Science

Is quicksand actually a real thing?

You’ve watched cartoon characters sink into it, seen depictions of it on the Silver Screen, and may have even heard a tale or two about it, but is quicksand even real? Maybe it’s not something you’ve ever considered, but there is a real possibility that the notion of quicksand was a fictional creation. Even if you've heard stories about run-ins with it, have you ever met somebody who’s actually come face to face with quicksand?

Since it’s likely a question that’s been burning a hole in your mind, it seems appropriate to answer the question once and for all: Is quicksand a real thing?

Does quicksand exist?

Park ranger waist deep in quicksand
Credit: NPS/ Jacob W. Frank/ Public Domain

The short answer is: yes. While it may sound like the creation of a science-fiction writer, quicksand is absolutely real. Just as depicted in the movies, quicksand appears to have a solid state, but when touched, turns into a gelatinous liquid that can trap a person. Though it has the word “sand” in its name, quicksand is not just an unstable patch of solid granules. It’s a non-Newtonian liquid, meaning it doesn’t follow the characteristics of Newton’s Law of Viscosity.

While composed of sand, quicksand’s qualities are due to the 30% to 70% of air found between each grain. There is another component to the unusual formation, however, that helps give it that thick consistency.

It’s more than just sand

Water running through a landscape of sand
Credit: ChiccoDodi FC/ iStock

Along with the air-filled space, quicksand is comprised of a third component — water. Since there is such a space between the grains of sand, when there is a vibration or added weight, they become unstable. With these disturbances, water separates from the grains, causing the liquid-like consistency. As it loses viscosity, the patch of quicksand becomes unable to hold up any weight. Anything that crosses it, from a small animal to a human, will start to sink.

Quicksand is often depicted as a death trap, but with the proper reaction, getting caught in it is not a dooming scenario.

Escaping quicksand

Photo of three people hiking in a desert and river landscape
Credit: Pierce Martin/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

When a living organism gets caught in quicksand, its gut reaction is panic. Even humans, who can more readily process what’s happening to them, will struggle against the downward force of sinking.

Rather than struggle, a victim of quicksand should stick to calm movements. The slower they move, the less viscous the quicksand will get. With the sinking slowed, rather than try to pull themselves out, the individual should spread their arms and legs to increase surface area. An increased surface area will cause them to float.

Where does quicksand form?

Image of water collecting on sand
Credit: Wendy Love/ iStock

Though it may sound scary, quicksand isn’t commonplace all over the world. Patches of quicksand are found near springs and riverbanks, where the motion of the water causes additional space between the grains of sand.

Desert environments can also experience quicksand, though these instances aren’t caused by water. Instead, it’s the downward motion of the wind near sand dunes that create space, leading to the viscous terrain.

A rare occurrence in nature

Young kid playing in quicksand at the beach
Credit: pio3/ Shutterstock

While not quite the same as it’s depicted in fictional stories, quicksand does exist, though your chances of coming across a patch are incredibly low. For now, you can marvel at the oddities of quicksand from afar, popping on the occasional TV series or movie that depicts the phenomenon. At least now you can quell that lingering worry in the back of your mind that a random patch of sand may swallow you into the Earth.