DNR’s ice safety tips include driving precautions and what to do if you fall through


WISCONSIN – “Early season ice conditions vary greatly from water body to water body to include temperature swings. This is why no ice is safe,” the DNR said, recommending these precautions:

  • The best advice to follow is no matter what the month, consider all ice unpredictable.
  • There can be cracks and changes in the thickness you may not be able to see. This is especially true after the first cold nights and the early ice is spotted.
  • Always remember that ice is never completely safe under any conditions.
  • When venturing out, if possible go with a friend. It’s safer and more fun.
  • Contact local sport shops to ask about ice conditions locally on the lake or river you want to fish.
  • Carry a cell phone, and let people know where you are going and when you’ll return home.
  • Wear proper clothing and equipment, including a life jacket or a float coat to help you stay afloat and to help slow body heat loss.
  • Wear creepers attached to boots to prevent slipping on clear ice.
  • Carry a spud bar to check the ice while walking to new areas.
  • Carry a couple of spikes and a length of light rope in an easily accessible pocket to help pull yourself – or others – out of the ice.
  • Do not travel in unfamiliar areas – or at night.
  • When traveling at night, operate at reasonable speeds as to not overdrive what your headlights can illuminate (hazards, open water, cracks, etc.)
  • Know if the lake has inlets, outlets or narrows that have currents that can thin the ice.
  • Watch out for pressure ridges or ice heaves. These can be dangerous due to thin ice and open water.
  • Take extra mittens or gloves so you always have a dry pair.

“At WDNR, we want you to be safe enjoying the outdoors. Common sense is the greatest ally in preventing ice related accidents,” the DNR stated. “That includes checking ice conditions and preparing oneself before venturing out. One rule of thumb remains the same. Treat all ice as unsafe.”

What to do if you fall through the ice

If you fall through the ice, remain calm. The cold water will shock your body causing hyperventilation and muscle spasms so you need to act quickly.

  1. Do not remove your winter clothing. Heavy clothes can trap air, which can help provide warmth and flotation. This is especially true in a snowmobile suit.
  2. Go back toward the direction you came. That is probably where you will find the strongest ice – and what lies ahead is unknown.
  3. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface. This is where a pair of nails, sharpened screwdrivers or ice picks are handy in providing the extra traction you need to pull yourself up onto the ice.
  4. Kick your feet and dig in your ice picks to work your way back onto the solid ice. If your clothes have trapped a lot of water, you may have to lift yourself partially out of the water on your elbows to let the water drain before starting forward.
  5. Once back on the ice, don’t try to stand up. Lie flat until you are completely out of the water, then roll away from the hole to keep your weight spread out. This may help prevent you from breaking through again.
  6. Get to a warm, dry, sheltered area and warm yourself up immediately. In moderate to severe cases of cold-water hypothermia, you must seek medical attention. Cold blood trapped in your extremities can come rushing 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!
  7. If you are unable to pull yourself up onto the ice, use your water soaked clothes to your advantage and place your arms onto the top of the ice surface and hold them there as long as you can. In cold conditions many times your clothes will freeze to the icy surface and can help hold you in place with your head above water, even if you are unconscious. Also, try using the chin part of your helmet to help hold you onto the edge of the ice to give you a break from swimming.
  8. If you are wearing a helmet, open the shield or try to remove it, full face helmets will collect water and even if your head is above water it may take up to a minute for the water to drain from your helmet.

Driving on ice

The DNR recommends staying off any ice that is less than four inches thick. Snowmobiles are safe from five to seven inches, cars are from eight to 12, and trucks are safe from 12 inches and more, the DNR says.

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 or foggy conditions. If that’s unavoidable, be extremely cautious and drive slowly since holes can open up quickly.
  • Roll a window down and unlock doors 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.

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.
  • If windows and doors won’t open, try to kick out a side window.
  • If the car begins to sink, 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.

More tips can be found at dnr.wi.gov by searching “outdoor recreation” or “ice safety.”

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