Whether you are ice skating, ice fishing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, or walking to some ice caves that are only accessible via frozen lake in the winter, recreating on ice can be a blast if the right safety precautions are taken.
Winter recreation safety shouldn’t be taken lightly. Ice is never truly safe, and ice thickness can vary greatly over the same body of water. Factors like water depth, snow cover, air temperature, age of the ice, wind, and currents can affect the safety of ice. But I’ll get to all that in this article.
In this guide, I am going to share with you some ice safety tips for outdoor activities, including how to measure ice thickness, how to tell which bodies of water are safe to walk on, what to bring with you on the ice, dangers to watch for, how to rescue yourself and others from an ice fall, the signs of hypothermia, and more.
You’ll learn exactly how to snowmobile, ice skate, ice fish, and walk safely on ice so you can have a fantastic, memorable wintry adventure!
Ice Safety Tips for Outdoor Activities
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General Ice Safety Tips
- Ask a local before heading out onto the ice. They will be the most aware of the changing conditions and possible danger spots.
- Measure the ice thickness and determine its thickness every 150 feet (info on this below).
- Let someone know where you’ll be going.
- Wear a life jacket or floatation device.
- Bring an ice safety kit stocked with rope, ice picks, an ice chisel or drill, and a tape measure.
- Carry the 10 Essentials on all of your icy adventures.
- Dress properly and cover all vulnerable parts of your body to prevent hypothermia.
- Watch and listen for cracks, flowing water, and currents.
- Understand the risks of being out on the ice and know how to self-rescue and rescue others. (Info on that later in this article).
How to Measure Ice Thickness Before Walking on Ice
Walking on ice safely is no easy feat. I won’t sugarcoat the fact that measuring ice thickness is laborious. It is recommended that you check the ice thickness every 150 feet, so if you will be walking a long distance, this can get tedious.
However, the process is necessary as the ice is constantly changing and the thickness can vary dramatically throughout the body of water. Where one section is a foot thick, another area could be just a mere inch.
METHOD #1: Cordless Drill and a Tape Measure
The easiest and most accurate way to measure ice’s true thickness is to drill a hole into the ice, put the tape measure into the hole, and hook it to the bottom edge of the ice.
Minnesota DNR recommends using a long, five-eighths-inch wood auger bit.
method #2: Ice Chisel and a Tape Measure
Another way to measure ice thickness is with an ice chisel and a tape measure.
Drive the chisel into the ice, using a stabbing motion, to create a hole. Measure the ice thickness using a tape measure.
METHOD #3: Ice Auger and a Tape Measure
A third way to measure ice thickness is with an ice auger and a tape measure.
Hand augers are low-cost, lightweight, and quiet. Electric augers are quiet and require less labor than hand augers. Gas augers are heavier, noisier, and more expensive but they drill through the ice the fastest.
SIDE NOTE: We had a local guide take us out onto Lake Superior to explore ice caves. The only tool he had was a long, sharp stick that he would bash into the ice every so often to ensure that it was thick enough to walk on. I’m not sure if this is the safest or most accurate way to walk across a frozen lake, but it could be an option if you don’t want to bring power tools!
Ice Thickness Safety Chart
Below is the Ice Thickness Safety Chart. Full credit goes to Utah State Parks.
According to this ice safety chart, it is unsafe to walk on ice that is 3 inches or thinner.
- It is potentially safe for one person with gear to walk on ice that is at least 4 inches thick.
- It is potentially safe for a small group of people to walk on ice that is at least 5 inches thick.
- It is potentially safe for a single snowmobile or ATV to drive on ice that is at least 6 inches thick.
- It is potentially safe for multiple snowmobiles and ATVs to drive on ice that is at least 9 inches thick.
Walking on Ice Safety Tips – What Bodies of Water Are Safe to Walk on?
✨ What ice-covered bodies of water are safe to walk on? ✨
Larger, deeper bodies of water (lakes) take longer to freeze but are generally safer than moving water when large lakes are completely frozen.
Moving water like rivers and streams are susceptible to constantly changing conditions and therefore are usually unsafe to walk on.
Oceans need cooler temperatures to freeze, so the ice tends to be weaker than freshwater lakes.
Also, new ice is almost always stronger than old ice as ice weakens with age.
Pay Attention to the Color of the Ice
New, clear ice or blue ice is the thickest and safest ice to walk on.
Snow ice or white ice is only half as strong as clear or blue ice, so if you plan on traversing across this particular type of ice, you need to double the minimum guidelines in the Ice Thickness Safety Chart (below). This milky-colored ice is formed by melting snow on the surface of the water, so the air pockets tend to weaken it.
Gray, dark, or slush ice is not safe to walk on. Gray ice indicates the presence of water, so the ice can melt even when the temperature is below 32 degrees F. Slush ice indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom.
Depth, Size, and Type of Water Matter
Larger, deeper water takes longer to freeze.
