The inevitable partner to winter moisture, ice often lurks under a fine layer of snow or blatantly covers our roads and trees. Early winter and spring are the most dangerous times because of temperature and increased water flow. Ice is also a natural effect to our waterways and lakes. While ice offers us wintertime opportunities like skating and ice fishing, it is important to understand the real dangers it presents.

Avoid Thin Ice

How To Survive Winter's Ice Dangers

Education is crucial when engaging in any ice-based activity. Lesson number one is knowing when it is safe to venture out onto the ice. The best way is to check with local authorities, but there are some general guidelines we can all follow.

Cut & Measure: A hole should be cut in the ice close to shore as a safety precaution. Measure the thickness of the ice as well as inspect its appearance. Thickness guidelines are as follows. (These guidelines apply to new, clear ice only.) If the ice is 2 inches or less, stay off. It is not strong enough to safely support a person. At 4 inches thick, the ice is now thick enough to support walking and activities. At 6 inches, it can support snowmobiles and ATVs. When ice is 8 inches thick, it is capable of supporting a car or small pickup. At 12 inches thick, the ice will support medium-sized trucks.

Danger Spots: Ice is never a consistent phenomenon and is rarely the same thickness over a body of water. While ice can be 12 inches thick in your location, it is capable of being only an inch thick a few yards away. You are encouraged to check the ice thickness every 150 feet as you progress to your destination.

Space It Out: Park any vehicles you drive out onto the ice at least 50 feet apart and then move them every two hours. A clever method to monitor ice around vehicles is to drill a hole in the ice next to your vehicle. If water starts to overflow the hole, it is an indication that the ice is sinking and it’s imperative that you move your car immediately.

Identify Ice Dangers

How To Survive Winter's Ice Dangers

An important skill for those new to ice activities is the ability to understand ice color and condition. The best ice possible is called “new clear.” This is ice similar to what is produced in your home’s freezer. It is strong and safe in sufficient thicknesses. Other colors you may experience outdoors include the following:

Light Gray/Dark Black: This is inevitably melting ice and is not safe to walk on or be near. This type of ice can exist even when outside temperatures are below freezing. Factors such as snow cover or running water can affect even the strongest ice.

White/Opaque: Ice this color is usually water-saturated snow that has frozen on top of ice. This type of ice is generally weak because it is very porous from air pockets that have formed.

Molted/Slushy: This is referred to as “rotten ice” not because of its color, but based on its condition and texture, which is slushy and rough. This type of ice generally begins as spring approaches and can be misleading. It can appear to be thick near the top, but it can be very weak in the middle and base. This ice should be avoided.

Clear/Blue: This is the best ice we can hope for. It is very dense and strong. In the correct thickness it is the ice that will allow us to enjoy our winter activities.

Escape The Water

How To Survive Winter's Ice Dangers

Before you head out onto the ice, it’s important to know how to save yourself in the event you fall through.

Even though it will happen quickly, do everything possible to brace yourself and prepare for what is to come. This includes holding your breath and doing everything possible to keep your head out of the water to delay hypothermia.

The shock of the cold water will cause physical responses such as gasping, hyperventilation and an increased pulse rate. This, coupled with the fear of drowning, can be overwhelming. The initial shock will wear off in one to three minutes. Generally, you will have anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes of consciousness from this point depending on what you are wearing and your physical condition.

If you are submerged, look for the lighter area above you. That will be the most likely point where you fell through as snow-covered areas will appear dark.

As you move back to the hole, do your best to keep your head out of the water. This will help avoid more body heat loss and in turn help keep your mind clear. Avoid the temptation to shed clothing because it is working to insulate you.

Move to the edge of the ice where you initially fell in. While never a guarantee, it has the best chance of once again supporting your weight. Avoid trying to drag yourself back onto the ice with a pull-up-type maneuver. This motion can be extremely difficult. A better option is to get horizontal as if you were swimming towards the edge. All at once, kick your feet in a swimming motion and use your elbows to ease yourself back onto the ice.

Once you are out of the water, avoid the desire to stand up. Instead, roll away from the hole to safety. Standing will put more direct pressure on the ice and possibly cause it to collapse again. By distributing your body weight across a larger area, you are less likely to fracture the ice again immediately upon resurfacing and gaining traction.

If you are unable to initially pull yourself out, conserve your energy and pull yourself out as far as you can. Keep your head and arms out of the water and regain your composure for another try.

Ice activities are many times family events. It is essential that you warn kids about playing on frozen lakes and streams. Planning and education are the tools we have to help us avoid an icy tragedy. Additional resources are available at

This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

From Our Partners