On Thin Ice? Ice Safety Tips for Outdoor Activities

Beth Scheckelhoff, ANR Extension Educator Putnam County

Rivers, lakes, and backyard ponds across Ohio are finally freezing.  While these newly frozen surfaces seem perfect for winter outdoor activities like skating, sledding, ice fishing, or snowmobiling - please remember that no ice is 100% safe.  The following ice safety tips are meant to be shared with those that venture outdoors and onto Ohio’s ice.

Not all ice is created equal. The safety and strength of ice is affected by the size of the water body, water chemistry, currents, snow cover, local climatic conditions, and numerous other factors. Generally, “new”, clear ice is stronger than “old”, white ice that has undergone freezing, thawing, and refreezing. 

In all cases, the thickness of the ice layer must be determined before venturing out upon it.  How does one measure the thickness of ice? First, use an ice pick, axe, hatchet, an ice testing pole, or a cordless drill with a long bit or auger to cut into the ice layer. Next, measure the thickness of the ice layer with a tape measure, or use the cutting tool where the desired distance has been marked with tape, paint, or by another method. 

If the ice layer is less than 4” thick, do not attempt to walk on it. The minimum thickness for new, clear ice is 4inches for travel on foot, 5 inches for snowmobiles and ATVs, and 8 to 15 inches for cars or small trucks.  If the ice is old or covered by snow (also called “white ice”), these thickness recommendations should be doubled.

Ice safety graphic showing the thickness of ice needed to ensure safety before participating in winter activities on frozen water.

Also keep in mind that ice does not freeze uniformly across a body of water. For this reason, check the thickness at regular intervals (at least every 100-150 feet) to ensure safety. Additional safety guidelines include wearing a life-vest or inflatable snowsuit and carrying a pair of ice-safety picks (screwdrivers or large nails work as well) and a rope. 

If you are on thin ice and it cracks beneath you, lie on your stomach, and spread your arms and legs out. Stretch your arms over your head and roll away from the crack. This spreads your weight over the ice to prevent you from breaking through.  

If you fall through ice, turn toward the direction you came from and remain calm. Place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface and, using your ice picks, work yourself forward onto the ice by kicking your feet.  Once on the ice, do not stand but instead roll away from the hole as described above.  

If someone you are with falls through the ice, do not run towards them. Stay calm and call 911.  Use your rope or look for something that could pull the person from the broken ice such as a tree limb, a ski, or jacket. 

For more information on ice safety, please visit ODNR’s Winter Recreation Safety Information

Beth Scheckelhoff, Extension Educator – Agriculture and Natural Resources in Putnam County, can be reached at 419-523-6294 or Scheckelhoff.11@osu.edu. This column is provided by the OSU Extension Agricultural Safety and Health Team. https://agsafety.osu.edu