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Winter Safety, What You Don't Know Can Kill YOU!

By Steve Huber - December 1, 2001
As I'm sitting here, in Rhinelander, writing this article, the snow is falling and I'm thinking about icefishing and snowmobiling. The only problem is that while we do have snow now, there's not a bit of ice formed on any lake yet. Heck, there's not a bit of frost in the ground and the swamps are wide open as well.

You're probably wondering, "where in the heck is this rambling going to?" Well, I'll tell you, I want to talk about winter safety, NOW, before anyone goes out there and gets themselves in trouble.

I know that many of you are just dying to get on the ice and get fishing for those "First-Ice Lunkers". Well, are you willing to die for a couple of fish? Here's what the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has to say about ice thickness. And if there's anyone that knows ice, it's the people in Minnesota.

Picture this, we've had a couple cold nights and your favorite fishing hole has finally frozen over. You want to get out there, drop in a couple of tipups and jig up a mess of perch/bluegills for dinner. How thick does the ice have to be before you venture out? According to Minnesota's DNR, the MINIMUM ice thickness for a person of average weight is 2 inches. And that has to be a minimum thickness, remember that any current, spring, or moving water will cause the ice to be thinner in these locations. With early ice, more is definitely better.

The logical (and sane) thing to do on early ice is the following:
Wear a Personal Floatation Device (PFD). If you do go through the ice, a PFD will perform two functions. First and foremost, it will keep you afloat and probably keep you from getting trapped under the ice, enabling you to get back out of the water. A good vest type life preserver can be worn either under or over your jacket and will act as an additional layer of insulation, delaying the onset of hypothermia. Not only that, but they're warm.

Keep a set of ice picks handy. If you don't have any, there are specially designed ice picks for sale at most better sporting goods stores. If you can't find any of these, or don't want to spend the lousy couple bucks to save your own life, there's another option. Go get yourself some nails, 6 - 8 inches in length, tie about 2 feet of parachute cord to them just under the nailhead and loop this over your neck. If you do fall through the ice, it's very difficult to pull yourself back onto firm ice. It's much easier to grab the nails and stab them into the ice, using them to pull yourself from the water. Keep them where you can easily get to them in a panic situation. The picks won't do you one bit of good sitting in the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket, or wrapped up and buried in a coat pocket somewhere.

Take an ice chisel with you. The ice isn't that thick yet that you'll need a power auger and the chisel serves two functions. First of all, you can sound the ice ahead of you as you walk. Tap it on the ice, listening to the sound it makes as the chisel head strikes. You should hear a nice solid "Clunk" as the chisel hits. If you hear a hollow sound, or you strike the chisel through, BACK AWAY SLOWLY. The ice shouldn't be so thin that you can punch through in one stroke. If you can, it isn't safe for you to be out there. What's the second function of the chisel you ask? Well, it's to make hole in the ice to fish through of course!

Don't carry your gear with you in buckets. It's alright to organize your stuff in buckets, but it's better to drag your gear behind you in a sled. That way, your weight is spread out and not concentrated in one area. Also, if you do fall through, with someone holding onto the sled, you might be able to pull yourself out by hanging onto the tow rope.

Once you do get out of the water, the best thing to do is roll away from the hole. I know that it's human nature to want to get up and run from danger but that's the worst thing that you can do, risking falling through the weakened ice again, this time colder and weaker than the first time you went in.

OK, I've given you some advice if YOU fall through. But what about if you witness someone else going in? First of all, resist the impulse to run over and help. The first thing that needs to be done is send someone to call 911 and get the fire/rescue guys coming. Anyone in the water for more than a couple minutes should be evaluated by medical professionals for hypothermia and other cold related complications.

Stay well away from the person and throw them something that floats (well duh). An empty 5 gallon bucket held upside, or a cooler down will support an adult's weight, keeping their head above water until help arrives. I always bring a boat cushion with me when ice fishing. It makes a nice warm and comfy cushion to put on a bucket to sit on and it's perfect to throw to someone in trouble.

