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Traversing Frozen Bodies of Water Safely

When the thermometer drops and the local landscape is transformed into a winter wonderland, strapping on your ice skates or going ice fishing can be an enjoyable wintertime tradition. When venturing out to the freshly frozen pond for recreation, following a few safety precautions can keep you from finding yourself "on thin ice."

Ice Facts

There is no absolute way to determine whether ice is safe. Ice strength is based on a combination of factors including its age, thickness, temperature, snow cover, distance from shore, and underlying water currents, depth, and chemistry. However, the following facts can assist in gauging ice risk:

  • Newly formed ice is typically stronger than old ice.
  • Clear (transparent or glassy) ice is about twice as strong as white ice or "snow ice."
  • Thickness of ice can vary by several inches within distances of a few feet.
  • Ice formed near streams, bridges, or culverts is most dangerous, as underlying currents in moving water can result in ice that is unstable.
  • Booming and cracking does not necessarily signify danger but can be a natural result of ice expanding and contracting with temperature changes.

Check Ice Conditions

Always check ice conditions and thickness before starting your ice activity. Don't rely on time of year or last year's conditions. Temperature and various water conditions, such as aeration, can result in significant ice quality differences.

  • Posting relevant warnings and guidelines for lake and pond ice conditions tested by authorities within the area may be part of your community's security services program. When going to public places where ice conditions may not be posted, contact a local bait shop or lakeside resort. These professionals should be aware of known danger areas. The best course of action is to rely on ponds and skating areas that are regularly monitored.
  • Check ice thickness when you arrive. You can use an ice chisel, ice auger, or drill to safely make a hole in the ice. For an accurate measure of thickness, place a tape measure into the hole and hook the bottom edge of ice, then read the measurement on the surface edge of the ice.

Surviving a Breakthrough

If you have done your due diligence, chances are your time on the ice will be safe and fun. Despite your best research into conditions, however, ice can be unpredictable. Before you hit the ice, be prepared for the worst case scenario — breaking through the ice sheet.

  • Carry on your person a device to drive into the ice. This can be an ice pick or a manufactured tool as simple as two short lengths of broom handle with nails attached to both ends, joined with string, like a modified jump rope.
  • Don't remove winter clothing while in the water. Winter clothes, especially snow suits, won't drag you down any quicker in icy water and can actually help by trapping air that holds warmth and allows better flotation.
  • Turn toward the direction you came from and stretch your arms and upper body over the ice surface. If you have a sharpened tool to drive into the ice, use it to gain the leverage and traction you need to pull yourself out. Look for anything you can grasp on the surface or instruct others to extend a rope, branch or any long object to you — without risking more breakthrough by venturing onto the ice.
  • Kick your legs out behind you, positioning your body horizontally to the surface. As you work your way back onto the ice sheet, you may need to pause and release excess trapped water from your clothing to move forward on the ice more easily.
  • Once on solid ice, lie flat and roll away from the hole to keep from breaking through again.
  • Call for help and seek warm, dry cover as fast as you can. If you suspect hypothermia, seek medical attention immediately. Chilled blood can be damaging to your heart and life threatening.

General Ice Thickness Guidelines

For new, clear ice only

  • 2" or less – STAY OFF
  • 4" – Ice fishing or other activities on foot
  • 5" – Snowmobile or All Terrain Vehicle (ATV)
  • 8" - 12" – Car or small pickup truck
  • 12" - 15" – Mid-sized truck/crossover

Double the above thickness guidelines when traveling on white ice.

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