards upstream, My San Antonio wesbite reported. An autopsy determined that Escobedo had drowned after becoming stuck.

"The clay [in quicksand] can stabilize a loose packing of sand grains, just like yogurt can stabilize cereal grains in it," Bonn said. "However, if you start to move in it, the clay matrix liquefies and the sand packing collapses, similarly to a house of cards that collapses. So it becomes liquid, and you sink.

"You get stuck in the dense packing of sand grains at the bottom of the liquefied part. But you cannot drown in it. However, it's difficult to get out, and you may still die..."

How to Get out of Quicksand

Sometimes, people are able to escape quicksand by wriggling out of it.

Officials advise people not to struggle if they find themselves caught in quicksand. People should keep their arm movements controlled and small, as motion can cause the sand to liquefy further, making it harder to escape.

The most effective way of escaping its hold is to lean back, ensuring that the body is distributed over a large area. Slow movements back and forth should allow the sand to become loose around the body, but sometimes it is incredibly difficult to escape alone.

In 2019, Ryan Osmun had been hiking near a remote Utah canyon with his girlfriend when his leg became stuck in quicksand along the Left Fork of the North Creek, at the Zion National Park.

With the help of his companion, Osmun tried to lift himself out multiple times but was unsuccessful.

"His leg was buried up to his knee and he was unable to free himself," the National Park Service reported.

Osmun became stuck for 12 hours in the quicksand as a blizzard raged around him. When rescuers finally reached him, he was suffering from hypothermia and exposure to the freezing conditions.

In June 2022, the Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a warning after another hiker became stuck chest-deep in quicksand at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The BLM's warning was later shared on Twitter by Rebecca Helm, a biology professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville, who shared her own experience of getting caught in quicksand in Arizona. Helm said it was "one of the scariest hiking moments of my life."

Helm had been near Grand Falls, Arizona, when she tried to cross a riverbed and stepped onto some cracked mud. She then began sinking.

"The quicksand I fell into wasn't so much sand as clay, holding my leg like a vice," she tweeted. "I couldn't get free, and the more I tried the deeper I went. My buddy grabbed my hands and leaned his body back, and it took MUSCLE. My leg came out with an audible pop as we broke the suction of the sand."

What's at the Bottom of Quicksand?

Quicksand is not formed above a bottomless pit as portrayed in movies.

Most bodies of quicksand are formed above a layer of rock, so those who become caught are more often than not able to stand up.

Do you have a tip on a science, animal or nature story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about quicksand? Let us know via science@newsweek.com.