The ice is never 100% safe.
Ice anglers see this sign posted near ice entry points, on gear, and added to ice fishing manuals. Why would this be? If the ice is safe enough to drive a truck on, what would make it unsafe?
The truth is, ice is never static. It ebbs and flows with the natural conditions around it. This means that there are hundreds of factors that impact ice quality. Any one thing can cause ice safe for a half ton pickup to become a hazard for a lone person walking across it. Ice fishing also has other risks than the ice.
Remembering “Ice is never 100% safe” reminds us that ice fishing safety should always be our first priority.
Every year, ice fishing related deaths and accidents occur. While statistics vary, in Minnesota–a state known for their large ice fishing community–the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources made a document titled “Minnesota Ice-Related Fatalities 1976-2022.”
In the data collected over 46 years, there was an average of 5.5 ice-related deaths during each winter season. With better ice safety education and ice awareness, recent statistics showed that from the 2012/13 to the 2021/22 ice season there was an average of 3.3 deaths per winter season.
Ice fishing safety is important for everyone. Let’s take a deeper look into some common ice fishing tips and precautions.
Table of Contents
General Ice Thickness Safety Rules
There are still some rules of thumb when it comes to ice safety. These numbers are never fixed. There might be 12 inches of ice but if the ice is cloudy, filled with frozen bubbles or sand, leaves, and gravel, this creates weak ice.
The safest ice will be clear ice that froze in very low temperatures. Clear ice formed the tightest. This general list of ice thickness is for clear, clean ice.
2-3 Inches of Ice
- Unsafe ice for any activity
4 Inches of Ice
- One person ice fishing
- Small, non-permanent ice shelters with minimal gear
5-6 Inches of Ice
- Snowmobiles and ATVs
- Large, non-permanent ice shelters
8-12 Inches of Ice
- Cars and small trucks
- Small permanent ice shelters
12+ Inches of Ice
- Medium trucks
- Full-size permanent ice shelters
How to Check For Safe Ice
Knowing how to check ice thickness is an important skill. Following someone else who is already on the ice is a poor way to judge ice thickness. They may have weakened any thin ice ahead of you without realizing it. Always make sure you know how thick the ice is.
Checking Ice Thickness During Early Ice
The early ice season meets us waiting for our first trip. Some ice anglers avoid early ice to prevent accidents. This time of year, ice is inconsistent. Ice on any lake or pond can vary with minor changes in wind, weather, and precipitation.
Many people who take on early ice fishing use a spud bar to check ice depth as they walk. A spud bar is a heavy metal rod with a pointed or chiseled end.
Spud bars come in many styles and sizes but should always be heavy. To use, slam the end of the bar into the ice ahead of you as you walk. Hitting the same area a few times is a good way to check the front and sides of your path.
If the bar goes through, the ice ahead is too thin to continue. Backtrack along your steps and begin taking another route. The spud bar is also good to chip out a hole or open existing holes that have frozen over.
Checking Ice Thickness During Mid to Late Ice
In the depths of winter, there are many ways to check ice thickness. First, it’s always good to use a spud bar as you walk. You can also use your ice auger to check ice depth. Every 3-6 steps, drill a new hole and measure ice depth with an ice ruler.
Ice rulers are metal or plastic rulers with a scoop or right angle on one end. You push the end into the hole, hook the edge of the ice, and read the depth. Then, consult your ice chart.
Always pay special attention to ice quality. Poor ice will look cloudy or jagged due to air bubbles and cracks. Strong ice is clear with a mirror-like quality and lacks bubbles or clouds.
When ice depth is 6-12 inches, we often see that early ice on top is cloudy, and the newer ice is clear. The thicker the clear and strong section of ice, the safer and stronger the ice will be.
Preparing For a Safe Ice Fishing Trip
Proper ice fishing safety requires thorough planning and gear checklists. Here is a selection of ice fishing safety items that you should bring with you on every trip. Some of these items will help you if an accident happens and some are good to have on hand.
Before the Trip
Before an ice fishing trip consider the following items.
The outdoor world has a phrase for cold weather and cotton: “Cotton kills.”
This phrase is talking about cotton’s insulating qualities. Clothing traps warm air against our skin insulating us from the cold. Cotton’s air pockets close and fill with water if they get wet. Wet cotton also naturally evaporates and pulls heat away from our body. This makes cotton perfect for the summer, but is a poor choice for cold weather.
Cotton clothing that gets wet from rain, falling through the ice, or sweating lowers your body temperature and will not keep you warm.
