What is a safe ice thickness? Before you step on a frozen lake, check that it is safe for your activity. Here is a safe ice thickness chart and factors affecting ice strength.
Do not attempt to stand or walk on ice that is less than four inches thick. Ice fishing can be safely completed on ice that is four inches or thicker. Four inches of ice can hold roughly 200lbs. Before going onto the ice, ensure that it is thick enough to hold the weight for the activity at hand.
Note: Determining safe ice conditions can be challenging. And the risks are significant. If you aren’t absolutely sure of the safety, STAY OFF the ice. All ice should be considered unsafe. And there may be other factors affecting safety than what we cover in this post.
Before going on the ice, talk to locals, especially ice fisherman and snowmobilers who are used to the specific body of water. There may be dangerous areas or periods of time where you should stay off of the ice.
Some municipalities will check the ice daily, and post a sign to indicate that it is safe. This is probably the safest way to enjoy winter sports on frozen lakes, rivers, and canals.
What is the best way to check the ice’s thickness before getting on it to fish or play? Continue reading to learn tips and tricks to stay safe during winter activities.
Safe Ice Thickness Chart: 7 Activities
We have all heard the horror stories of people falling through the ice and getting trapped in the freezing water beneath.
To avoid this, it is critical to check the thickness of ice before you attempt to put any weight on it. How thick should ice be for one person? What about a group of people?
Refer to the chart below to answer all questions about how thick ice should be for the amount of weight being held.
|Weight/Activity on Ice||Safe Ice Thickness|
|Single Person||Four Inches (4″)|
|Group of People||Eight to Twelve Inches (8-12″)|
|Car (Driving or Remaining Parked)||Eight to Twelve Inches (8-12″)|
|Ice Fishing||Four Inches (4″)|
|Ice Skating||Four Inches (4″)|
|Snowmobiling||Five to Seven Inches (5-7″)|
|Medium Truck (Driving or Remaining Parked)||Twelve to Fifteen Inches (12-15″)|
5 Factors Affecting Ice Strength
The above thicknesses are based on the ice being solid, and unaffected by the following factors.
- Age: New ice is stronger than old, milky colored ice. Freeze / thaw cycles can weaken ice.
- Snow Cover: Ice covered in snow will be weaker than exposed ice, because snow insulates.
- Distance to Shore: Ice along the shore is often weaker.
- Water Currents and Rivers: Larger bodies of water can have hidden currents that might prevent thick ice from forming. Where rivers enter/exit the lake can have thinner/weaker ice. Sometimes these areas will even have open water.
- Obstructions: Objects near the surface can weaken the ice. Things like plants, rocks, and trees.
Source: Engineering ToolBox
Note: It’s important to recognize that ice thickness is never consistent across a frozen body of water. Due to the factors above, it might be safe in one area – and just a skim of ice on other parts. Never assume that the whole lake is safe, just because it was tested in one area.
How Can You Safely Check the Thickness of Ice
Knowing the required thickness of ice is essential knowledge for anyone who wants to ice fish, skate, or do any other activity on a frozen body of water. It’s important to safely check the ice thickness as well so you do not fall in while you are measuring.
When checking, you will need a measuring tape and a drill or hand auger.
Drill a straight hole until you hit water. Insert the tape measure and latch it onto the bottom of the ice that is in the water below. Pull the tape measure straight up and take the measurements. This will allow you to now accurately measure the ice’s thickness.
You could use a pole or another rigid measuring tool, but it will require a hook or horizontal edge so you can grab the lower edge of the ice. Otherwise, you’ll be guessing at the actual ice thickness.
Check out our guide: How to Measure Ice Thickness: 5 Methods
3 Types of Ice to Avoid
While there are many fun and adventurous things to do on the ice, your safety should be your top priority.
Before attempting to go onto any ice, you should be well informed and aware of ice safety and what to look out for.
- Less Than 4 Inches Thick: The number one thing to remember when going out onto the ice is the thickness of the ice compared to the weight being placed on it. Do not test the limits of ice, this is a game you do not want to play. Do not attempt to put any weight on ice that is under 4 inches of thickness. This is not strong enough to hold the weight of an adult.
- Cracked Ice: Ice that has cracks all across it should not be walked on. These are possible breaking points that are very dangerous to put any weight on. If you come across a frozen pond but it is covered in scratches, do not attempt to put any weight on it.
- Gray or White Ice: Clear ice is the safest ice to walk or put weight on. When looking for areas to walk on or skate across, avoid gray or white ice as this is not the strongest kind.
More reading: Best Time of Day to Go Ice Fishing: 6 Species / 3 Times
What to Do if You Fall in
It can be a terrifying and horrible experience to fall into icy water, but remaining calm is the best thing for you to do in an emergency situation.
Put your arms out onto ice that has not been broken and use your legs to kick up and pull yourself out. Try not to put all your weight on the ice, as it may crack more and not allow you to get out of the water.
Once you have managed to get out, do not stand. The ice is obviously thin in the area where you fell, and putting all your weight on a small area of the ice is not a good idea and could lead to the ice cracking again.
Instead, roll away until you are sure the ice is thick enough for you to stand. Immediately go change your freezing wet clothing and warm up.
Here’s more detail from the Washington Post.
Whether you want to just warm up – or maybe cook your ice fishing catch – this guide to building a winter campfire will help.
More reading: How to Winterize a Camper to Live in
Do I recommend driving on a frozen lake? Personally, I won’t do it. I’ve skated across a large lake (2 miles x 1 mile) that was full of islands. It was beautiful – and some friends drove their ATVs across it. The ice was checked and was solid.
And the next winter, I fell through a small pond and ended up waist deep in ice water, on a cold Nova Scotian February night.
Ice thickness is nothing to play around with. Be confident it’s safe – or stay off the ice.
Have a tip to share about safely being on ice? Please share your experiences and tips below!
- About the Author
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Bryan Haines is a co-founder and blogger on GudGear – and is working to make it the best resource for outdoor gear and guides.
He loves the outdoors and has hiked the Andes, kayaked the Galapagos, and biked and camped around Nova Scotia, Canada.
He is a travel blogger at Storyteller Travel and blogs about photography at Storyteller Tech. He is also co-founder of Storyteller Media, a company he started with his wife, Dena.