Guidelines for ice thickness for people and vehicles


For those of you willing to brave the cold, winter can be a wonderful time to enjoy the beauty and splendor of your local lake. Taking a walk on the frozen lake or opening up your snowmobile can be a great experience while observing the contrast to a summer day. Like many lake activities, one needs to exercise a degree of caution to make sure your pleasurable outing does not end up with undesirable consequences. This summary discusses some best practices to keep your outing on your local lake, or any iced-over water, a safe one.

Please remember, if ever you feel you need professional help, your first step should be to call 911.

Is the ice safe?

  • Sources generally agree that 4 inches is the minimum ice thickness for walking.
  • It’s a good practice to drill a hole to check ice thickness, although don’t rely on one hole. Just because you have 4 inches in one spot does not mean it is consistent around the lake.
  • Make sure you measure the amount of ice and not the snowpack. Snow can help to insulate the ice and cause different thicknesses.
  • Ice is usually thinner in deep water, as the water there tends to be warmer.
  • Moving water does not freeze as fast or as thick. If your trip takes you over a spring, you will probably have thinner, potentially unstable ice!
  • Watch for obstacles. Branches, pier sections, and anchor buoys (markers) can be frozen in the ice. Hitting any of these on skates or a snowmobile could cause serious injury.

What happens if you or a friend goes through? / Getting out!

  • If you go through, hopefully, you are in shallow water and can stand. If not, go to the edge and hold on.
  • Take a minute and let your body adjust to the shock. Do not panic.
  • Go to the side of the hole where you went in, as you know the ice along that path is strong enough to hold you.
  • Depending on the depth of the water, put as much of your body on the still solid ice (arms, shoulders, chest) as much as you can get on.
  • Swim your way out. Kicking will help put your body in a horizontal position and make it easier to slide back onto the ice surface.
  • As you are kicking, begin to “Army crawl”, push down against the ice, or use your elbows to pull your body out of the hole. Ice picks are a big help. See notes below.
  • When able, pull your knees towards your chest until you can swing one or both legs out of the water completely.
  • Once out, roll about 10 feet away from the hole. Do not try standing up until you know you are on solid ice.
  • If you are with someone, they should avoid going to the hole and extending a hand. You both may end up in the lake! First, try throwing a rope or offering your walking stick to help.
  • Your partner might look for a ladder or pier section to use to reach you from safe ice or use these to distribute their weight while crawling to you to provide assistance.

Rescue examples

How To Survive A Fall Through Frozen Ice
Ice Safety – How To Perform A Self Rescue
Breaking Through Ice WITHOUT Safety Equipment

Best Practices.

  • Always leave a ‘Walk Plan’ with someone indicating – when you left, your route, and when you plan on being back. Time is critical.
  • Techniques: ICE SAFETY – Tips – Tricks – How To’s
  • Items good to bring along
    • Cell Phone
    • Floating Ice Picks – Ice picks are also affordable, easy to carry, and will help enormously to drag yourself out of the water.
    • Long Walking Stick or Ski Pole – Good to use as a reach tool to grab onto or use as a support to help you climb out.
    • Rescue Throw Rope – Rescue rope in a throw bag is a handy item to have when on the ice.
    • Ice Chisel/Spud Bar – Test the ice in several places before you take off, and keep checking along the way. Ice Chisels work well for this.
    • Neck Whistle – If alone and your cell phone gets wet, this would be your best way to call for help. Best to wear the whistle around your neck to make it easily accessible.
    • Life Jacket – If you are unsure of ice conditions and going over deep water, consider wearing a life jacket. You will appreciate the buoyancy if you fall in.
  • Remember, ice thickness can vary based on location and weather. What was safe yesterday may not be safe today.
  • Don’t travel in areas you are not familiar with, and don’t travel at night or during reduced visibility.
  • Avoid inlets, outlets, or narrows that may have a current that will thin the ice.

Fire Department – 9-1-1
The Fire department has been trained in ice rescue. Best to call them ASAP. They would rather an emergency call be canceled than come to them late.