Ways to Stay Safe on The Ice

Ways to Stay Safe on The Ice

Matthew Davies image of a person standing on ice with an ice fishing hole.

In case you missed it earlier this month, the foremost authority in the animal kingdom, Punxsutawney Phil, has predicted there will be an early spring. Of course, local groundhog predictions may vary from region to region and country to country. At any rate, spring is just around the corner, prompting me, Matthew Davies, to address an important end-of-winter topic: the conclusion of ice fishing season.

As we all know, ice fishing is performed on lakes and rivers in cold climate areas. Certain authorities may deem the ice safe for such activities. However, with the weather frequently changing during the late winter and early spring, it is not always possible for game wardens to regularly ensure the safety of ice fishing locations.

For this reason, I have decided to provide you a list of ways that you can protect yourself from serious injury or death while engaging in some last-minute ice fishing this winter.

Ice Reports

Checking your local ice reports is a great place to start and you should never skip this step. However, as I said before, the game wardens may not have assessed the ice in your area recently and with the up-and-down temperatures that come with late winter/early spring, these may not contain the most up to date information. Therefore, it’s important to take the time to check the ice yourself. Below you will find the guidelines for safe ice navigation.

  • 2” of ice or less – Stay off this ice. It is not safe to walk on, even for just a few feet.
  • 4” of ice – This is the starting point of thickness that is considered safe for ice fishing.
  • 5-7” of ice – This thickness is where you can have equipment such as snowmobiles or ATVs assist you in getting your gear to your fishing location.
  • 8-12” of ice – Once you have reached this thickness, you can drive your car or small truck out to the spot in which you want to fish.
  • 12” + of ice – In addition to all of the above, you can start taking bigger trucks out on the lake or river. 

Remember, these are just guidelines. There is no such thing as “safe ice.” Whether you are checking yourself or relying on ice reports, these should be considered guidelines. Always use caution when venturing out onto the ice, and use tools designed for testing ice thickness as well as personal protective equipment to ensure your safety.

The remainder of this article descrives the tools and personal protective equipment that I feel you should bring with you on every trip onto the ice.

Spud Bar

A spud bar is a long, hard pole with a chisel or blade on the end of it and is the best tool for checking ice thickness while you are making your way to the fishing cabin or hole. Using a couple of strong strikes, you should be able to penetrate a few inches of ice. Should the spud bar go through too easily, you either need to turn back or try another route. Take your time when you are checking ice thickness. Pause every few feet to make sure the ice is still thick enough. Remember, the closer to the middle of the lake or river, the harder it is for the water to freeze. This is because of the depth and the movement of water. So, while you may be able to go longer distances between checks when you are close to the shore, you should check more often the further out you get.

Ice Picks and Rope

This inexpensive tool could mean the difference between life and death. Ice picks will assist you in climbing out of the water if you happen to fall in. Most ice picks come with a rope or lanyard that you can secure to your jacket or pants for easy access. Always remember to exit the water in the same direction you fell in. The reason for this is that you know the way you came from is safe. If you attempt to go any other route, you may continue to break the ice. This will have you in the water longer than you need to be.

It is also a good idea to carry a section of rope in case you are trying to help someone else out of the water.

Compass and Whistle

Too often, we rely on technology for help. This low-tech variant will aid you in getting assistance if you do not have a cell signal. Additionally, if you have fallen in the water, it is likely your phone got wet and will be unable to help you. The compass can also help you find your way if a dense fog happens to navigate in. Where your cellphone fails, the compass will flourish.

Since you will not have access to voice communication, the best alternative is to have a whistle. Learn the Morse code sounds for SOS to aid rescuers in locating you.

Float/Survival Suit

Let’s face it, just having a warm jacket and pants is not going to be enough. If you happen to fall into the water, your arms and legs will not work as well in just a few minutes. Therefore, if you have not been able to extract yourself from the water in about 5 minutes, you run the risk of not being able to stay afloat. I suggest that anyone that ventures out onto the ice always be wearing a floating survival suit. It is not fashionable or entirely comfortable but getting home safe is your number one priority. The suits can get a bit pricey but it is a small price to pay for peace of mind.


Before you venture out onto the ice, make sure that you have all of the above items checked off. Always be prepared for the worst-case scenario. I, Matthew Davies, read of horror stories every year of fishermen not being prepared and succumbing to the elements after getting lost or falling into the water. Take the time and money to properly prepare yourself for what can only be described as one of the most dangerous hobbies there are. I wish you the best of luck this winter fishing season and hope you catch your personal best.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,