Everything you need to know before playing on that frozen pond

Follow these tips to stay safe on the ice this winter.
landscape of sun shining over a frozen lake.
Winter ice should never be taken lightly. USFWS

This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.

Falling through thin ice is a wintertime hazard that claims many lives each year. Before you head out for ice fishing, trapping, or any other activity on frozen bodies of water, make sure you plan ahead for this kind of winter crisis and make sure you know exactly what to do if it happens to you or someone near you. Sometimes the wrong decision or delayed action can cost lives.

1. Understand frozen water

Most of the liquids on earth have a very logical behavior. The colder they get, the more they shrink and condense. This is not the case with water. Water crystalizes as it freezes, expanding approximately 9 percent. This means that its solid form is less dense than its liquid form, allowing frozen water to float on the top of liquid water.

While no patch of ice should ever be considered 100 percent safe, we can assess the ice and make a guess about its safety. Take a drill with a long paddle bit and a tape measure out to the waterway (and a snow shovel to get down to the ice, if needed). Check the ice thickness at the edge of the waterway, before setting foot on it. If thick enough, then go out further onto the ice. Drill several test holes and use your tape to measure the ice thickness.

When the ice is two inches (or less) in thickness, don’t leave the shore. Three inches is your bare minimum for ice thickness. Four inches (or more) is recommended for walking, skating and ice fishing on foot. Five inches (and thicker) is generally safe for ATVs and snowmobiles. When the ice is eight to 12 inches thick (or better), small cars or light pickups might dare to cross. Keep in mind, however, that any ice sheet can have thinner areas. Likely causes of thin spots are underwater springs and geothermal activity. If in doubt, stay on the shore.

2. Always carry some ice rescue tools

Ice Spikes
Ice spikes can help you pull yourself out of a hole in the ice. Tim MacWelch

The biggest problem with hauling yourself out of the water is grip. Once the slick ice around an ice hole gets wet, there’s not much to grab onto (unless you plan ahead for this unfortunate accident). By purchasing or making a set of ice rescue spikes, a victim can self-rescue by using these moveable handheld spikes to crawl away from the ice hole and back to solid ice.

One easy way to make a set is to purchase two ice picks with buoyant wooden handles and about six feet of strong cord. You’ll also need a hacksaw and a drill. Use the hacksaw to cut off half of the metal on each pick. Make your cut on an angle, so the resulting spike has a sturdy beveled point. Use the drill to make a hole in each handle. Fasten each end of the rope to each of your ice picks. Test the set for its ability to float, before you trust your life to them. You don’t need your trusted tool set to slip into the dark water and be lost.

You could also make the spikes from scratch, drilling out dowels and fitting them with sturdy metal spikes. For transporting the set, it’s also nice to use a little chunk of wine bottle cork as a “cap” for each spike, so you don’t stab yourself or your clothing by carrying these spikes in your pocket. Keep these lifesaving tools in an outer coat pocket or somewhere they could be quickly grabbed, if needed. Make sure you carry these tools for every trip onto the ice.

3. How to survive a fall through the ice

You’ll need to act fast to survive a fall through the ice. If you are carrying an ice rescue tool set, work your way through the broken ice chunks to the edge of the hole. Looking for solid ice, stab both of the picks into it. Muster your strength and pull yourself out of the hole. Try getting one leg onto the ice as you get your torso up, as this will keep you horizontal and distribute your weight. Use the spikes to crawl away from the ice hole with a “hand over hand” action, keeping one pick anchored at all times. When you are several yards away from the ice hole, try to stand up. Walking will be a quicker way to head for shelter and dry clothing (compared to crawling). Use a known and solid path across the ice (the path you walked before you broke through).

And if you didn’t plan ahead with an ice rescue set, try to work your way out by staying horizontal. Keep your head above the water and face the ice in the direction you came from. This is a known variable. The ice was strong enough to support you up until you hit the thin spot. Grab this thicker ice and try to get a leg out of the water, then roll away from the edge of the ice hole. This is much harder than escaping the ice hole with spikes, and why spikes should be carried on the ice.

