Dickinson County Courthouse, Spirit Lake, Iowa

Ice Safety

Each fall the temperature drops and our lakes and rivers become covered in ice. Please take a moment before you venture onto the ice to review these ice safety tips courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Ice Safety Tips


When is ice safe? The truth is that ice is never 100 percent safe. Take these steps to minimize risk when choosing to recreate on frozen bodies of water:

  • Check the thermometer, not the calendar. Air temperature and recent weather patterns can significantly impact ice quality. Just because the ice was safe on a certain date last year doesn’t mean it will be safe this year.
  • Ask locally about ice conditions and hazards. Check with local resorts and bait shops for current ice reports and to learn about any known hazardous areas.
  • Tell someone your plans. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. Carry a cell phone and/or personal locator beacon with you in case of trouble.
  • Be prepared – bring your ice safety kit. Always bring the following with you on the ice: rope, ice picks, ice chisel and tape measure.
  • Check ice thickness at regular intervals. Know how to use the ice picks to rescue yourself and the rope to rescue others.
  • Wear your life jacket! A life jacket or float coat should be worn when you are on the ice (except when in a vehicle). If you fall in, a foam-filled vest or coat will keep you at the surface and provide some insulation against the effects of cold water.

Some Cold Facts About Ice

  • You can't judge ice conditions by appearance or thickness. Many other factors, including water depth, size of water body, water chemistry, currents, snow cover, age of ice, and local weather combine to determine its strength.
  • New ice is usually stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, newly formed ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially thawed ice may not.
  • Ice seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away. Ice near shore can be weaker than ice farther out. Check ice thickness every 150 feet at a minimum.
  • Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous. This is especially true near streams, springs, channels between lakes, bridges, culverts and aeration systems. Also, the ice on outside river bends is usually weaker due to the faster current.
  • The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process. The extra weight of snow cover also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support by approximately 50 percent.
  • Booming and cracking ice isn’t necessarily dangerous. It may only mean that the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes. However, watch for large cracks, depressions or pressure ridges in the ice and avoid those areas.
  • Schools of rough fish or flocks of waterfowl can adversely affect the relative safety of ice. The movement of fish can bring warm water up from the bottom of the lake, and waterfowl can warm the surface of the ice. This activity can cause holes to open up, posing a threat to anyone traveling on the ice.

Preach, Reach, Throw, Row, Go!

To rescue someone from the ice or water, follow these five steps:

PREACH - Call 911 if you have a cell phone, or if others are present have them call. 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 lightweight 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. If possible, attach some rope to the boat so others can help pull you and the victim to safety.

GO - A non-professional shouldn’t go out on the ice to perform a rescue unless all other basic rescue techniques have been ruled out. Resist the urge to run up to the edge of the hole, as this will most likely lead to two victims in the water.


Be a Survivor!

You must fight to survive in cold water. Commit this action plan to memory before hitting the ice:

  1. Don't panic! The shock of cold water can cause you to inhale water and/or hyperventilate. Get your breathing under control.
  2. Don’t remove your winter clothing. Heavy clothes won’t drag you down, but instead can trap air to provide warmth and flotation. This is especially true with a snowmobile suit.
  3. Turn toward the direction you came from. That’s probably the strongest ice. Assess the situation, call out for help.
  4. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface. Use your ice picks, a pair of nails or sharpened screwdrivers to get the extra traction needed to pull yourself up onto the ice.
  5. Kick your feet and dig in your ice picks to work your way back onto the solid ice. If your clothes are soaked with water, you may have to lift yourself partially out of the water on your elbows to let the water drain before starting forward.
  6. Lie flat on the ice once you're out and roll away from the hole to keep your weight spread out. This may help prevent you from breaking through again.
  7. Get to a warm, dry, sheltered area and re-warm yourself immediately. In moderate to severe cases of cold water hypothermia, you must seek medical attention. Cold blood trapped in your extremities can rush back to your heart after you begin to warm up. The shock of the chilled blood may cause ventricular fibrillation leading to a heart attack and death.

Driving on Ice?

Don’t drive on the ice if you can possibly avoid it. If you must, follow these safety tips:

  • Stay off the ice at night, especially during a snowfall. If that’s unavoidable, be extremely cautious and drive slowly since holes can open up quickly. If you drive too fast you might not be able to stop in time.
  • Be prepared to bail out in a hurry. Roll a window down and unlock doors and/or keep a door slightly ajar to speed escape.
  • Don’t wear a life vest while riding inside a vehicle. The extra bulk could hamper your escape through a window.
  • Don’t go back into a partially submerged vehicle to retrieve equipment or other belongings.

Vehicle Escape

If your car or truck breaks through the ice:

  • Immediately attempt to escape through a door or side window. The vehicle will stay afloat for a few seconds to a few minutes.
  • Your chance of survival is greatly increased if you escape before the vehicle is fully submerged.
  • If windows and doors won’t open, try to kick out a side window.
  • If the car begins to sink, don’t panic! Find the door handle and keep trying to get a door or window open. As water fills the vehicle it should become somewhat easier to open a door.
  • Push open the door and exit the vehicle. Your vehicle may have landed on its roof. To get your bearings, let your natural buoyancy guide you as you swim toward the surface.