Ice near the shore tends to be weaker and more susceptible to cracking.
Sea ice tends to be weaker, and freshwater supports more weight.
The faster-moving water in streams and rivers requires lower temperatures to freeze; slower-moving, shallow water with cooler air temperatures will freeze first.
The stronger the current, the higher the likelihood of the ice giving way to the open water.
What to Bring With You on the Ice
- Cell phone with a waterproof protector and portable power bank or personal locator beacon
- A life jacket or floatation device
- Ice safety kit (rope, ice picks, ice chisel or drill, tape measure)
- The 10 Essentials
Dangers to Watch Out For When Walking on the Ice
Cracks are formed from sudden cold fronts that bring low temperatures.
Changes in the waves and water flow below the ice, along with wind, can also cause stress cracks. Ice sheets contract from those low cool-downs, and since the ice is attached to the shoreline, bits and pieces are forced to detach, causing cracks.
If you see or hear cracking, move away from the area immediately. Avoid pressure ridges, depressions, and large cracks. Distribute your weight evenly if you need to cross dangerous ice cracks.
Occasionally, the cracking that you hear or step on may be caused by a simple surface crack. This doesn’t indicate that you will fall in, but it is best to keep moving just to be safe. If you are on the ice at night, there is a higher chance that you will hear more cracking as the temperatures cool.
Flowing Water, River Bends, and Currents
Currents and moving water affect the ice depth greatly. Try to avoid areas like river bends, channels between lakes, bridges, and stream inlets and outlets. Faster currents cause the ice to weaken, and you could be swept away if you fall through.
Also, steer clear of weedy areas that create underwater compost masses; these spots generate heat, causing the ice to weaken.
Snow that covers a frozen body of water acts as an insulating blanket. Essentially, the snow slows down the freezing process, and the extra weight of the snow reduces the weight that the ice sheet can support.
Snow-covered ice will therefore be weaker and thinner than exposed ice. Snowfall can also warm up and melt existing ice.
Always shovel the snow before testing the ice underneath.
How to Rescue Yourself and Others When Falling Through the Ice
Ice danger is real, and though most who venture onto frozen water understand the risks and are versed in ice safety, many are uneducated about how to react in an emergency situation.
If you slip through ice and fall into the water, here are some ways to self-rescue or rescue someone else.
Rescue Someone Else Who Fell Through the Ice
- Call 911.
- Toss a rope to the victim. Do not step too close to them or you will risk falling into the water as well.
- Have the victim tie the rope around himself before he becomes too weak.
- Pull the victim to safety.
- If you can’t pull the victim out of the water, try to keep his head above water and wait for the paramedics.
- Don’t panic. Get your breathing under control so that you don’t hyperventilate or inhale water.
- Don’t remove your clothing.
- Turn toward the direction you came from. This will have the strongest ice.
- Call out for help.
- Place your hands and arms on the solid ice. Use your ice pick to gain traction and pull yourself out of the water.
- Kick your feet and dig in your ice picks to work your way back onto the solid ice.
- Lie flat on the ice once you’re out and roll away from the hole to keep your weight spread out.
- Get to a warm, dry, and sheltered area to rewarm yourself immediately. Change into dry clothes, drink hot fluids, and make sure you are shielded from the cold and windy elements. Seek medical attention to ensure you don’t have severe hypothermia.
The 1 – 10 – 1 Phases
Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht coined the phrase 1-10-1 to describe the three critical phases of cold water immersion. Knowing what happens when a human falls through ice is crucial to reacting correctly in an emergency situation.
- 1 Minute – Cold Shock. Cold Shock lasts for the first minute of cold water immersion. Avoid panicking and control your breathing. A floatation device is very helpful so you can concentrate more on your breathing and less on your ability to stay afloat.
- 10 Minutes – Cold Incapacitation. In the next ten minutes, you will lose the ability to move your fingers, arms, and legs. Drowning is a real possibility if you don’t have a life jacket on, so get yourself to safety as soon as possible. Use an ice pick to hoist you out of the water and onto solid ice.
- 1 Hour – Hypothermia. It takes approximately one hour for hypothermia to set in and for you to lose consciousness. Make sure your head is above water, so if you can’t self-rescue, emergency personnel can save you before you drown.
→ READ NEXT: Tips for Winter Hikes and Road Trips 🚗❄️
The Risks of Hypothermia
What is Hypothermia?
Hypothermia is a low-body temperature caused by exposure. It can also be caused by trauma, surgical procedures, fatigue, or intoxication, but for the purpose of this article, I am just going to focus on cold weather exposure.
This condition occurs when your body temperature plummets and your body is unable to warm itself up.
Falling into icy water isn’t the only way to get hypothermia, contrary to popular belief. It is a danger that is lurking whenever you’re in snow, ice, cold water, or even just exposed to cold air.
Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees F, and hypothermia sets in at 95 degrees F.
