Reduce risks on the ice


By Joseph Jonhenry

Unless you plan on joining the Polar Bear Club, you’ll want to take precautions to ensure a relatively safe passage while walking on an iced-over lake.

It’s impossible to judge the strength of ice by its appearance, thickness, daily or extended temperatures, or snow cover. Ice strength is dependent on all of these factors as well as the water depth under the ice, the surface water area, water chemistry, currents, and the distribution of the load on the ice.

Even things such as flocks of waterfowl and schools of fish can affect ice strength. Fish congregating in a small area can cause warmer water from the bottom to move toward the surface, weakening or opening large holes in the ice. The chart at right is widely used by those who drill into the ice with augers, chisels or fishermen’s spud bars.*

Ice thicknessActivity
3 inches1 cross country skier (per 10 feet)
4 inches1 person ice fishing (10-foot radius)
5 inches1 snowmobile
6 inches1 fishing shanty or 1 iceboat
7 inchesGroup activity
8 inches1 car or pickup truck
9 inchesSeveral vehicles
*Augur the ice in several locations to make sure the thickness is consistent.

Before heading out on the ice, you need a plan. First, check the weather. Drastic weather changes are common in cold areas.

Tell a friend or family member your exact location, including what route you’ll take and to which lake you’re going. If you don’t return in time, that person will know where to look.

Always have a companion when on the ice. Whether swimming in water or walking on ice, the buddy system ensures that you have someone with you in case of an accident. Keep a radius of space between you and your buddy to avoid undue pressure on the ice and to ensure that one of you will be there to rescue the other.

Walking on a frozen lake is like walking on a giant ice cube, and you need to take precautions. Wear warm jackets in layers, and never forget to wear a life jacket underneath your coat. If the ice breaks and you fall in, remember to keep your head and shoulders above water. The cold water shocks your body, making breathing difficult. In such instances, a life jacket comes in handy to say the least. ­Having an ice awl or wearing an ice pick around your neck could help you claw your way out of danger. You can make a pair of homemade ice picks with a pair of screwdrivers tied together with a few yards of strong cord that can be used to pull yourself up and onto the ice. Be sure they have wooden handles so they won’t go straight to the bottom if dropped.

Wear ice creepers (shoes with spikes or spikes that clip onto boots or waders) to avoid falls and injuries that could lead to a sprained ankle or concussion. Ice creepers provide better traction, so you will expend less effort and be less fatigued.

The next time you venture out on the ice, treat the trip with great caution, knowing that despite your precautions, you’re still only relatively safe.

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The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.