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5 Top Ice Fishing Safety Tips

Ice fishing is a hobby that can help the average fisher get through the cold winter months. But it comes with its own risks and dangers, and if those risks are not heeded, injury and even death can result. To remain safe while ice fishing, there are several ice fishing safety tips you can follow.

The 5 top ice fishing safety tips are:

  1. Tell or take someone with you
  2. Check the ice
  3. Ice shack safety
  4. Have rescue equipment
  5. Be careful with your equipment

Ice fishing presents unique risks and dangers above and beyond open water fishing. Many of those risks can lead to catastrophic consequences if you ignore common sense safety procedures. Read on to learn the top 5 ice fishing safety tips every fisher must follow to stay safe.

Things To Bear In Mind When Ice Fishing

The Threat is Real

As mentioned, ice fishing presents several unique threats. In addition to the normal risks associated with being on the water and fishing in general, several other contributing factors can lead to an angler finding themselves in a dangerous situation. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Falling through the ice and drowning, suffocating or freezing to death
  • Falling on the ice and experiencing trauma
  • Hypothermia
  • Exceeding the edge of an ice shelf and plunging into the water
  • Injury from ice fishing tools such as hooks, augurs, saws, etc.

By far the most serious threat is falling into the water. From that, the fisher can drown, freeze to death, get trapped under the ice and suffocate or die from hypothermia. In the dead of winter, someone immersed in a lake, pond or river likely has only minutes to save themselves. That’s not the only danger the ice poses, though.

Slippery Surface

Ice is slippery and hard. A slip and fall can result in broken bones, concussions and/or contusions. From the point of injuring yourself, any number of escalations can happen if the you’re not treated quickly.

You can become disoriented and wander into an area where the ice is unstable or, if the ice shelf you’re fishing on has an open water edge, you can fall into the water. Another possibility is that you struggle to warm up or are disoriented and don’t realize you need to do so and hypothermia sets in.

If you’re injured and are alone, you can pass out from pain and hypothermia can set in or if it is very cold, you could freeze to death. If the contusion is severe enough, you can suffer from blood loss, which can disorient you, leading to further injury or danger. If the injury is severe enough, you could even bleed out.

Equipment Risks

Then there are the normal dangers and risks associated with ice fishing equipment. Anything with razor sharp hooks poses a cut and puncture risk. Fishing gear also usually includes knives and scissors, which can injure an angler pretty easily.

Additionally, the equipment used to cut through the ice can injure a person and, in some cases, can be deadly. Ice augurs have a lot of sharp, moving parts. If you’re using a chain saw to enlarge an ice hole, any number of hazards exist, including getting cut by the saw, which, when it happens, usually results in at least a traumatic injury of some sort.

The best way to think of ice fishing and the risks involved is that it contains all the risks of open water fishing, plus dangers posed by ice, cold, snow, wind and equipment. That’s why knowing how to handle yourself on the ice is vital to remain safe and to be able to react to an emergency if one arises.   

5 Top Ice Fishing Safety Tips

1. Tell Or Take Someone With You

Any time you go fishing you should tell someone. If possible, leave a list that contains the following information:

  • The name of the body of water you’re visiting
  • Where on that body of water you plan on being
  • The direction you might head if you move
  • When you plan on returning
  • When the person you told should alert the authorities
  • Any emergency contact information

The same applies to ice fishing. While most ice fishers are not as mobile on the ice as they would be in open water fishing, the exact location on a lake or pond you are can save emergency response teams valuable minutes, particularly if you’re injured or in trouble.

Another option is to partner with someone when ice fishing. A partner can help in an emergency. At the very least, a partner can alert emergency response personnel if anyone is injured or needs emergency services.

It’s important that the person accompanying you, either as a fellow angler or someone who is just there as a friend, knows basic ice safety protocols. It’s worth going over a list like the one above with them to make sure they understand what to do in an emergency. You should also tell someone not going ice fishing with you. The more people that know where you’re going the better.

2. Check The Ice

Just about anywhere ice forms on rivers, lakes or ponds, there is a story of someone that ventured out on the ice when it was too thin and fell through. If they were lucky, the water they fell into was shallow or they had a friend who could help them out or they were able to get out by themselves. In some cases, there wasn’t a happy ending.

