Ice Safety

Posted: February 11, 2014

During the winter, especially during the cold snaps in recent months, many enjoy recreating on frozen ponds and lakes. The goal is to be as safe as possible during winter recreation activities.

By George Hurd, Extension Educator, Penn State Extension – Franklin County

How do you know if ice on a pond or lake is safe to walk on? I like to ice fish, but I always feel uneasy because I don’t know if the ice is thick enough. According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), never fish on ice that’s less than four inches thick. Before heading out on ice, check the ice thickness. Remember that temperature, snow cover, currents, and springs can all affect the relative safety of ice. Ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water; it can be two feet thick in one place and one inch thick a few yards away. Avoid areas where there are feeder streams and springs. Avoid dark, honeycombed, or porous ice.

To check ice thickness, use an ice chisel, ice auger, or even a cordless drill with a long, five-eighths inch wood auger to open a hole large enough to measure the ice. Use a tape measure to find the true thickness. Put the tape measure into the hole and hook the bottom edge of ice before taking measurement. You can also use a fisherman's ice skimmer with a handle marked in inches. As you move across the pond or lake, check the ice at least every 150 feet.

At the PFBC website (, there are links to an “Ice thickness chart” and “Safety Checklist for Ice Anglers” that you can download. If you are in a group or plan other ice-related activities such as skating or snowmobiling, check the PFBC “Ice thickness charts” for the recommended ice thickness. According to the chart, ice five inches thick can safely support 800 lbs. or approximately one snowmobile. Ice seven inches thick can safely support 1,500 lbs. or a small group of people.

The PFBC also recommends the following safety tips. You should always take a partner along and let others know exactly where you are going and when you will return. Once at the lake, stay away from “stickups” like brush, logs, plants or docks. Stay away from multiple pressure cracks on the ice. When ice fishing, spread out because crowds can add too much weight in the same area. When fishing from shore, be extra careful near rivers and streams. Moving water wears ice from underneath, so the ice may look thicker than it really is. Take a small bag of sand to sprinkle around your ice hole for better traction. Take a “Personal Flotation Device” seat cushion to use as a seat or flotation in case of an emergency.

It is best to be cautious when it comes to going on to any pond or lake you don’t know. If it has ice fisherman on it, ask one of them how thick the ice is, and if there are areas to stay away from due to weak ice. Outdoor activities are great fun at this time of the year, but stay safe.