Ice Safety Gear

ice thickness guidelines

Every time you go on the ice, be sure to carry the gear that could save your life. Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.

Be prepared for the unexpected; bring the following items every time you are on the ice.

Foam life jacket or flotation suit

A foam life jacket or flotation suit may be the No. 1 item that will keep you alive if you fall through the ice. Most people who fall through the ice die of drowning – not hypothermia.

Choose the flotation that is most comfortable for you. Flotation comes in a variety of styles, including insulated coats, pants, and full-body suits, as well as foam life jackets. Inflatable life jackets are not recommended for cold-water activities.

If you prefer a life jacket, always choose a foam life jacket rather than an inflatable life jacket for cold-water activities. Inflatable life jackets may not properly inflate in low temperatures. Also, foam life jackets provide insulating warmth, allowing you more time to climb out of the water.

Your body’s first response to cold water is to gasp and hyperventilate. If you have a life jacket on, it will help keep your head above water and give you the best chance of survival.

After you calm your breathing, you will have about 10 minutes of meaningful movement to climb out of the water. Learn more about the dangers of cold water immersion. Watch the video below to learn how to climb out of the water using ice picks.

Remember to never wear a life jacket or flotation suit while driving inside an enclosed vehicle on the ice. It can make it very difficult to climb out of the vehicle if you break through the ice.

A floatation full-body suit

Floatation full-body suit

a foam life jacket

Foam life jacket

Ice picks

Ice picks are the second most-important item. Pulling yourself out of cold water onto a smooth, wet surface with numb fingers is extremely difficult. A sharp set of ice picks gives you the best chance of pulling yourself out of the water.

two different styles of ice picks

Two different styles of ice picks. The exposed nails (left) can be stuck into the opposite hand
grip for safety when not in use. The style on the right has a retractable plastic sheath hiding
the nail on each hand grip.

After you calm your breathing, you’ll have about 10 minutes to climb out of the water before you lose the feeling and strength needed to pull yourself out. Follow these steps:

  1. Turn in the direction you came from – that is probably the strongest ice.
  2. Dig the points of the picks into the ice. While vigorously kicking your feet, pull yourself onto the surface by sliding forward on the ice.
  3. Roll away from the area of weak ice. Rolling on the ice distributes your weight to help avoid breaking through again.
  4. Get to shelter, heat, warm, dry clothing, and warm, non-alcoholic, and non-caffeinated drinks.

Using ice picks


Emergency whistle

An emergency whistle is an inexpensive item that gives you a chance to call for help if there are others on the lake. Yelling for help drains your energy quickly and should be avoided if you have a whistle to draw attention. Some people have experienced difficulty calling out due to cold shock response. Wearing brightly colored clothing and blowing an emergency whistle allows rescuers to find you more quickly. Always keep your whistle around your neck and easily accessible.

a foam life jacket
Chisel or drill and tape measure

The equipment above can help you after you fall through the ice, but with proper equipment, knowledge, and preparation, you can avoid falling through the ice at all. If you have your life jacket and ice picks, and you are thinking about venturing onto the ice, grab a chisel or drill and tape measure.

person using a measuring tape to measure ice thickness

Use a chisel, drill, or auger to make a hole in the ice. Extend your tape measure down into the hole until the metal hook on the end of the tape measure hangs up on the bottom of the ice sheet. Pull the tape measure taught and read the measurement in inches at the surface of the ice. Check that it is at least four inches thick before you walk on it.

Ice thickness can vary greatly in a short distance. In the early and late season, it is best to check thickness with a chisel because you can check as you go. Use a chisel to continually check the ice as you walk by stabbing the ice in front of you and making sure the chisel does not break through or make a large crack.

a person pulling a sled with an auger using a chisel as he walks across a frozen lake.
Ice cleats

In addition to falls through the ice, many people are injured every year from slips and falls on the ice. Ice cleats are an important piece of safety gear that prevent slips and falls on slick, new ice. A fall on thick ice can result in a fractured tail bone or wrists while a fall on thin ice can cause you to break through the ice.

showing two differnt ice cleats, one type with spikes and other with chains

Ice cleats come in a variety of styles to fit snugly around most footwear. The cleats on the left
are steel spikes, the cleats on the right are steel chain.

Cell phone and personal locator beacon
personal locator attached to a life jacket

Personal locator beacon attached to
a life jacket where it is readily
accessible. Photo credit:
National Safe Boating Council

It is best to go on the ice only when you are with a buddy. However, if you choose to go out alone, it is important to have a way to call for help. Bring your cell phone in a waterproof case. Unfortunately, cell phones do not always have service so you should consider investing in a personal locator beacon, especially if you go out alone.

A personal locator beacon is a satellite-synced device that allows you to send your location and an SOS signal to emergency responders. These devices work throughout the year and are a great tool to take with you whether you are on the ice, open water, or in the woods.


If you see someone else fall through the ice, stay where you are. Do NOT go to them as you will likely end up falling through the ice and adding to the number of victims in the water.

The first thing you should do is call 911 for help. Then try throwing one end of a rope to them, and have them tie the rope around themselves before they become too exhausted to hold onto it. While the person in the water kicks their feet in a horizontal position, pull on the rope to get them out of the water. If they start to pull you closer to the opening in the ice, let go of the rope and start again. Once they are out of the water, encourage them to roll away from the hole and to not stand up until they have returned to stronger ice.

If you do not have a rope, look for any item that you can throw or extend out to the person in the water. Items to keep in mind for this situation are jumper cables, long stick or tree branch, extension ladder, or other similar items.

showing a person using car jumper cables on top of the ice pulling another person out of the water

If you do not have a rope, jumper cables are another option to safely help someone who
fell through the ice. Always keep a safe distance from the thin ice so you don’t become
a victim yourself.

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