Our skin helps regulate body temperature by controlling heat loss. We generate heat through a process called cellular metabolism. As long as our bodies can generate as much heat as we’re losing, we can maintain a stable core temperature.
If we begin to lose more heat than we can generate, hypothermia sets in.
Signs, Symptoms, and Process of Hypothermia
There are different stages of hypothermia and symptoms that set in at each stage.
Mild hypothermia occurs when your body dips to a temperature of 95 degrees F. Uncontrollable shivering, lack of complex motor functions, and vasoconstriction to fingers and toes can happen.
Moderate hypothermia occurs when your body dips to a temperature of 91-94 F. Symptoms include reduced level of consciousness, loss of fine motor coordination, slurred speech, violent shivering, and irrational behavior (like undressing).
Severe hypothermia occurs when your body dips to a temperature of 86-90 F or lower. Symptoms include shivering violently until it suddenly stops, muscle rigidity, pale skin, pupil dilation, pulse rate increase, and organ shutdown.
Ways to Recreate on the Ice and How to Stay Safe
- Watch for debris that could be hidden below a snow-covered frozen lake like logs and rocks.
- Cracked ice danger is elevated when on a motorized vehicle. You likely won’t hear cracks over the engine noise so always be on alert.
- The ice should be at least 6 inches thick if going out solo. If going out in groups, the ice needs to be at least 9 inches thick.
- Avoid clustering snowmobiles together. The massive weight in one area can cause all of the vehicles to break through the ice.
- Wear float coats.
- Carry flares or a beacon.
→ READ NEXT: Nine Fun Winter Activities That Will Get You Outdoors ❄️
Ice Fishing 🎣
This article is super helpful for beginner ice fishers! You will learn basics, techniques, where to fish, how to make a fishing hole, bait tips, and more!
- Make sure the ice is at least 4 inches thick.
- Share your fishing plans with someone.
- Bring a friend.
- Bring a floatation device and ice picks.
- Don’t attempt to navigate the lake after dark. Give yourself plenty of time to tear down your gear to be off the lake before sunset.
- Ventilate your ice shanty to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Bring a portable power bank. Cold weather drains phone batteries quickly.
Ice Skating ⛸️
- Measure the ice thickness. Make sure it is at least 4-5 inches. Check different spots of the lake to make sure that you don’t skate over thin ice.
- Dark blue ice is safer than opaque white or gray ice.
- Consult with a local to get their tips and opinions before heading out.
- Kids should wear helmets.
- You don’t need ice skates! A waterproof pair of boots or shoes will do the trick; you’ll glide along the smooth surface with ease.
- Watch for protruding rocks or logs that could cause you to stumble and fall. Ice is usually weaker around those spots as well.
Snowshoeing, Cross Country Skiing, or Hiking ⛷️
There is an abundance of rock formations, ice caves, waterfalls, and other natural beauties that are only accessible by water! Some features like frozen waterfalls and icicle-riddled caves are only accessible and viewable in this particular fashion in the brutally cold winter months, so you’ll likely be tempted to strap on your boots, microspikes, snowshoes, or skis to explore the frozen lake!
- Check with local rangers about current conditions. Ice varies from year to year and these locals are the experts.
- Avoid moving water sections. Weak spots like river bends, inlets, outlets, and narrow channels are susceptible to cracking and thin ice.
- Find the strongest ice with the least sunlight.
- Avoid areas surrounding rocks, logs, or other lake debris.
- The ice should be 4-5 inches thick. If you’re traveling in a group, spread out. If the ice breaks, you want to make sure at least one person is able to act as a rescuer.
- Skis or trekking poles work nicely to probe the ice in front of you. Remove the rubber tips on the poles to expose the sharp point.
- Wearing skis or snowshoes helps distribute your weight evenly, reducing your chance of breaking through weak ice.
- Carry a claw or ice pick for emergency purposes. You will be able to pull yourself out if you fall into the water.
→ READ NEXT: Beginner’s Guide to Snowshoeing ❄️
Driving on ice can be thrilling but extremely dangerous.
- Stay off the ice at night.
- Avoid driving on ice unless necessary. Consider a smaller motorized vehicle like a snowmobile or ATV.
- Make sure ice is at least 8-12” thick for cars, and 12-15” for medium-sized trucks.
- Move your truck every two hours to prevent the ice from cracking beneath.
- If driving in a group, keep vehicles parked at least 50 feet apart to prevent sinking.
- Roll a window down and keep doors unlocked.
- Don’t wear a life vest while inside your vehicle.
- If your truck begins to sink, get out of the vehicle immediately through the open window. Do not go back for belongings.
→ READ NEXT: Tips for Winter Hikes and Road Trips 🚗❄️
Discover Your Next Adventure
I’ve got some suggestions for how to pass the time this winter season!
- Beginner’s Guide to Snowshoeing
- Nine Fun Winter Activities That Will Get You Outdoors
- Tips for Winter Hikes and Road Trips
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