Stay Safe while enjoying frozen lakes

The minimum ice thickness guidelines for new clear ice only.

Along with winter come snow and cold, essential components of the many wintertime Minnesota activities. Ice anglers flock by the thousands to lakes, along with snowmobilers, skiers, skaters and others. Some find it hard to wait.

Because ice thickness can vary widely on any body of water, venturing out early increases the odds of breaking through. Taking precautions, however, can make that first trip a bit safer.

• When possible, stay near shore where water is shallow. Keep away from creek and river inlets, as well as known springs and beaver lodges.

• Bring ice picks for traction in case of unexpected immersion. There are many on the market designed to hang 

round the neck; Clam Outdoors (a Minnesota company) makes a pair with floating handles. Nails or screwdrivers—secured in a chest pocket—can work in lieu of picks. If you are in a group, consider bringing a throw rope.

• Seal cell phones in zippered plastic bags and secure them in a warm pocket so they will be available and in working order to call for help if necessary.

• Check ice thickness frequently with an ice auger, chisel or cordless drill; Minnesota DNR recommends doing this every 150 feet. Measure with a retractable tape measure, hooking the end under the bottom edge of the ice to get an accurate reading.

• The Minnesota DNR gives 4 inches of clear, hard ice as a minimum for those on foot. Five inches is required for snowmobiles and ATVs, and 12 inches is the minimum for trucks.

Clear ice is the strongest, and usually forms quickly under a cold snap. Lake ice that appears cloudy or white is weaker, and is more likely to be found on area lakes this year due to recent freeze/thaw cycles. The DNR says to double thickness requirements for “white” ice, and reminds us that “ice is never 100% safe.”

Those driving vehicles would do well to stay on established paths. They are also advised to drive with doors unlocked, windows down and seatbelts unfastened to enable a swift exit from the vehicle if it should become necessary.

If a person traveling on foot should fall through the ice, the procedure for escaping is simple (videos for illustration are available on the DNR’s Ice Safety web page):

• Calm yourself and try to return breathing to a normal rate.

• Exit the water in the direction you came. Do not attempt to “climb” out vertically. Instead, think of “swimming” out. Reach out and use ice picks to pull with hands while kicking with feet.

• Roll away from the hole, then crawl on hands and knees to distribute your weight more broadly.

While breaking through the ice is usually the chief concern when it comes to ice safety, the majority of on-ice injuries come from other traumas.

A 2016 study done by Mayo Clinic physicians looked at the type and occurrence of ice fishing injuries. Though serious, “immersion/drowning” injuries accounted for only 5% of the patients in the study. “Orthopedic/musculoskeletal” injuries were recorded at approximately nine times that rate (46%) and characterized as “likely related to slips on the ice.”

Inexpensive ice cleats are designed to prevent such slips, which are common early and late in the ice season.

Various major (6%)  and minor traumas (37%) accounted for injuries such as lacerations, contusions and concussions, and also came in at rates higher than immersion/drowning.

In the discussion of study findings researchers offered several safety tips, including only going out when conditions are safe and the buddy system. They also issued a warning regarding the way alcohol consumption can cause or contribute to injuries sustained on the ice.


Roy Heilman is a contributing writer for Press Publications. He can be reached at or 651-407-1200.

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