People Ice fishing on frozen lake.
Always check the ice thickness before stepping out on a frozen pond. USFWS

4. The dos and don’ts of ice safety

Most of us will feel somewhat nervous when venturing onto a floating sheet of ice, and with good reason. That nearly frozen water underneath the ice can kill us in just a few minutes. But we’d never get any real living done if we stayed at home afraid of everything, so give ice fishing a try or trek across that frozen river, after checking its thickness, keeping these do’s and don’ts in mind.

  • Don’t go onto the ice alone.
  • Don’t freak out if you fall through. This is easier said than done, but staying calm can help in any crisis.
  • Don’t undress. You won’t be able to swim any better without your coat and pants. You’ll need to keep your winter clothing on for insulation. The air trapped inside your clothing can also help you stay afloat.
  • Don’t try a new route back to shore. You’ll be safer by retracing your solid path across the ice. If you try a new route, you could fall through another thin spot on your way back to shore.
  • Do consider wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) under your coat when you walk out onto the ice. The main exception to this would be wearing a PFD while driving across ice in a vehicle. The extra bulk could prevent you from crawling out through a window to escape a sinking vehicle.
  • Do attempt to control your breathing. The shock of the cold water will often cause people to gasp, taking water into the lungs. The cold water can also lead to hyperventilation, which increases your chances of drowning.
  • Do stay horizontal to get away from the thin ice. Once you’re out, stay horizontal to keep your weight dispersed on the ice. You could crawl on your belly, but a faster way to move is by rolling across the ice. Do this until you are on thick ice again and you feel certain that you can stand.
  • Do try to warm up immediately. Once the victim is out of the freezing water, monitor them for shock and seek professional medical care to get their body temperature back to normal. If it’s not possible to reach definitive medical care, get the victim into dry clothing. Place warm water bottles throughout the clothing, especially under armpits, and in the groin and neck areas.

5. Toss out a line

When someone goes through the ice near you, you won’t be of much help if you end up in the water with them. Call 911 immediately, so that trained rescue personnel can start heading your way. And don’t give the first responders more people to rescue by doing something risky yourself. Ideally, your group should be carrying a long length of rope where it’s easy to grab if someone falls through the ice. It also helps if you can quickly tie a rescue loop in the end (like a bowline loop).

From a solid vantage point, toss the line to the victim and make sure they’ve grabbed the loop before attempting to pull them out. Don’t get close to the hole when pulling the rope, as you’ll have your own weight on the ice plus some of the victim’s weight as you pull. If a rope isn’t available, extend a long tree branch or pole to the victim. You could also tie together some spare clothing or other garments as an improvised rope. You’ll have to work quickly with whatever “line” you throw to them, since the victim will lose their grip strength as hypothermia sets in.

6. You are better off waiting for help

According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, more than half of ice-related drowning deaths involve an attempted rescue (of another human or an animal). In many of these sad stories, dogs and other animals are able to escape from the water without human help, while the “rescuer” who went out onto the ice did not survive. For this reason, never throw balls, toys or sticks for dogs near frozen water. Should your animal venture onto thin ice and break through, seek professional help. Remember those statistics and don’t attempt an unskilled rescue. Get the help of trained professionals, instead of crawling out on thin ice and adding another body to the water.

people fishing on ice in lake.
Never venture out on the ice in spring. It’s not safe. USFWS

7. Skip the spring ice

We should only venture out onto clear, thick ice; and after a long cold winter, we’d expect the ice to be plenty thick, more stable and safer to traverse. That said, springtime ice is never safe. This is due to the fact that it is older ice and it has grown unpredictable over time. In some cases, this old ice will appear cloudy and cracked. In other cases, it will look much the same as it has looked all winter. Either way, the older ice could be riddled with dangerous thin spots that are hard to see. If there’s any doubt, don’t try it out.