A Guide on How to Know If Ice is Safe to Walk On

When you’re heading out to go ice fishing, you will need to remember that ice is never completely safe. You never know whether or not the ice is safe to cross and if it’s thick enough! Fortunately, there are ways that can help you gauge the ice’s potential safety.

But what are they?

Read on as I show you the ways on how to know if ice is safe to walk on!

how to know if ice is safe to walk on

How to Know If Ice is Safe to Walk On

Whether you’re going ice fishing, snowmobiling, ice skating, or other related activities, you’ll want to make sure the ice you walk on is safe! Here are the steps to follow when it comes to your safety on ice:

1. General Ice Thickness Guidelines

Depending on the ice thickness, there might be limitations on what one may do. Here are the general ice thickness guidelines to give you an idea:

  • 2 inches thick means that the ice is susceptible to breakage and should not be walked on. Anything under 3 inches should be kept off
  • 4 inches thick means that it’s fine to stand, ice fish, and skate (around 200 pounds)
  • 5 inches or more means that the ice can withstand most snowmobiles (around 800 pounds)
  • 8-12 inches means that the ice can withstand the weight of a small or medium car (around 1,500-2,000 pounds)
  • Anything over 12 inches means that the ice can support medium trucks
minimum safe ice thickness
Source: weathernationtv.com

2. Factors Determining Ice Strength

There are certain factors to consider when it comes to determining the ice strength, such as:

Appearance and color

  • Clear ice is twice as strong as snow ice, which is also called white ice. The measurements mentioned above should only be used with clear ice. If you have white or snow ice, then double the measurements for your safety.
  • Clear ice would be newer and stronger compared to white or opaque ice, which would have air pockets, making it weaker.
  • For light gray to dark black ice, this is considered unsafe and may not hold loads.
  • Mottled or slushy ice is known as rotten ice because of the texture, with the ice thawing and slushy. This should not be stepped on, as it has been compromised through ice layers and will give way with the load.
  • Do NOT walk on cracked ice. Cracks would compromise ice sheet integrity, so be sure to look out for cracks before walking. If you’re on the ice already and see cracks, get away from the ice immediately.


Ice does not freeze uniformly. It may be a foot thick away in one area, then 1-2 inches thick a few feet away. Because of this, you will need to check the ice thickness every time you pass 150 feet or so.

Water depth and type

Large and deeper bodies of water would take even longer to freeze. Ice nearer to the shore would be weaker compared to ice farther out.

Furthermore, saltwater would be weaker and require more thickness to support similar weights freshwater can.

Currents and tides

Ice formed over flowing water and currents is usually dangerous. Furthermore, different water depths and temperatures in streams and rivers may end up with variable ice thicknesses, which is true in springs, bridges, culverts, channels between lakes, along with stream outlets or inlets.

Ice outside river bends would be weaker because of faster currents, and there is added risk of falling through ice, resulting in being swept by currents.

Snow cover

Insulating the effects of snow would slow down its freezing process. When under snow, ice is thinner and weaker compared to uncovered ice. The extra weight of the snow would reduce the weight ice could support, so you will need to shovel snow before you test ice for its color and thickness.

Of course, make sure you watch out for any large cracks, pressure ridges, depressions, and anything suspicious in the ice. Avoid those areas as much as possible.

Snowfall may also warm up, melting any existing ice.

Air temperature

Be wary in areas where the air temperatures fluctuate, which can cause a massive impact on the quality of the ice.

When the air temperatures vary widely, it causes ice to thaw throughout the day and refreezing come nighttime. This results in weak and unsafe ice that should not be walked on.

Water levels

Whenever the water level starts t drop, shore ice would be suspended in the air and would most likely be weak without any underlying water.

Anything absorbing heat

If you see any logs, rocks, docks, or bridges, these structures would absorb heat from the sun and have thinner ice or open water nearby. Avoid going to areas with structures like these.

These factors are crucial to consider. ALL the factors will determine ice safety and not just one of them.

3. Designated Authorities and Locals

When choosing an area to go ice fishing in, go for areas that have been checked by the designated authorities regularly. The authorities may be government officials and/or staff from national parks, clubs, or resorts. Such checking needs to be done daily.

You may ask the authorities regarding the procedures that were done to check the ice to ensure its safety. Besides this, authorities will need to have quality measurement tools and procedures and have proper training in case of ice accidents.

If no professionals or authorities have checked the ice, usually in public areas, you will need to check the ice yourself. You can ask the locals from bait shops or local ski stores and ask about the places you plan to go to. You may even check with the local fire station or police station, and they can acquaint you with any danger or safer spots.

Knowing that professionals and authorities have checked the ice and are well-equipped and trained will reassure you. It will also save the risk and hassle of checking the ice yourself. But despite that, be sure that you still take the proper safety precautions.

4. Observe the Ice and Its Colors

Other than the thickness of the ice, the first thing you should do is to observe it.

Check the ice and see if there are any breaks, cracks, irregular surfaces, or weak spots. You can also check the color of the ice from here. However, do not rely on eyesight alone, as this is only the initial step to see if it’s worth taking the next step of checking the ice.

If ever you see any of the following, don’t bother checking the ice and stay away from it:

  • Flowing water at the edges or near the ice
  • Flowing springs under the ice in lakes or ponds
  • Water flowing in or out iced-over water
  • Holes, breaks, or cracks
  • Ice that looks refrozen or thawed
  • Abnormal surfaces you haven’t seen, such as pressure ridges from currents and/or winds

5. Testing Its Thickness

There are various ways to test the ice thickness after you’ve made initial observations. Here are the tips to follow:

  • Test the ice with buddies and make sure you are wearing a floatation suit or device, using ropes for your buddy to pull on if something goes awry.
  • Only go on top of the ice when the edge of the water is firm. If ever it is cracking or slushy, do not proceed.
  • Chip the ice using an ax or hatchet, creating a small hole. You can also use an ice auger to measure the thickness, along with other quality measuring devices.
  • Learn about the thickness safety margins of the ice, which is mentioned above. Again, ice is deemed safe when it is around 4 inches or more, though you still need to watch out for any suspicious factors such as flowing currents.

6. Staying Safe

Besides what was mentioned above, there are more things to take note of when watching out for ice thickness and safety.

Remember that ice won’t ever be completely safe. There are unseen or unknown factors and conditions that may turn seemingly safe ice into a danger. This means you will have to take all the safety precautions to prevent any accidents and prepare yourself if something goes wrong.

You can take proper safety precautions by following these tips:

  • Have an emergency safety plan and make sure you tell everyone where you are going. Do go with one or two buddies and let your loved ones know what time you’re expected to be home.
  • Be sure you are adequately dressed in cold weather attire, along with a form of floatation device or boating life-jacket. Have an ice pick to help give you more of a grip in case you do fall in the icy waters.
  • You should have an extra set of warm and dry clothes in a waterproof bag to reduce your risk of hypothermia in case you get wet.
  • Have an emergency kit that includes an emergency blanket, thick socks, hand and foot warmers, candles and matches tuques, and the like.

Wrapping It Up

When it comes to ice fishing, you have to prioritize your safety and know when (and when not to) head out to the ice. With proper ways on how to tell if ice is safe to walk on, you lessen the risk of accidents and injuries.

Hopefully, you are now well-equipped with knowledge on how to know if ice is safe to walk on. Do keep this information in mind the next time you go ice fishing!

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