Ice Safety

By Tom Richardson
Know the ice conditions before crossing pond and lakes.

Whether you plan to venture onto frozen water to fish or skate, snowmobile or snowshoe, here are some important tips and advice for staying safe on the ice this winter.

Ice thickness must be at least five inches before it can safely support the weight of a snowmobile or ATV.

Know Before You Go

  • Ice conditions can vary on different waterbodies (i.e., just because one pond in your area has safe ice doesn’t mean others do as well.)
  • Consult a reliable local source (e.g., tackle shop, outfitter, game warden, or fishing guide) about ice conditions on the waterbody you plan to visit. Local user-group websites and Facebook pages can also provide current ice-condition information, but always cross-reference.
  • You can’t always tell the strength of ice simply by its look, its thickness, or the air temperature.
  • Clear ice with a bluish tint is usually strongest. “Milky” ice formed by melted and refrozen can be porous and weak.
  • Ice covered by snow should be presumed unsafe. Snow acts as an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Ice under snow can be thinner and weaker than exposed ice.
  • Ice does not form in uniform thickness. Underwater springs and currents can create thin spots, as can rocks, logs, and ledges near the surface. Avoid river and creek mouths, outfall pipes, culverts, bridges, and other places where the current may cause weak spots.
  • Be especially cautious in areas where air temperatures have fluctuated. A warm spell may take several days to weaken the ice; however, when temperatures vary widely, causing the ice to thaw during the day and refreeze at night, the result is weak or honeycombed ice that is unsafe.
  • If part of a group, avoid walking in a single file or standing close together unless you know the ice is thick enough.
  • Tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return.
  • Avoid any large cracks or depressions in the ice.
An ice auger or chisel can be used to periodically gauge ice depth.

If You Fall Through

  • Try to remain calm.
  • Don’t try to remove your outer clothing. Trying to remove your clothes can cause exhaustion. Heavy clothes can also prove beneficial by trapping air to provide warmth and flotation. This is especially true of snowmobile suits.
  • Get immediately to the edge of solid ice—most likely the direction you came from.
  • Use ice picks to grab the solid ice and kick with your feet to pull yourself onto the ice.
  • Roll away from the area of weak ice.
  • Seek shelter, heat, dry clothing, and warm drinks (avoid alcohol and caffeine).
  • Call 911 and seek medical attention if you feel disoriented, experience uncontrollable shivering, or exhibit other symptoms of hypothermia.
Consult with local ice-fishing guides, ice-fishing groups, game wardens, and other experts to learn if the ice is safe enough on the waterbody in question.

Things to Bring

Cleats: Ice cleats attach to your boot soles and feature metal teeth that provide traction on slippery ice and help prevent falls.

Chisel: An ice chisel, or spud, is a long-handled blade with a point on one side. You can use the chisel to punch a hole through the ice before you take a step to check its thickness.

Picks: Ice picks come in pairs and should be worn around your neck to keep them within easy reach. If you fall through the ice, the picks can help you pull yourself out of the water.

Rope: Carry a floating rescue rope and keep it readily accessible while traversing ice. If someone in your party falls through, you may be able to assist by throwing them the rope from a safe distance. If you’re the one who falls through, you can throw one end of the rope to a rescuer.

PLB: A personal locator beacon can be activated if you break through the ice and be used to summon rescuers.

Life jacket: Consider wearing an inflatable life jacket, especially if you are unsure of ice conditions.

Whistle: Pack a whistle and keep it accessible to signal for help.

Ice Thickness Guide

The guidelines below are for clear, blue ice on lakes and ponds. White ice or snow ice is only about half as strong as new clear ice and can be very treacherous. Use an ice chisel, auger, or cordless drill to make a hole in the ice and determine its thickness and condition. Bring a tape measure to check ice thickness at regular intervals. 

Ice Thickness (inches)

Permissible Load (on new clear/blue ice on lakes or ponds)

2″ or less



Ice fishing or other activities on foot


Snowmobile or ATV


Car or small pickup truck


Medium truck