When choosing your clothes, consider the THREE W’s of layering outdoor clothing:
- Wicking: Polyester and fleece are examples of wicking fabric. Wicking fabrics move water to the outside or dry out faster than cotton because they don’t soak up water. The base layer of your ice fishing gear should be a wicking layer.
- Warming: Warming layers provide insulation. Synthetic and down-wear are good options but are poor insulators when wet. Wool garments are the best cold-weather warming layers for a variety of reasons.
- First, wool continues to insulate even after getting wet.
- Second, wool’s fibrous outer sheath sheds water.
- Third, wool breathes allowing moisture to evaporate.
- Weatherproof: Finally, a weatherproof layer is a wind, snow, and rain proof layer. This could be a rain jacket and rain pants or a gore-tex parka and bibbs.
Layering through the three stages helps you stay warm, safe, and dry.
A Note on Ice Fishing Outer Layers:
Ice fishing gear manufacturers make floating bibs that have air pockets built into the clothes. This is the warmest, driest, and safest outerwear gear option for any ice angler.
If an angler breaks through, the floating bibs will keep them afloat. But many of these items are not designed to keep a person warm after it gets wet.
Before an ice fishing trip, design a plan and share it with people in your community. They could be friends or family members. Let them know where you are going and how long you plan to be gone.
During the Trip
These items could mean the difference between life and death in the event of an emergency.
- Hand spikes
Hand spikes are handheld spikes that you can use to crawl your way out of the water in the event of a breakthrough. They usually have a spring-loaded cover that springs back as you slam the spike into the ice. They help gain traction on the ice to pull yourself out.
- Throw rope
A throw rope is a good piece of equipment that doesn’t take up much space in a bag. A throw rope can help pull someone out of the water if they break through.
- 5-Gallon Bucket Seat/Life Preserver
Many ice anglers sit on 5-gallon buckets that function as gear storage and a chair while they fish. Some styles of seat cushions can double as floatation devices.
Things That Can Impact Ice Quality and Safety
Warm weather is not the only thing that can impact ice quality. Here’s a list of some common factors that can change ice conditions.
- Warm and cold cycles
- Areas where pressure ridges rose
- Breaks in ice
- Moving water from:
- Freshwater springs
- Inlets and outlets
- Thawing streams
Other Dangers During the Ice Fishing Season
Falling through the ice is the most well-known ice fishing safety concern. There are other dangers to be aware of before your next season.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Slipping and falling on the ice
- Hypothermia and frostbite
- Burns (both high and low-temperature burns)
*Low-temperature burns happen when skin is exposed to low-temperature heat for long periods of time. Be careful when using hand warmers, space heaters, and heated clothing.
How to Respond in an Emergency
The worst ice accidents in history happened when rescuers accidentally became victims. The Convict Lake Tragedy in eastern California is one example. It started when two teenage boys fell through the ice. Camp counselors and rescue personnel arrived and attempted to help. Unfortunately, 7 people died including three teenagers, two counselors, and two first responders.
911 should be the first call in an ice fishing related emergency. If you can, go to the emergency room for other injuries and accidents that aren’t immediately life-threatening.
If You Fall Through the Ice
- Stay calm and breathe calmly for a few seconds
- Hold onto the ice and try to face the direction you came from since you know that’s safe ice
- Use your ice spikes to work on pulling your body on top of the ice. Kick your legs hard and drag yourself to clear your legs over the edge.
- Crawl on your belly back the way you came
- Seek warmth and medical attention for cold water exposure immediately
Cold water shock can cause heart attacks. They can also happen by warming up too fast after your body gets dangerously cold. Always seek medical attention in the event of an emergency.
If Someone Else Falls Through
Never approach the hole where someone fell through. Use extra precautions if throwing a rescue rope or life preserver.
Remember, distribute your weight over the ice by crawling on your stomach whenever you think the ice is unsafe.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
In the event of carbon monoxide poisoning, exit the ice shelter, house, or building and go to the emergency room if you suspect you have been exposed. Carbon monoxide prevents oxygen from being absorbed in your lungs.
Conclusion to Ice Fishing Safety Tips and Precautions
Ice fishing is a fun, safe, and exciting activity to get us out of the house and away from the depths of cabin fever.
Besides major preparations, always bring general outdoor items. This includes food for energy and to stay warm, water for hydration, and sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun and reflected light.
Knowing and preparing for ice fishing risks ahead of time help us stay safe. It also makes us better equipped to handle an emergency if they happen.
You can find a good assortment of ice fishing gear on the Everest Outdoor Marketplace. New products from new sellers are being added daily.