Don’t Break the Ice: How to Tell if Ice is Safe and What to Do if You Fall in

Winter has settled in across the country, and many of the state parks are now blanketed with snow and ice. With summer temperatures still several months away, there is no better time to master the winter landscape. One particular feature of that landscape requires a bit of special attention and care: the ice. Since so many of our favorite winter activities, from ice fishing to snowshoeing to ice skating to snowmobiling, require venturing out onto the ice, practicing ice safety is essential.

rudolph and cornelius on ice

Broken ice: good for escaping Abominable Snowmen, not so good for much else.
[Image: www.migueldante.com]

If you’d like to explore the parks this winter without worrying about taking an unintentional Polar Bear Plunge, read on to learn how to tell if ice is safe.

1. Not all Ice is Created Equal

Wondering whether the ice is thick enough for your planned winter adventures? Well, that depends on what you’re planning to do. For example, ice that is thick enough for ice skating may not be thick enough for snowmobiling. Additionally, new, clear ice is about twice as strong as white or “snow” ice.

Here is a thickness chart to follow for new, clear ice:

ice thickness chart

Image: www.ameriprisewomen.com

Keep in mind that if the ice is not new and clear, you will need to double the thickness amounts listed above.

 2. How to Determine Ice Thickness

An ice thickness chart is really only handy when you know the ice thickness, which isn’t always measured and displayed for your convenience. That means that you, dear reader, may have to measure the ice yourself. While you may have a tape measure on hand (which you’ll need), first you’ll need a hole that you can measure. For that, you’ll need one of these tools especially designed for ice measuring:

Ice chisel – This metal rod has a flat, sharp blade welded onto one end. Use a stabbing motion to drive the chisel into the ice and create a hole.

Ice auger – There are 3 types of ice auger: electric-, gas- and hand-powered. Hand augers are prized for being quiet, lightweight and budget-friendly, although they require a bit more manual labor. Less manual labor is required for electric augers, which are also rather quiet. If you have a bit more money to spare, gas augers are the fastest at drilling through the ice. However, they are heavier and louder.

Cordless drill – Armed with a cordless drill and a long, 5/8″ wood auger bit, you’ll be able to drill through 8 inches of ice in under 30 seconds. Typically, any cordless drill that is at least 7.2 volts will work. However, a wood auger bit is a must, since they contain a spiral “flute” around the shaft lacking in metal drilling bits. The flute is necessary for pulling ice chips out of the hole and preventing the drill from getting stuck. Just be sure to dry the bit after each use and then spray it with silicone lubricant to keep it from rusting.  

measuring ice thickness

Image: www.nickcobbing.co.uk

Once you’ve created a hole in the ice, you’ll be able to put that tape measure to use. Dip the tape measure into the hole, and hook it under the edge of the ice. If you want to get really fancy, you can invest in an ice fisherman’s ice skimmer which has inch markings on the handle. However you want to determine the thickness, just make sure you’re actually measuring. It can be temping to judge ice thickness based on how easily you were able to break the surface, which often leads to overestimating. Always measure to be safe.

3. Be Prepared With Proper Gear

Even if you faithfully abide by the ice thickness chart and carefully measure to determine exact ice thickness, accidents can happen. It’s best to be prepared for the worst because, as they say, you’re better safe than sorry.

Always wear a life vest under your winter gear (or a flotation snowmobile suit) when venturing out onto the ice by foot or non-enclosed vehicle. Falling into icy waters will present enough of a challenge even without worrying about staying afloat. Wearing a life vest, should you fall through, will allow you to focus all of your energy on getting out of the water safely.

homemade ice picks

You can purchase ice picks or fashion them yourself if you’re feeling crafty.
[Image: www.s124.photobucket.com]

Speaking of exiting the water, you should also carry a pair of ice picks with you. Whether you make them at home or purchase them at a sporting goods store, ice picks make the task of pulling yourself out of the water and onto the ice much, much easier.

Although the ice thickness chart above includes cars and trucks, you should avoid driving on ice whenever possible. If you must take your vehicle onto the ice, always keep your windows down so than you can easily escape should you fall through the ice.

4. What to Do if You Fall Through

Even the most stringent preparations can’t guarantee you won’t have an accident, so it’s essential to have a survival plan. The most essential factor of any survival plan is staying calm, which is much easier when you know what to do to get yourself out of harm’s way. Healthy adults have a window of 2-5 minutes to escape icy water before losing coordination and strength, so remaining calm will allow you to focus on using that time to get yourself to safety.

Should the worst case scenario happen, try not to panic and remember the following:

  • Keep your winter clothing on. While it may seem that heavy clothes would drag you down, they actually can trap air, creating warmth and flotation.
  • If you’ve sunk well below the surface, locate the hole by looking for contrasting color.
  • Head back in the direction from which you came, which is probably where the strongest ice can be found.
  • Use your ice picks for extra traction as you place your hands and arms on the solid surface of the ice. Get as much of your body out of the water as possible.
  • Dig in your ice picks while you kick your feet and work yourself onto the unbroken ice.
fall through the ice

Image: www.wired.com

  • Once you’re out, lie flat on the ice and roll away from the hole to keep your weight spread out and prevent you from breaking back through.
  • Head back the way you came. Get yourself to a warm, dry area as soon as possible to begin re-warming yourself.

5. What to Do If You Can’t Get Out

In a perfect world, the above steps would get you to safety (actually, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t fall through the ice in the first place, but play along). Sometimes, though, it’s just not possible to pull yourself out of the water. If it doesn’t happen within 5-10 minutes, it probably isn’t going to. After that, you will lose strength, coordination and, eventually, consciousness.

However, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. In fact, plenty of people who became unconscious after a fall through the ice have been rescued by keeping their heads above water. Even if you can’t fully exit the water, get as much of your body onto the ice as possible, since you lose heat much more quickly in water.

Once you’re as out as you’re going to get, stop struggling. Struggling zaps your energy and can lower your body temperature, which hastens hypothermia’s onset. Instead, spread your arms out against the ice, and don’t move them unless you begin to slip. This makes it possible for your body to freeze to the ice, which will keep you from sliding into the water once you lose consciousness, giving you more time to be rescued.

ice rescue

May your ice rescue be as successful and enjoyable as this one.
[Image: www.shrewsbury.net]

6. Should You Seek Medical Attention?

Yes. Even if you don’t feel like you need it, it is important to seek medical attention. Moderate to severe cases of cold water hypothermia require medical care, but because hypothermia takes some time to set it, you likely won’t be able to instantly determine your condition – especially if you’re numb! Additionally, the re-warming process can cause cold blood trapped in your extremities to rush back to your heart, the shock of which can cause a heart attack. Play it safe and get medical care as quickly as possible.

Have you survived a fall through the ice? Share your experiences – and your thoughts – below!

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