For many of us in northern climates, working or playing on the frozen surface of a river or lake is part of winter. Knowing how to do so safely can be a matter of life or death. Here are some precautionary measures that should be followed when you plan to be on a floating freshwater ice cover. Since it cannot cover every ice condition you may encounter, your judgment is critical. Remember: Only you are responsible for your own safety!

There are four things to focus on when planning an outing on the ice: your physical condition, your clothing, your equipment, and your procedures.

Naturally you should choose clothing that provides protection from low air temperatures, wind, and precipitation while at the same time allowing you mobility. But in addition, when you select clothing, keep in mind the possibility of falling through the ice. Clothing that would severely restrict your ability to swim or to stay afloat is not a good choice. Hip boots or waders should never be worn, as they can fill with water and restrict movement while adding weight. A personal flotation device (PFD) should be worn. This can be a vest or jacket, either inflatable or aturally buoyant.

Include items for testing and measuring the ice thickness, as well as items for rescue or self-rescue. In the first category are a heavy ice chisel, an ice drill or auger (manual or powered), a measuring tape or stick that can be hooked under the bottom edge of the ice in an auger hole, and possibly a perforated ladle for cleaning ice out of the auger holes. In addition to the PFD, bring a rope or rescue throw bag containing a rope that floats. Ice rescue picks sold for ice fishermen are an excellent idea. They thread through your jacket sleeves like children's mittens and are immediately available in an emergency for pulling yourself out of the water onto the ice.

Physical Condition
Anyone who goes out on the ice should be in reasonably good condition and be able to sustain periods of intense exertion if an emergency arises—either falling through the ice themselves or rescuing someone who does. Being able to swim, or at least being comfortable staying afloat, is important in an emergency and can reduce the chances for panic.


-Never go out on an ice cover alone, and never go out on the ice if there is any question of its safety.
-While you are planning the outing, obtain the record of air temperature for the past several days and continue observing air temperatures while the ice will be used to support loads.
-Always let someone know of your plans and when you will return.
-When you arrive at the water's edge, visually survey the ice. Look for open water areas, and look for signs of recent changes in water levels: ice sloping down from the bank because the water dropped, or wet areas on the ice because the water rose and flooded areas of the ice that couldn't float because it was frozen to the bottom or the banks. (If the ice is snow-covered, look for wet areas in the snow.)
-Listen for loud cracks or booms coming from the ice. In a river this can mean the ice is about to break up or move; on a lake larger than several acres such noises may be harmless responses to thermal expansion and contraction.
-Look for an easy point of access to the ice, free of cracks or piled, broken ice.
-If you are taking a vehicle or other equipment on the ice, go out on foot first. Vigorously probe ahead of yourself with the ice chisel. If the chisel ever goes through, carefully turn around and retrace your steps back to shore, and try again some other day.
-Near shore, listen for hollow sounds while probing. Ice sloping down from the bank may have air space underneath. This is not safe; ice must be floating on the water to support loads.
-After getting on the ice, others in the group should follow in the leader's steps, but stay at least 10 feet apart.
-Only after you have learned the characteristics of the ice cover should any vehicle be taken on the ice.

Once on the ice it is time to begin more systematic observations of the ice sheet you want to use to support a load. There may be many variations in the structure, thickness, temperature, and strength of a floating freshwater ice sheet.

How thick is the ice?
This is determined by drilling holes with the drill or ice auger. The technique is to drill a hole and check the ice thickness every 150 feet or so along the intended path. This should be done more frequently if the ice thickness is quite variable. Note whether the ice in each hole is clear (sometimes called black ice) or white (due to air bubbles—sometimes called snow ice). Measure the thickness of both kinds.

On rivers the ice thickness and quality can change a lot in a short distance; be particularly alert to variations in ice thickness due to bends, riffles or shallows, junctions with tributaries, etc. For both rivers and lakes, warm inflows from springs can create areas of thinner ice. The ice near shores can either be thinner (due to warm groundwater inflow or the insulating effect of drifted snow) or thicker (due to the candle-dipping effect of variable water levels).

Measure the snow cover thickness on the ice cover; significant variations in thickness may mean highly variable ice thicknesses.

How thick does it need to be?

Remember that the load is the total load in tons (not a vehicle's load capacity).

Hanover, New Hampshire

Ice Fishing Safety Tips
From Rich Greenough's Ice Fishing Seminar

-Attach a long cord to your sled. Not only does this make the sled easier to pull but should someone fall through the ice you can push the sled to them holding onto the line.
-Carry two picks - spikes protruding from wooden hand holds - to help pull your way out if you should fall in.
-If you should fall through the ice, once you spike your way out or are pulled out, don't stand - roll across the ice in the direction you came.
-Carry a throwable seat cushion. It'll add to your seating comfort and give you something throw to someone fallen through.
-Keep your auger covered. The blades are sharp, and can easily cut you, your dog or your children.
-Spray vegetable oil on your auger and snowshoes. Snow won't stick and you won't cut yourself cleaning off the show.
-Wear creepers. Slip on, or spiked shoes will keep you from slipping and falling on the ice.


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