For avid outdoorsy people, ice fishing is the perfect way to feed their passion throughout the winter. Ice fishing is part of the local culture in northern regions, and entire communities spring up around the sport. The first thing ice anglers need to learn is when ice is and isn’t safe.
As a rule of thumb, new, clear ice of 4 inches is okay to walk on; anything less isn‘t safe. At 5 – 7 inches, ATVs or snowmobiles are safe. 8 – 12 inches support a car or small pickup. 12 – 15 inches holds a medium truck. Sixteen inches or more will hold a good-sized ice castle. Double these numbers on white ice or flowing water.
Safe Thicknesses Vary With Season
No ice is ever 100% secure because not all ice forms with equal strength. Every ice angler’s responsibility is to verify ice safety each time they step on the ice. It’s also a good practice to check ice thickness no less than every 150 feet.
Ways To Check Thickness Of Ice
Drilling a hole with your ice auger is one way to determine ice thickness, but there are several other options.
First is a simple ice chisel, which is nothing more than a long steel bar with a flat blade welded at the end. Pound the chisel into the ice and work it deeper until reaching water, then measure ice thickness with a tape measure. You can also use a spud bar to do this.
A cordless drill with a long 5/8ths wood auger will do the job. Any 12-volt cordless drill will work; use a wood auger because its design extracts ice shavings as an ice auger does. You can drill ten inches of ice in a minute or less. Once you hit the water, check thickness with a tape measure.
Time Of Season
Early on, ice tends to be clear with fewer air pockets and less garbage making it stronger. Later in the season, white ice that has gone through the freeze-thaw cycle repeatedly has more air pockets, debris, and cracks that weaken the ice. To be safe on this type of ice, double the suggested safe ice thickness.
With late season or early spring ice, use added caution. Repeated thaw and freeze cycles plus rising daytime temperatures can weaken ice that appears safe. Remember to check for thickness regularly.
How Thick Does Ice Need To Be To Drive On?
Several variables affect safe ice thicknesses for driving, beginning with the vehicle itself.
Snowmobiles weigh around 400 – 600 pounds without a rider. ATVs weigh in at approximately 700 hundred pounds for the utility models popular in ice fishing. 5 – 7 inches of ice will support their weight, plus gear and a rider.
The average UTV weighs about 1,500 pounds without passengers or gear. If you’re taking it on the ice, look for at least 8 – 9 of ice.
If you have a midsize SUV or a light truck, you’re weighing in around 4,500 – 5,000 pounds without gear or passengers. A minimum of 8 – 12 inches of ice is safe.
12 – 15 inches of ice supports a midsize truck, and 16 inches or more will hold a large truck and a good-sized wheelhouse or ice castle.
The second variable is the time of year. White or early spring ice may be weakening, so it’s better to look for thicknesses double the safe range of early, clear ice. And of course, always remember no ice is 100% secure.
How Thick Does Ice Need To Be To Walk On?
Ice can be considered safe to walk on at 4 inches or more; anything less poses a risk, especially when you add the weight of your gear to the calculation. To be as safe as possible, it’s a good practice to use floatation-enhanced bibs and a floatation-enhanced coat .
Ice Thickness Weight Capacity
It’s easy to find charts that tell you two inches of ice are safe to walk on. Maybe it is if you’re walking single file ten feet apart, ice skating, or cross country skiing. These mobile activities differ from ice fishing by not placing a payload on a tiny spot of ice for extended lengths of time. Not to mention, they aren’t drilling holes in the ice on which they’re standing.
The table below is a compilation of recommended safe ice thicknesses for ice fishing from several states and departments of natural resources.
|Recommended Safe Ice Thicknesses For Ice Fishing On new, Clear Ice|
|Ice Thickness||Load Range||Can Hold|
|2” never safe||Stay off||Stay off|
|4” is safe to walk on.||800 pounds||3 fishermen plus gear.|
|5” – 7” ice Small vehicles||1,400 pounds||Snowmobile/ATV two persons and gear|
|8” – 10” ice Small car/Pickup||4,000 – 5000 pounds||Small car or pickup with gas and gear and two passengers.|
|12” – 15” ice, Medium truck||7,000 pounds||Full-size pickup, plus 1000 lbs|
|16” or more Icehouses||11,000 pounds||Full-size pickup plus a wheelhouse.|
|“Well thawed ice that is well over a foot thick may not support a person while cold ice that is two inches thick will do so with a reasonable safety margin (on a small lake).”|
Risk Areas For Weak Ice
Ice thickness aside, other factors affect ice strength. It’s not a risk factor, but it’s worth noting that new, clear ice is more substantial than thicker, older, decaying white ice.
Ice close to shore is weaker than ice further from shore, and ice near the entry points of rivers or streams is softer. Debris in the ice like rocks, trees, or plants weakens ice. Take extra caution on river ice or lakes with strong currents.
Finally, you can never be sure what’s under the snow cover when on the ice. Check the ice thickness every 150 feet to ensure the ice hasn’t thinned or softened below the snow.
Ice fishing is a fulfilling way to get out of the house, enjoy nature, and spend time with friends. Safety is the principal responsibility of every angler and knowing safe ice thicknesses is key to the safe practice of the sport.
Safe thicknesses are 4 inches on foot with gear, 5-7 inches for snowmobiles and ATVs, 8 -10 inches for small pickups, and 16 inches or more for ice houses, equipment, and a pickup.
Follow these guidelines and always remember no ice is 100% safe, and you’re on your way to an enjoyable ice fishing season.