Our Top 5 Ice Safety Tips


Always check ice thickness before venturing out.

The first of our top five ice safety tips is to check the thickness of the ice before venturing out onto it. This is possibly the most important tip to remember and the easiest one to use to keep yourself out of trouble on the ice. The following guidelines will help you make an informed decision about going out on the ice.


  • 2" or less - STAY OFF
  • 4" - Ice fishing or other activities on foot
  • 5" - Snowmobile or ATV
  • 8" - 12" - Car or small pickup
  • 12" - 15" - Medium truck


Remember, these guidelines only hold for clear, new ice. If the ice has repeatedly frozen and thawed, looks cloudy, or looks otherwise weak they don’t hold true. Snow cover factors into the strength of the ice as well since snow insulates newly formed ice from the cold, keeping it from becoming thicker and stronger.


Make sure you have a friend along and people know where you are.

Using the buddy system is always a good idea when heading out into the outdoors and this holds doubly true for going out on the ice. Not only does having a friend along make your day more fun, if one of you falls through the ice, the other is there to help. Similar to a “float plan” used when heading out on the lake, letting people know where you are going and when you’ll be back makes a big difference if an emergency should occur. You should also take the opportunity to talk to the locals if you’re in an unfamiliar area, they may be aware of currents, thin spots or other weak areas on the body of water. This has the added benefit of ensuring more people know where you’re going to be on the lake in case you need help.


Know your ice!

It’s important to understand what types of ice are stronger than others as well as the water environment the ice has formed on top of. Clear, new ice is stronger than rotten, old ice, even if the old ice looks thicker. Light gray or black ice is melting and is not safe. While white ice is melted snow frozen into a thin ice layer, this is not safe either. Blue or clear ice is the safest ice. Keep in mind if there are currents or flowing water the ice will be thinner and not as safe, no matter the color. The old saying, “Thick and blue, tried and true; Thin and crispy, way too risky.” still holds true, as does “When in doubt, don’t go out.” Remember, ice is never 100% safe, there are too many factors that can weaken it.


Dress appropriately for the weather.

Winter weather holds challenges due to the cold temperatures. When you’re out on the lake it is oftentimes windier and colder than it is on shore. This is especially true on larger lakes. For this reason it is even more important that you dress in layers. We go into this in greater detail in our blog, Your Guide to Cold Weather Boating, but essentially you want to keep a moisture wicking layer close to your body, followed by at least one layer for warmth, and then a weather blocking layer. Don’t forget sunglasses to protect your eyes from snow and ice glare. Last, but not least, a personal floatation device or suit in case you should fall through the ice.


Pack your safety equipment.

Going out on the ice requires special safety equipment. Our short list is below, but there are other pieces of safety equipment you may choose to add depending on your particular trip.


  • Ice cleats. These attach to your boots and help you maintain traction on the ice. A hard fall can ruin a day on the ice or at the very least leave you with bruises.
  • Ice spud. This handy piece of equipment enables you to check ice strength before stepping on it, especially helpful early in the season or in uncertain conditions.
  • Ice picks. Wear these around your neck so they are within reach in case of an emergency. You can make them yourself or purchase them. Some winter life jackets even include them on the jacket.
  • A rope. This can be used to rescue someone if they fall in without endangering yourself by getting too close. 
  • A fully charged cell phone in a waterproof bag or a two way radio. If you get in a situation where help is needed right away these will help you contact emergency personnel quickly. If you’re in an unfamiliar area make sure your cell phone has service.
  • Some form of shelter and a change of clothing. We cover this in our cold weather boating blog mentioned above, but in a situation where someone ends up in the water it is imperative that they get dry and warm as fast as possible to lessen the risk of hypothermia.
  • Last, but not least, a life jacket or an ice fishing float suit. There are many more comfortable styles now that are made to be unobtrusive and easy to move in. A quick Google search will give you many options to choose from.


Whether you enjoy ice fishing, hockey, ice skating, or other activities on the ice getting out on our lakes in the winter is a big part of Minnesota’s outdoor culture. Taking the proper safety precautions can help prevent your fun from turning into an emergency. You can find more information online about ice safety precautions on the Minnesota DNR website.


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