How to Survive a Fall Through Ice

How to Survive a Fall Through Ice

It's a winter worst-case scenario – a loud crack followed by an icy dip you do not want to take.

Falling through the ice and plunging into a frozen pond or lake can turn a fun winter activity deadly in minutes. While there are plenty of reasons to wander onto a frozen body of water – ice fishing, ice skating, and winter hiking to name a few – anytime you step foot onto a frozen surface carries the risk of falling through the ice.

This blog will cover how to prepare for any icy mishaps before you ever set foot on the ice, guidelines for how thick ice needs to be to support your weight safely, and life-saving steps to self-rescue in case you fall through thin ice.

3 Tips Before Setting Out

Bring a Backup Outfit: Any time you plan to be on or around an iced over body of water, bring a change of clothes in a dry bag. In the event you fall through the ice but are able to self-rescue, you're still in danger of hypothermia. A simple change of clothes could save your life.

Use the Buddy System: One of the most important things you can do when venturing out onto ice is to not go alone. Always bring a friend or family member and stay within sight and earshot of each other. If one person falls through, the other can call for help and assist with their rescue.

Pack Ice Rescue Gear: When going on any type of icy adventure, it's important to pack appropriate ice rescue gear. For instance, ice picks are a compact and inexpensive safety tool that make it much easier to pull yourself out of the water and back onto the ice. A whistle can signal to potential rescuers where you are so they can come to your aid, and a rope or some cordage can be a huge help if you need to rescue someone else.

We also recommend bringing emergency blankets to help warm yourself or someone else back up post rescue, and as noted above, a spare set of clothes. These items can make all the difference in surviving a fall through ice. 

Ice Thickness Guidelines

So, how thick does ice need to be to walk on it safely? General ice thickness guidelines recommend the following for clear, new ice:

  • Less than 4 inches: Keep off.
  • 4 inches: Safe for activities on foot like walking, ice fishing, or ice skating.
  • 5-7 inches: The minimum amount recommended to snowmobile or ride an ATV.
  • 7-8 inches: Side by side ATV.
  • 8 or more inches: Generally considered safe for supporting a small car.

As ice thickness increases, it can support larger and larger loads. That being said, there are no guarantees in life, and ice is never 100% safe. And bear in mind, the above guidelines are only for clear or blue/black ice. Slushy, white ice is only about half as strong, so the thickness would need to be doubled. Ice that appears grey could indicate it's melting and should not be walked on. Don't take any chances – if you're not sure, stay on shore.

It's best to consult local authorities or experts who know the area before embarking on any frozen activities. Be on the lookout for any signage and stay in designated areas that are monitored for ice safety. If you have to check the ice thickness yourself, perform a visual inspection as well as using an ice chisel or auger to measure.

Check the ice near the shore first, and then again at least every 150 feet as you cross a frozen body of water. Ice thickness will vary across a single body of water. Test the ice thickness more often if you have any doubts or if the ice looks different. Ice is never uniform. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources points out this stark comparison about ice, "It be two feet thick in one place and one inch thick a few yards away."

7 Self-Rescue Steps If You Fall Through Thin Ice

Surviving a fall through the ice involves a combination of immediate physical actions and mental preparedness. Here are some key steps you should follow:

  1. Stay Calm: Upon falling into icy water, your body's initial response will likely be a gasp reflex from the cold shock. It is crucial to suppress this reaction as much as possible and avoid inhaling water. Try to remain calm and keep your breathing under control.
  2. Get Your Bearings: If your head goes underwater, open your eyes to find your surroundings. Locate the hole you fell through, which will appear darker than the surrounding ice.
  3. Turn Towards the Direction You Came From: The ice in the direction you came from was strong enough to hold your weight before you fell through. It's likely safer than ice in an unknown direction.
  4. Make Your Body Horizontal: With your arms out on the ice, position your body horizontally and kick your feet behind you to help you slide out of the water and back onto the ice. You want to scoot forward rather than trying to do a vertical frozen pull up. The horizontal position will also help distribute your weight, preventing you from breaking through more ice. This step is when your ice picks would come in really handy to help you self-rescue.
  5. Avoid the Urge to Stand Up: Once you manage to get your body back on the ice, do not stand up. Standing up concentrates your weight in a smaller area, making it more likely you’ll fall through the ice again. Scoot forward on your stomach until you're fully out of the water and away from the hole. Try to spread out your weight evenly to prevent breaking the ice again.
  6. Roll Away: After you're fully out of the water, roll away from the hole. This keeps your weight distributed over a larger surface area and helps prevent you from falling in again. Once you’re well away from the hole and back on solid ice, walk to safety.
  7. Get Warm and Get to Safety: As soon as you're safely solid ground, remove wet clothing, replace it with dry clothing, and get warm as quickly as possible to prevent hypothermia.

The Power of Preparation: Equipping Yourself to Conquer the Ice

With the right preparation and knowledge, you can drastically improve your odds of survival if the ice gives way beneath you. So, before you venture out onto any frozen surface, make sure you have the right equipment, understand ice thickness guidelines, and know how to react if disaster strikes. With a healthy mix of caution, know-how, and planning, you can stay safe and still enjoy all the fun winter activities the ice has to offer.

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