Winter Ice Safety Tips

Winter is one of the greatest seasons to enjoy the Maine outdoors but to do so safely, you must keep in mind that ice conditions are always changing. There are many factors to consider when determining whether the ice conditions are safe, and they can vary from day-to-day and from one water body to the next. Here are some important tips and tricks to keep in mind when judging ice conditions.

Always check the color and thickness of the ice

Thick and blue, tried and true. Thin and crispy, way too risky.”

The first thing you should do before stepping on a frozen waterbody is to check the color and thickness of the ice. Knowing how to read ice color is a useful indicator of ice health, though color alone cannot guarantee “safe” ice.

  • Light gray to dark black – Melting ice, this can occur even if the air temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). This ice is not safe, it will be a weak density and cannot hold weight, STAY OFF.
  • White to opaque – This is water-saturated snow that froze on top of the ice which forms another thin ice layer. This can often lead to air pockets from being so porous.
  • Blue to clear – High density, very strong, safest ice to be on if thick enough, you should stay off if under 4 inches (10cm) thick.
  • Mottled and slushy or “rotten” ice – when judging this type of ice, it won’t be so much the color but the texture. You can tell by the ice thawing and slushy. This type of ice can be deceptive as it might seem thick at the top, however it is “rotting” away at the center and base. Most prevalent to see this kind of ice in the spring, it may even show signs of mud, debris, and plant matter surfacing from the bottom of the water body.

No matter what color the ice is or how sure you are of the strength you should check by using an auger, chisel, or an axe to determine that it is at least 4-6 inches thick. Start at the edge and check continuously as you move away from shore. If the ice at the shoreline is cracked or squishy, you should stay off. Don’t go on the ice during thaws and watch out for thin, clear or honeycomb shaped ice. Dark snow and dark ice are other signs of weak spots.

Make note of any inlets, outlets, currents, bridges, culverts, and other potential hazard areas when choosing an ice fishing or ice recreation location. When possible, stick to small sheltered bodies of water. Rivers and lakes are prone to wind and wave action, which can break ice up quickly. Avoid areas with currents, around bridges, pressure ridges, or inlets and outlets. Moving water can lead to unstable ice. If fishing or recreating on a river, the river bends are usually weaker as well due to the faster current.

New ice is stronger than old ice, though it never forms uniformly. It might be 12 inches thick in one spot but 20 feet away could be only two or three inches.

It’s better to be safe when dealing with ice, if you don’t know, don’t go. It isn’t worth the risk

General Ice Thickness Guidelines

These guidelines are for new, clear (blue) ice on lakes and ponds. Ice is never 100% safe! White ice or “snow ice” is only about half as strong as new clear ice.

Under 4” – STAY OFF
4” – may allow for Ice fishing or other recreational activities on foot
5” – 7” – often allows for a Snowmobile or ATV
8” – 12” of good ice supports most cars or small pickups
12” – 15” will likely hold a medium sized truck

PLEASE NOTE: These thicknesses are merely guidelines for new, clear, solid ice. Many factors other than thickness can cause ice to be unsafe. Always check before you go!

How does ice form?

Understanding the ice formation process can help when considering if the ice is safe to be on or not. As bodies of water start to freeze, it is a result of the change in air temperature. As the air temperature drops, the surface temperature will drop as well thus causing the top of the water to freeze and cool. This is where the depth and flow of the body of water comes into play on how quickly the ice will form and ultimately how stable it will be. The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process. The extra weight also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support. Also, ice near shore can be weaker than ice that is farther out.

If you have ever been out on the ice you are familiar with the loud booms and cracks. The booming and cracking ice isn’t necessarily a dangerous sign. It only means that the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes.

Is it safe to drive on the ice?

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife does not recommend driving passenger cars or trucks on the ice! If you must drive a vehicle on the ice, be prepared to leave it in a hurry. Keep your windows down, unbuckle your seat belt, and have an emergency plan discussed with your passengers.

Remember that even though it is done often, crossing a waterway on a snowmobile or ATV can be dangerous! Drive slow enough that allows you to observe and stop for any potential hazards such as open water or pressure ridges.

It is always a good idea to wear a life vest under your winter gear or to wear one of the new flotation snowmobile suits. CAUTION: Do NOT wear a flotation device when traveling across the ice in an enclosed vehicle. This could limit your ability to evacuate the vehicle.
Another thing you can do to prepare further safely would be to carry a pair of ice picks that may be homemade or purchased. You can get these from most sporting goods stores especially those that cater to winter anglers.

What should I do if I fall through the ice or someone else falls through?

If you break through the ice, don’t panic. Try to remain calm and do not try to climb out as you might break the ice again. Spread your arms out on the unbroken ice and kick hard. This will help lift your body onto the ice and then roll to safety.

If it is someone else who falls through and you are the only one around to assist, first, call 911 for help. If you do not have a cell phone, try to find someone near you who might have a phone or be carrying a cell phone. Resist the urge to run up to the edge of the hole. This would most likely result in two victims in the water. Please do not risk your life to save a pet or animal that has fallen through.

Remember this sequence in preparation of an ice breakthrough event:

  • PREACH – Shout to the victim to encourage them to fight to survive and reassure them that help is on the way.
  • REACH – If you can safely reach the victim from shore, extend an object such as a rope, ladder, or jumper cables to the victim. If the person starts to pull you in, release your grip on the object and start over.
  • THROW – Toss one end of a rope or something that will float to the victim. Have them tie the rope around themselves before they are too weakened by the cold to grasp it.
  • ROW – Find a light boat to push across the ice ahead of you. Push it to the edge of the hole, get into the boat and pull the victim in over the bow. It’s not a bad idea to attach some rope to the boat, so others can help pull you and the victim to safety.
  • GO – A non-professional should not go out on the ice to perform a rescue unless all other basic rescue techniques have been ruled out.

If your car or truck breaks through the ice, your best chance to escape would be before it fully submerges, not after! The vehicle will stay afloat a few seconds to several minutes depending on the airtightness of the vehicle. Some tips to remember should this happen to you or something you witness would be:

  • While the car is still afloat, the best escape hatches are the side windows since the doors may be held shut by the water pressure. If the windows are blocked, try to push the windshield or rear window out with your feet, shoulder, or window break device.
  • A vehicle with its engine in the front will sink at a steep angle and may land on its roof if the water is 15 feet or deeper. As the car starts its final plunge to the bottom, water rapidly displaces the remaining air. An air bubble can stay in a submerged vehicle, but it is unlikely that it would remain by the time the car hits the bottom.
  • When the car is filled with water, the doors may be a little easier to open unless they are blocked by mud and silt. Remember, chances are that the car will be upside down at this point! Add darkness and near freezing water, and your chances of escape have greatly diminished. This makes the necessity of getting out of the car before it starts to sink a much higher success!

Don’t forget proper gear is an important factor in ice safety!

Always have a pair of ice safety picks in an easy to grab spot should you break through. Chisels and augers are helpful tools to check ice depth.

When tackling the ice-covered waters of Maine be sure to dress properly for the environment. It is important to wear a hat and cover your face and neck. Most of your body heat is lost through your head and neck. Dressing in layers of wool, silks or synthetics will keep you warm even when wet. Cotton should be avoided as much as possible. A pair of insulated, waterproof boots, gloves and a windbreaker are also very important, and it is never a bad idea to bring an extra change of winter clothing and shoes.

Remember it is always best to go out with a partner rather than alone and make sure to leave information with friends or family about your plans for the day and when you intend to return.