Our Outdoors
Nick Simonson

The one ice fishing safety rule of thumb is simply, theres no such thing as safe ice


I experienced a first last year, four times over. With the unstable cold-and-warm trend through late fall and winter, I managed to break through the ice four times; twice while upland hunting and twice while ice fishing. Early in the season, I was too close to shoreline vegetation, but even in February, near moving water, the ice wasn't strong enough. I never went in past my thigh and had people around to help, but it was a chilly jaunt back to the truck each time.

Ice should never be considered safe, and in yearly-reminder fashion at this early-ice stage, be careful when venturing onto the hardwater. What follows are tips to keep those who venture onto the ice dry and safe throughout the entire winter season.

Know the weather, water

The urge to get on the ice right now may be overwhelming. However, a day of risky fishing and the potential for a disaster is far outweighed by a winter full of good, safe ice fishing.

Important factors in good ice formation include:

Steady sub-freezing temperatures; the colder it is for a longer period of time results in a better freeze up of lake waters.

Calm days and nights; the less the wind blows, the faster and more solid ice freezes.

Water type; if the lake you fish on or are looking to walk on is high in salinity, or is a large body of water or is spring-fed, it will freeze at a slower rate than that of a smaller clearer lake.

Heavy snows; if there has been a lot of precipitation in the form of snow (or worse, rain) the formation of good ice is hindered. Pay attention to the amount and type of accumulations that have occurred recently.

Vegetation; shoreline plants result in thinner ice. Cattail stands and tree roots near the water's edge can weaken ice and slow formation. Avoid these areas when possible.

Location-specific factors; if there are springs, feeder creeks or aquifers that put water into the lake, make sure you know where those areas are to avoid weak ice. The more moving water in a location, the less solid the ice will be. Pay close attention to the weather, and talk to local tackle shops and fishing guides about ice formation, as they are usually the first to know.

One small step

When venturing out on to a recently frozen body of water there are some safety precautions that can help you be prepared for the worst. Bringing several important tools can assure that in the event of ice breakage and submersion, one can avoid hypothermia and survive.

The buddy system; the best idea is to NEVER venture on the ice alone. The buddy system virtually assures that another person will be along with you to help in case of a fall-in or broken ice.

Life jackets; they aren't just for summer anymore. By wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) underneath a coat or overalls, personal buoyancy is increased, keeping the head and shoulders above water. This is especially important as cold water shocks the system, and when a person hits such cold water, a loss of breath often occurs, with less air in the lungs, the body is less apt to float. The added buoyancy of a PFD also aids in escape.

Spud bar; a long metal, or metal tipped wood pole can be used to probe unsure areas of ice, and can also be used as a walking stick when traveling on slick areas as well.; There are many types of safety spikes, designed to give traction to an ice adventurer, should he break through. Pairs can be bought at stores such as Fleet Farm or Scheels. However, the best safety spikes can be made of wooden dowels and nails at home. By putting a nail into one-inch diameter dowels that fit into your hands, you have created a floating tool that could very well save your life. Connect the two dowels with eye-hooks and a durable cord to have them comfortably hang around your neck to be used at a moment's notice.

Greg Gullickson from the ND Game & Fish Dept. demonstrating ice fishing safety with spikes. Photo by Chris Grondahl.


Safety spikes

Portable radio; keep abreast of changing weather patterns and other important information as it becomes available. Further, it is a safe way to listen to the Vikings games, so long as you don't go stomping around on the ice after every interception.

A 50-foot rope; this tool keeps a lifeline handy for you and your buddy. It can also be used to tether your team together when venturing on new ice. By attaching a block of wood to one end, the rope can be effectively thrown out and floated to a person who is struggling in the water.

Dry clothes in the car; keep a spare sweatshirt and some old jeans in your vehicle along with some dry wool socks. The faster you can get your body dry, the less chance you have of suffering from hypothermia. Water transfers heat 25 times faster than air; therefore getting dry is the primary goal after being submerged in near-freezing lake water.