The easiest way to avoid a crisis like that is to check the thickness of the ice before venturing out on it. Ice must be at least 4 inches thick to support the average human being. Charts are available online that detail how thick the ice should be to take a snow mobile or vehicle out on it, but this is a good guide for those just walking onto the ice.

To test the ice, do the following:

  1. Use an ice pick or steel rod to penetrate the ice two feet from the shore
  2. Verify the ice is thick enough to walk on (at least 4 inches thick)
  3. Venture out 20 feet and do the same thing up to 50 feet
  4. Repeat that every 150 feet, stopping if the minimum thickness is not met

Other Ice Tips

  • New ice is usually stronger than older ice
  • Ice almost never freezes evenly, so constantly testing its thickness is key
  • Stay away from flowing water unless the ice is double the thickness required
  • Ice on river bends is generally weaker than on straight sections
  • Snow can act as an insulator and weaken ice under it
  • Ice can “rot” over time and weaken, making regular testing critical
  • Only take a truck out onto the ice if absolutely necessary (and thick enough)

3. Ice Shack Safety

Ice fishing shacks are awesome. They can provide warmth during a cold day, a place to rest, play games and eat. Without them, you’re stuck out on the ice in the elements or forced to retreat to your vehicle and watch your Tip-Up Flag or electric bite alert from afar. As much fun as they are though, ice fishing shacks also pose certain dangers.

Carbon Monoxide

The first is carbon monoxide if you use any type of heater that burns wood, coal or gas. Always have carbon monoxide warning equipment on hand in an ice shack and have it activated at all times. Additionally, even in the bitter cold, always have the shack well ventilated.

Hypothermia

The second risk is hypothermia. Hypothermia can be sneaky. Even if a person is inside a shack and seemingly warmer than if they were outside, hypothermia can still set in if the person has no other way to warm themselves.

Fire

The third risk is fire. If you use any type of fire or stove, there is a fire risk. Always make sure the ice shack has a fully charged fire extinguisher. Also, if the shack stays on the ice for the full season, never leave hot embers to cool on their own.

Another risk is poor judgment and bad decisions that come from excessive drinking of alcohol in the shack. Because it’s enclosed, fishers have time to kill and usually there is a camaraderie among those in the shack, so drinking is often an assumed part of any ice fishing trip. In fact, many anglers associate ice fishing shacks with drinking.

Don’t Drink Alcohol

No one should ever drink when ice fishing. Drinking is one way of ensuring bad judgment is compounded, bad coordination is worsened, and bad decisions are multiplied. When ice fishing, leave the booze for after the trip.

A final risk is the weight of the shack. Always check the ice thickness around the shack before entering if the shack was left on the ice shelf overnight. The later into the season you go ice fishing, the more likely thinner ice will be a problem.

Once any thaw starts, either pull the shack off the ice or check the thickness of the ice several times during any ice fishing trip. Also, when removing the shack, check the thickness. A shack or vehicle falling through the ice when the ice shack was being removed can and does happen.

4. Have Rescue Equipment

Rescue equipment is extremely important for every ice fishing trip. At the very least, you should have the following:

  • Ice chisel
  • Personal ice picks
  • Ice cleats
  • Floating rescue rope
  • Hand warmers
  • Some sort of reliable flotation device
  • First aid kit
  • Basic survival kit (matches, tinder, map, water purification tablets, signal mirror, compass, survival knife, signaling flare)

Each of these items can save a life if utilized properly. Ensuring you and everyone with you knows how to use the equipment is critical.

5. Be Careful With Your Equipment

Fishing equipment can be dangerous. Hooks and knives can cut and puncture your skin. Add to that an augur and possibly a chainsaw and the dangerous just turned really dangerous. In addition to the new danger, there is also the cold and the fact that most ice fishers are wearing a lot more clothes than they do with open water fishing, which makes them slower and not as nimble in most cases.

Always exercising the utmost caution around any equipment or fishing gear is the only way to stay safe. Becoming distracted even for a moment can result in a hook gouging a hand or an arm, and if the person is running equipment like an augur, it can result in serious bodily injury. So, always be careful around dangerous ice fishing equipment.

Final Thoughts

There are many other ice fishing safety tips – like watching the weather, avoiding staying out in the cold for long, and staying hydrated – but the five ice fishing safety tips listed above are the most essential. By far, though, regularly checking the thickness of the ice is the most important.