Ice Safety Tips

We’re all anxious to get out on the ice this winter, but it’s not worth taking the risk when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Ice safety is no joke! Here is some information about judging ice conditions, being prepared to enjoy the winter season outside and what to do in an emergency.

“Thick and blue, tried and true.  Thin and crispy, way too risky”

Before stepping on the ice check for a bluish color and that it is at least 4-6 inches thick. Even if the weather has been below freezing for several days, don’t guess about ice thickness. Check the ice in several places by using an

DSC_0515 auger, chisel or ax to make test holes beginning at the shore and continuing as you move out.

If ice at the shoreline is cracked or squishy, stay off.

Don’t go on the ice during thaws. Watch out for thin, clear or honeycomb shaped ice. Dark snow and dark ice are other signs of weak spots.

Choose small sheltered bodies of water. Rivers and lakes are prone to wind and wave action, which can break ice up quickly.  Avoid areas with currents, around bridges, pressure ridges or inlets and outlets.

Refrain from driving on ice. If you must drive a vehicle, be prepared to leave it in a hurry–keep windows down, unbuckle your seat belt and have a simple emergency plan of action you have discussed with your passengers.

Don’t “overdrive” your snowmobile’s headlight. At even 30 miles per hour, it can take a much longer distance to stop on ice than your headlight shines. Many fatal snowmobile through-the-ice accidents occur because the machine was traveling too fast for the operator to stop when the headlamp illuminated the hole in the ice.

Wear a life vest under your winter gear or wear one of the new flotation snowmobile suits.  CAUTION: Do NOT wear a flotation device when traveling across the ice in an enclosed vehicle!

Carry a pair of ice picks that may be home made or purchased from most well stocked sporting goods stores that cater to winter anglers.

Bottom line: If you don’t know, don’t go!

New ice is usually stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, newly formed ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially thawed ice may not.

Ice seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away.

Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous. This is especially true near streams, bridges, and culverts. In addition, the ice on outside river bends is usually weaker due to the undermining effects of the faster current.

The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process. The extra weight also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support. Also, ice near shore can be weaker than ice that is farther out.

Booming and cracking ice isn’t necessarily dangerous. It only means that the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes.

Schools of fish or flocks of waterfowl can also adversely affect the relative safety of ice. The movement of fish can bring warm water up from the bottom of the lake. In the past, this has opened holes in the ice causing snowmobiles and cars to break through

General Ice Thickness Guidelines – For New, Clear Ice Only:

2″ or less – STAY OFF
4″ may allow ice fishing or other activities on foot
5″ often allows for snowmobile or ATV travel
8″ – 12″ of good ice supports most cars or small pickups
12″ – 15″ will likely hold a medium sized truck

Remember that these thicknesses are merely guidelines for new, clear, solid ice. Many factors other than thickness can cause ice to be unsafe.

If you break through the ice, don’t panic. Don’t try to climb out, you will probably break the ice again. Lay both arms on the unbroken ice and kick hard. This will help lift your body onto the ice.  Roll to safety.

If someone else falls through and you are the only one around to assist first, call 911 for help. There is a good chance someone near you may be carrying a cell phone.

  • Resist the urge to run up to the edge of the hole. This would most likely result in two victims in the water. Also, do not risk your life to attempt to save a pet or other animal.
  • Preach, Reach, Throw, Row, Go
  • PREACH – Shout to the victim to encourage them to fight to survive and reassure them that help is on the way.
  • REACH – If you can safely reach the victim from shore, extend an object such as a rope, ladder, or jumper cables to the victim. If the person starts to pull you in, release your grip on the object and start over.
  • THROW – Toss one end of a rope or something that will float to the victim. Have them tie the rope around themselves before they are too weakened by the cold to grasp it.
  • ROW – Find a light boat to push across the ice ahead of you. Push it to the edge of the hole, get into the boat and pull the victim in over the bow. It’s not a bad idea to attach some rope to the boat, so others can help pull you and the victim to safety.
  • GO – A non-professional should not go out on the ice to perform a rescue unless all other basic rescue techniques have been ruled out.

If your car or truck plunges through the ice, the best time to escape is before it sinks, not after. It will stay afloat a few seconds to several minutes depending on the airtightness of the vehicle.

  • While the car is still afloat, the best escape hatches are the side windows since the doors may be held shut by the water pressure. If the windows are blocked, try to push the windshield or rear window out with your feet or shoulder.
  • A vehicle with its engine in the front will sink at a steep angle and may land on its roof if the water is 15 feet or deeper. As the car starts its final plunge to the bottom, water rapidly displaces the remaining air. An air bubble can stay in a submerged vehicle, but it is unlikely that it would remain by the time the car hits the bottom.
  • When the car is completely filled, the doors may be a little easier to open unless they are blocked by mud and silt. Remember, chances are that the car will be upside down at this point! Add darkness and near freezing water, and your chances of escape have greatly diminished. This underscores the necessity of getting out of the car before it starts to sink

When venturing out during the winter months remember to wear a hat and cover your face and neck.  Most of your body heat is lost through your head and neck.  Dress in layers of wool, silks or synthetics as they will keep you warm even when wet.  Do not wear cotton.  Insulated, waterproof boots, gloves and a windbreaker are also very important.  Bring along some extra clothing.  Also, remember it is always best to head out with a partner rather than alone.  Make sure you leave information about your plans for the day and when you intend to return.DSC_0516

Lastly, be courteous when you’re out fishing or recreating on the ice.  Use public access to ponds or ask permission to cross private land.  Don’t crowd other anglers.  Be sure the clean up your fishing area when you leave. Litter will wash ashore in the spring polluting the water and endangering people and wildlife.  Always check the current regulations for the body of water you are fishing (

So far this winter Mother Nature hasn’t quite come through for us, but please be patient and always be safe and smart in the Maine outdoors.

Posted in Education, IFW News

One comment

  1. Kyle Ross says:

    These are some great safety tips, and I appreciate your advice to wear a life vest under your snow gear when snowmobiling on ice. My uncle is planning a trip with me and several of my cousins, and a portion of it goes over a frozen lake. I’ll be sure to wear a life vest under my snow gear, and I’ll be sure to mention doing the same to everyone else. Thanks for the great post!

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