Cellular phone; if you are in immediate danger of hypothermia or unconsciousness due to exposure, have your buddy call 911 with directions to the lake or stream or the nearest road. When it comes down to it, cellular phones mean winter survival in a state such as North Dakota.

Ice creepers; these shoe spikes are relatively inexpensive and provide traction on the ice to prevent falls and injuries. Though you may not go through the ice, a broken arm, sprained ankle, or concussion can end an ice fishing trip just as quickly as getting wet. Keep your balance with one of many varieties of creepers for your footwear.

A message at home; make sure to let a family member, neighbor or friend know where you are going to be throughout the day. Leave a note with your location on the lake, and the route you will take to get there and back again. Let people know what time you are leaving and what time you plan to arrive back home. This way, if you don't return as planned, or don't check in at the designated time, those who care about you will know where to start looking in case of emergency. This rule is not only great for hunting and fishing, but for winter travel in general across the upper Midwest.

Ice Rules

As stated before, no ice is ever safe ice. However, many state agencies, such as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have come up with a suggested amount of good, clear ice there should be on a body of water before venturing on it with various modes of transportation. Remember this is only a guide, use your instincts and knowledge and inspect the ice before venturing on it.

The DNR recommends the following activities be conducted when at there is at least the following amount of good clear ice on the water body.

Less than 4 inches - STAY OFF! There is no reason to test the newly formed ice at this time.

4-6 Inches - Ice fishing, foot travel in single-file lines, and small spaced seating on the ice should be safe, presuming the ice is clear and clean.

6-10 Inches - Snowmobiles and ATV's can travel safely on good ice that is over inches thick.

10-16 Inches - Small cars and pick-ups can begin to venture on to the ice. However, the DNR states that it is best to avoid driving on the ice whenever possible.

16+ Inches - A medium-sized car or mid-size pickup can drive on good clear solid ice.

Ice Thickness Chart from the ND Game & Fish Dept


Important safety actions

Despite being fully aware of the treacherous nature of ice, many experienced anglers and ice enthusiasts die each year when they get careless or are unprepared. In order to be able to deal with an emergency situation, there are several helpful hints and actions one can take to avoid tragedy on the ice.

Alcohol and ice don't mix; when on the ice relaxing don't drink. Alcohol impairs judgment, increases the dissipation of body heat, and results in fatigue. For these reasons alone, beer and spirits are one piece of equipment that should NOT be brought on the ice. Save the celebration for the fish fry.

Drive with care; by keeping the windows down, and the doors unlocked, you will be ready to evacuate your vehicle in case of a breakthrough. Have a quick exit in mind, and do your best to stay calm in an emergency to increase your chances of survival. It is also important, when choosing to wear a PFD under your clothes, to put it on when you are NOT in your vehicle, as it may impede escape if the vehicle goes through the ice.

Watch for children; if you live or are visiting near ice and have kids, inform them of the dangers ice presents. You would not let a young child out of view at the water's edge in summer, the same should hold true for winter.

Back up; if you do fall through the ice, try to exit the hole you fell into by going back to where you were walking. That ice is stronger, while the ice in front of you may be less safe. Do not stand up on the ice right away once out of the water. Slide on your belly for a safe distance before standing again. This technique spreads your body weight evenly across the ice, which may have been compromised by your fall.

Know basic first aid; CPR and other life-saving techniques are the last step in safety. Being trained by a group such as the Red Cross, or other certified agency can help you help others in dire situations on the ice and elsewhere. Have a first aid kit handy in your tacklebox, vehicle or ice shanty for minor and moderate injuries on the ice.

*Stay calm; in times of crisis, breathe deep and slow, and think about the next move and the safest way to proceed to avoid making a bad situation worse. It is easier said than done, but hopefully clear, safety-minded thinking will prevail in an emergency situation.

For more information on ice safety, visit the ND Game and Fish Department at www.gf.nd.gov or the MN DNR at www.dnr.state.mn.us.

By preparing properly, keeping your head and respecting the ice, tragedy can be prevented and you can enjoy a day of ice fishing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling safely, when you spend your winter…in our outdoors.