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Ice safety: How to determine that ice is safe to venture on

Jan 05, 2019 06:04AM ● By Editor

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer, from - Posted January 5, 2019

As temperatures plunge and ice forms over lakes and streams, many adventurists may be interested in exploring things to do on the ice.

However, before venturing out, ice safety precautions are needed to ensure the ice is safe for your winter recreational activities to prevent an accident.

There is no such thing as 100 percent safe ice. However, precautions can be taken to reduce the risks.

Ice strength can be difficult to determine. It depends on a combination of factors, including thickness, external temperature over a period of time and on the day, snow coverage, depth of water under the ice, the size of a body of water, chemical composition of water (fresh or saltwater) and local climate fluctuations, according to the Boy Scouts of America.

When going out on the ice for the first time, only do so after a hard freeze that forms clear solid ice. Wet cracks, along with slushy and darker areas are normally weaker. 

Transparent blue and black lake ice is typically the safest. Extreme caution should be used with white opaque ice. Stay off gray ice, as well as white and gray mottled ice, which is the weakest form of ice.

Measure the thickness of the ice before going on it. Four inches will typically support a person on foot, but it will take approximately 6 inches of ice to support someone on a snowmobile or ATV, according to Michigan State University (MSU).

As the winter progresses and the ice thickens, small cars and pickups may be driven out on the ice when the ice thickness reaches 8 to 12 inches.

However, ice thickness is never consistent, so always take multiple measurements. Running water, including the areas of lakes where streams, spillways and dams are present, are often dangerous areas. 

The weakest ice will be in the center and along the edge of the water.

ice skating

Scores of people played on the ice on Lake Superior in Duluth, Minn., Monday afternoon, Feb. 19, 2007, as temperatures warmed up and winds slackened. The ice near the shore by the Lester River was approximately a foot thick. (AP Photo/Duluth News Tribune, Bob King)

When spending time on the ice, one should always be prepared for the worst-case scenario and have an emergency plan.

This can be done by wearing a life jacket for warmth and safety and dressing warmly in layers. You should always go out with a partner and inform others of your plans.

Always keep your pets on a leash. If a pet falls through the ice, do not attempt a rescue, instead try to find help, according to the Boy Scouts of America.

You should bring a cellphone, a whistle, a rope and an ice pick with you.

For safety purposes, anyone venturing out on the ice should always carry ice picks that can be used to pull yourself out of the water in case you fall through the ice.

If you fall through the ice, you can dig the points of the ice pick into the surrounding ice while kicking vigorously and pulling yourself out of the water by sliding forward. Once on the surface of the ice, you should not stand up but roll away to distribute your weight evenly until you are away from the entry hole, according to MSU.

If you happen to be in a situation where you have fallen through the ice, try to get out as soon as possible because cold water conditions can cause acute hypothermia. You should call for help if you or a friend is to fall in. 

ice safety infogram

Boreal Ship Spotter - larger view here