A rope with a large loop tied to the end is great but not everyone is as paranoid as I am. If you don't have a rope, a long branch, ladder, boat oar or anything that can be slid out on the ice in front of you to extend your reach will work. Lay flat on the ice, that will distribute your weight out and crawl to the person. If you hear any cracking or feel the ice sinking, BACK UP IMMEDIATELY! There's no sense in you becoming a statistic as well. More well meaning rescuers have drowned while attempting to rescue a person than you'd believe. If you can't get to them without putting your own life in jeopardy, keep talking to them, encouraging them that help is on the way.

How do I know these things? First of all, I've been foolish enough to have fallen through the ice twice! Both times I was by myself and extremely lucky to have escaped with my life. Secondly, I'm a professional firefighter/EMT and have been trained in cold water rescue. I've purposely gone through the ice wearing the cold water rescue suits and know how difficult it is to get out once having fallen through. It's almost impossible to get out, especially if the water is over your head without the picks or assistance.

All right, enough about that. On to the other recommended ice thicknesses.

  • 4 inches is safe to go just about anywhere for anyone.
  • 5 inches will support all but the heaviest snowmobiles and 4-wheelers.
  • 8-12 inches of ice will support a mid size passenger car or small pickup truck.
  • 12 - 15 inches are needed for the typical full sized 4 wheel drive pickup. You can bet that I'll be waiting for that ice to be AT LEAST 15 inches before I venture out on the ice with my diesel Silverado. Remember, diesel pickups are even heavier than a standard gas powered pickup.

Other things to consider when out this winter. I know that ice fishing and drinking go together like ham and eggs, but remember this. Alcohol, while it may make you think that you are warmer, actually reduces your core body temperature in cold weather. As your body temperature lowers, the bodies natural defense mechanism is to constrict the blood flow to extremities, increasing the potential for frostbite. Another by-product of this is that severe cold can impair your thinking. Coupled with the alcohol, you can see that it's maybe a better idea to save the partying until you're off the ice.

Other good ideas are to dress in layers. That way you can add or remove layers as the day warms up or you're exerting yourself, putting additional layers back on as you cool off. A good windproof outer layer will reduce the windchill effect, keeping you warmer.

Stay dry! This is the best single piece of advice for preventing hypothermia or frostbite. Wet clothing conducts heat away from your body and cools you in the process. If you're exerting yourself to the point that you sweat, you're cutting your day short. Either slow down or remove some outer clothing to reduce the possibility of sweating.

Avoid wearing cotton clothes, especially next to your skin. Cotton traps moisture and you'll get colder faster. Polypro long underwear is great. It allows moisture to pass through, keeping your skin warm and dry. Wool, if you can stand it has the same properties, it's just that if you're like me, I CAN'T STAND WOOL!

A good warm hat will do wonders in keeping you feeling toasty. There are a lot of small blood vessels called capillaries in the skin of your head. These capillaries are close to the surface and the blood traveling through them is easily cooled. This cooled blood is returned through the circulatory system. If this happens long enough, it can lead to the body's core temperature being lowered, increasing the feeling of being cold.

I know that you're all itching to get out there, but before you take that first step on the ice, ask yourself, "Is that fish worth dying for?" I've recovered bodies from cold water, it's not fun and I don't want to hear that anyone, especially my fellow Lake-Linkers have become another grim statistic.

With a little caution and common sense, we can all have a safe and lunker filled ice fishing and snowmobiling season.

So, good luck, have fun and Merry Christmas,

Author Steve Huber

Steve Huber
Steve Huber, an avid angler with over 35 years of experience (man, he's old) is one of the few multi-species guides in the Rhinelander area. He's been operating G & S Guide Service for 8 years now and loves to fish for Muskies, Northern Pike, Largemouth/Smallmouth Bass and the occasional Walleye (in no particular order). A person who loves to see others succeed, he's an educator while on the water and when he's not teaching you something, he'll regale you with tales of adventures and mis-adventures gleaned from his years on the water. If you liked this article, you can check out Steve's web site at
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