November 25, 2014

How to Know if Ice is Safe to Walk On….And What to do to Rescue Yourself if You Do Fall Through the Ice.  It’s that time of year.  Lakes and ponds in many parts of the country are freezing over.  And at the same time, all our favorite winter sports are getting into full swing. Have you ever wondered how you can tell if it is safe to walk, skate or ski on an iced-over body of water?

First of all, it is important to recognize that ice should never be considered 100% safe.  There are a number of factors which contribute toward ice thickness and hardness.  For instance, new ice is stronger than older ice.  And you should also look at the color.  Ice that is more clear and blue-tinged is definitely stronger than ice that is cloudy or black.  Additionally, common sense comes into play.  If the ice around the perimeter of the body of water is cracked or has water coming through, stay off!

That said, here are the minimum ice thickness safety guidelines.*

Ice Thickness Total Allowable Load
 <3 inches None – Stay off Ice!
 3 inches 1 Person Walking
 4 inches Skating, or Group walking in single file
 5 inches Snowmobile or ATV


To measure ice thickness, use an ice auger.  Another good method is to use a cordless drill with a wood auger bit (don’t use a bit intended for metal).  Drill a hole, and then shutterstock_185050634measure with a tape measure.  If there is a resort or ranger station nearby, check with them to find out if the ice should be considered safe to walk on.

Be Prepared!

No one expects to fall through the ice, but if an accident occurs and you do fall through, you will be very glad if you have already prepared yourself by making an emergency safety plan.  Take the following steps before you head out for your next winter hike or skating session:

  • Tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to be back
  • Don’t go alone…it is best to do outdoor winter activities with a buddy or two
  • Be sure you are wearing full outdoor winter attire, preferably a snowsuit.  Believe it or not, if you fall into the water, the snowsuit will not weigh you down, but will actually help to protect you by providing some insulation from the frigid temperature of the water and flotation for your body.
  • Bring extra dry clothing in a watertight bag.  Thick socks, mittens and thermal underwear would be especially welcome if you are trying to warm your body up after a fall through the ice.
  • Bring one of the following items, to help you hoist yourself out of the water:  ice picks, screwdrivers, or large nails


If You Do Fall Through the Ice

  • First and foremost, do not panic.  This is the most important thing to remember.  Keep a level head, and perform the following steps as quickly as possible. You need to make the most of those first few seconds before hypothermia begins to set in.
  • Turn towards the direction you came from, which is likely where the strongest ice will be.
  • Hoist yourself out of water.  This is where ice picks or nails will truly come in handy. You can use them to dig into the ice to give yourself some leverage.
  • Once out, do not give in to the natural urge to stand up and start running toward shore!  Instead, lay flat on the ground and quickly roll toward land.  This will help to prevent you from falling through again.
  • Get yourself warm and dry as soon as possible.  I once fell through the ice while hiking in the woods near a friend’s house in upper state New York.  I was young and clueless, and had not prepared in any way for such an event.  The 1 mile hike back to my friend’s house in wet, cold clothes was absolute misery, and could have been dangerous if we were further from shelter.  So again, be prepared with an emergency safety plan!

Last but not least, remember, when it comes to deciding whether you should walk, ski, or skate on an iced-over pond or lake, “When in doubt, take another route!”

by Karen DeVenaro, See Jane Drill, Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved

*Compiled from the US Farmers Almanac and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources