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Outdoor Activity Safety for Ice Thickness

December 15, 2016

With the recent cold weather, thoughts turn to ice fishing and other outdoor activities associated with winter, such as ice skating and cross country skiing. Outdoor activities are a healthy way to enjoy Mother Nature and her bounty. If some precautions are followed ice fishing and ice-skating can be a safe and relaxing activity. These activities may be great ways to fill some of the time off from school during the holiday season.

Each year in SD, incidents occur due to people breaking through ice on rivers, streams, ponds and lakes. Ice thickness can be very variable, and can be effected by snow cover, vegetation, and water movement. Ice anglers and others using ice surfaces for their outdoor recreation need to take personal responsibility for their safety when venturing onto the ice.

Ice-Thickness Guidelines
From the S.D. Game Fish and Parks website, the following is a guideline to help you decide what is safe.

  • Less than four inches of ice – STAY OFF
  • Four to six inches of ice – foot travel in a single file line should be safe, assuming the ice is clear and clean of snow
  • Six to twelve inches of ice – Snowmobiles and ATVs can safely on good ice at least six inches thick
  • Twelve to sixteen inches of ice – Small cars and pickups can venture onto the ice once it is a foot or more thick. However, anglers are generally encouraged to avoid driving on ice that is less than 16 inches thick.
  • More than 16 Inches of ice – Generally, a medium-sized car or mid-sized pickup can travel safely on good, clear, solid ice.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources suggest that White Ice or “Snow Ice” is only about half as strong as new clear ice. If you are traveling on white ice, it is recommended to double the above thicknesses for safety.

Tools to Check Ice Thickness


  • Ice chisel – This is a metal bar with flat blade welded onto one end. Use this to create a hole in the ice and use a tape measure to measure thickness.
  • Ice auger – There are many types of auger through various price points. Use of one of these to drill a hole and use a tape measure-to-measure thickness.
  • Cordless drill – using a drill with a long, five-eighths inch bit to drill a hole and measure the depth of the ice with a tape measure. Using the wood bit will help pull the ice crystals out of the whole while preventing the bit from being stuck. After drilling the hole dry the bit and spray with a silicone lubricant to prevent rust.
  • Tape measure – Use this to measure ice thickness, by putting the tape into the hole and hooking the bottom edge of the hole to take a reading.

When walking or riding a riding a snowmobile/atv on the ice it is a good idea to wear a life vest under your winter gear. It is also a good idea to carry a set of ice picks. Theses may be homemade or can be purchased in most places that sell ice-fishing materials. Do Not wear a flotation device when traveling across ice in an enclosed vehicle. Many of the mentors that I have ice fished with, either had the vehicle windows open or held the door of the vehicle open a small bit when we were traveling across ice. It is best to avoid traveling on ice at night.

What to do if you fall through the ice?


The first think to do if you fall through the ice is to try not to panic. With a well thought out survival plan ahead of time, it is possible to save yourself.


  • Do not remove your winter clothing – Heavy cloths will not drag you down and may provide insulation.
  • Turn toward the direction you came from – This will face you toward what was probably the strongest ice. Access the situation and call out for help.
  • Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface – Use your ice picks to help get extra traction to get you up onto the ice.
  • Kick your feet and dig in your ice picks to work your way back onto the solid ice.
  • Lie flat on the ice once you are out and roll away from the hole to keep your weight spread out – this may help to prevent you from breaking through again.
  • Get to a warm, dry, sheltered area and rewarm yourself immediately – In moderate to severe cases of cold-water hypothermia, you must seek medical attention. Warming blood rushing back to the heart can heart issues.

If you are with someone who falls through the ice, you need to get yourself to safety, do not go to the edge of the ice where the victim went in. Call 911 and get help on the way, let the person know that help is on the way. If you can safely reach the victim from shore, reach out to them with rope or jumper cables. If they start to pull you in, release your grip and start over. If you have rope available, throw it to the victim and have them tie it around themselves before they become too week to do so. A non-professional should not go out on the ice to assist a victim unless all other basic rescue techniques have been exhausted.

Source: John Keimig, South Dakota State University, iGrow