How to Stay Safe on Frozen Lakes and Ice

Regardless of how well a victim can swim, ice-cold water can cause severe hypothermia in less than 30 minutes —leaving the victim too weak to get out of the frigid water.

Rescuers practicing an ice rescue
Valerie Loiseleux / Getty Images

Safety on the ice requires preparation and diligence. You should try going on the ice the first time with an experienced person. Before you venture out, dress appropriately to prevent hypothermia, and learn how to stay safe on the ice.

What You Need

  • Crampons (shoe spikes for walking on ice)
  • Personal flotation device
  • Throw a rope
  • Set of ice picks

Safety Steps

  1. Never go on the ice alone. Naturally, occurring ice is unpredictable. Make sure you have proper safety equipment and a buddy.
  2. Wear a personal flotation device (PFD) under your winter gear. Experts advise not wearing a PFD in a closed vehicle. The excess bulk may make it difficult to escape from a car—especially through a window.
  3. Wear appropriate footwear. Crampons are used to convert footwear for use on the ice. Some use metal spikes and some use cables that are similar to tire chains. Carry ice picks at all times. Put them in an accessible pocket where they will be easy to reach while floating in the water.
  4. Carry a throw rope with you. You can buy one, or make one using an empty and clean plastic jug stuffed with nylon rope.
  5. Stopping on ice is extremely difficult. When snowmobiling or driving in low-visibility conditions, go slow enough to be able to stop if you see something. Many vehicle accidents happen because the driver couldn't stop by the time he or she saw the hole in the ice.
  6. When driving, remove your seat belt (since you're going slow and easy) and your PFD (see Step 2). Keep your window rolled down to facilitate a quick escape if your car falls through the ice.
  7. Make sure you know how to escape from ice, and that you know how to help someone escape ice.

Tips on Ice

    1. Gauging the strength of ice is very difficult. There is no such thing as 100% safe ice.
      Never walk or drive on cloudy ice
    2. Only go on clear, thick ice
    3. Spring ice is never safe
    4. The thickness of ice is never consistent—it will be flat on top, but not on the bottom
    5. Snow on ice acts as an insulator—it makes ice warmer and weaker
    6. Extreme cold snaps will weaken the ice
    7. Ice formed over running water (rivers & streams) is more dangerous than ice formed over standing water (lakes & ponds)
    8. General ice thickness guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (new, clear ice only): Less than 4 inches—stay off!
    9. 4 inches and thicker—probably safe for walking and ice fishing on foot
    10. 5 inches and thicker—probably safe for ATV or snowmobiling
    11. 8-12 inches and thicker—probably safe for small cars or light pickups
    12. 12-15 inches and thicker—probably safe for medium trucks
    13. Noisy ice doesn't necessarily mean unsafe ice. It's just the layer of ice shifting and moving on top of the water.
      The safety of ice is ever-changing. It depends on a multitude of factors.
    14. Age of the ice
    15. Temperature
    16. Snow cover
    17. Depth of water under the ice
    18. Size of the body of water under the ice
    19. Water chemistry
    20. Currents
    21. Local climate
    22. Distribution of weight on the ice
  1. Your most important tool is common sense.
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Article Sources
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  1. Minnesota Sea Grant. Hypothermia prevention: Survival in cold water.

  2. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. General ice thickness guidelines.