13 Ice Fishing Safety Gear (Staying Alive on Frozen Lakes)

Ice fishing continues to rapidly grow in popularity as a fun, exciting winter sport. But as with any outdoor winter activity, safety should always be the number one priority for anglers heading out onto hard water. This comprehensive guide covers all the essential safety gear, tips, precautions, and information you need to know to stay safe and alive while enjoying ice fishing.

(Ice Fishing Safety Gear) ice fishing with snorkel gear

Must Have Ice Fishing Safety Gear and Tools

Having the proper essential tools for ice fishing is vital for safety and emergency preparedness. Don’t head onto the ice without these critical items:

Ice chisel/auger  An auger is a must-have to drill holes through the ice to fish. But a separate chisel or spud bar is also critical safety gear for checking ice thickness and conditions before ever stepping onto any ice. Look for a long, sharp spud or hand auger that can penetrate thick ice and check for quality and consistency. Chisels allow anglers to assess ice stability away from drilled holes.

Ice picks  Ice picks worn on a lanyard around your neck are a simple but essential tool for self-rescue if you fall through any weak ice. Having easily accessible picks to dig into the ice to pull yourself out can be a lifesaver. Always carry two picks for redundancy and emergency preparedness.

Float suit or PFD  An insulated float suit explicitly designed for ice fishing or an inflatable PFD provides essential flotation if you break the ice into frigid waters. Having the proper buoyancy from this gear gives you crucial extra time for self-rescue rather than quickly sinking. So choose comfortable ice fishing floatation gear you can fish in all day.

Floating rope/throw bag  Keep some form of floating rope or throw bag easily accessible on your person to aid in rescue efforts for others. A throw bag is ideal so it can be quickly grabbed and easily thrown to someone who has fallen through the thin ice from a safe distance. Attempting rescues without proper gear is dangerous.

Ice cleats  Simple strap-on ice cleats that securely fit over your boots provide essential traction on slippery ice to prevent painful falls and injuries. Reliable models like Kahtoola Microspikes are perfect for keeping your footing in icy conditions. Slipping and falls can be disastrous around areas of questionable ice.

Having this core ice fishing safety gear on hand could make the difference between life and death in an emergency on the ice. But don’t rely just on equipment; diligent awareness, preparation, and caution are equally important.

Recommended Additional Gear and Supplies

While the aforementioned items are mandatory, having some additional gear and supplies can further enhance safety and prepare you for emergencies:

Handheld GPS or compass – A GPS or compass can greatly aid navigation, especially when heading far from shore to remote lakes. Mount or secure a handheld GPS unit on your snowmobile, ATV, UTV, or sled for easy access. GPS batteries can die in extreme cold, so pack a simple backup compass in case electronic navigation fails.

VHF radio – A VHF radio provides a critical communication backup when cell phone service is unreliable in remote areas. Make sure it is fully charged. A radio also allows hailing the Coast Guard or other authorities quickly if emergency assistance is needed.

Spud bar – A spud or chisel bar is a useful low-tech tool for continually checking ice thickness and stability while moving around or away from your fishing hole. Look for a long, lightweight two-piece spud for carrying convenience and versatility.

First aid kit  Carry waterproof gear with bandages, gauze, tape, antiseptic, trauma shears, pain meds, etc. Be prepared to treat injuries from hooks, falls, or hypothermia.

Food and water  Bring ample extra food like high protein snacks as well as water. Dehydration occurs quickly in cold weather. Emergency overnight survival supplies may be needed if you become stuck or lost.

Portable shelter  A pop-up portable ice fishing shelter can be a lifesaver to get out of the wind and cold. Use safe heating methods only. Never run vehicle engines or propane heaters in enclosed spaces due to carbon monoxide risks.

Folding seat – A padded seat is much more comfortable than a bucket for sitting through a long day of ice fishing. Look for an insulated seat with back support that folds up easily when not in use.

Brightly colored gear – Wear bright colors like orange for your outer jacket, hat, mittens, etc. This visibility gear makes you easier to spot by snowmobiles and other vehicles on the frozen lake.

Top Ice Fishing Safety Tips and Precautions

In addition to specialized gear, following prudent safety measures and precautions is essential for remaining safe through a day on the ice:

Never go ice fishing alone – Always fish with at least one buddy and stay within visual range of them. Having a partner allows for quicker emergency response if one of you encounters any trouble.

Tell others of your plans – Inform family or friends of your planned location, expected return time, and who you will be fishing with. Check-in with them when leaving the ice to provide reassurance.

Frequently check ice thickness  Use your ice chisel or auger to check thickness and consistency frequently as you move to different spots. Conditions can vary widely across a single lake. Avoid any questionable areas.

Avoid currents and moving water  Areas with flowing water from streams or rivers emptying into lakes can be significantly weaker. Steer well clear of these high-risk zones.

Exercise extreme caution around slush  Slushy areas or holes created from removing ice blocks are also far more prone to breaking through. Give them a vast berth.

Watch for any cracks, heaves, or thawing ice  Visual cues like cracks, pressure heaves, pooling water, or ice turning dark brown indicate deteriorating integrity. Exit any such areas immediately.

Account for snowfall  Heavy snow can insulate ice and inhibit solid formation. Clear snow away to check actual ice thickness. Avoid late-season ice covered by snow.

Carry a charged cell phone in a waterproof case  A phone may be your only means of calling for emergency help if you are injured or stranded. But protect it from moisture and cold.

Have spare food, water, and survival supplies  Prepare for contingencies by packing extra provisions, as well as energy bars, matches, flashlights, first aid, etc. Don’t count on being able to return by nightfall.

Wear ice cleats religiously  Your ice cleats provide traction to prevent slipping, falling, or even sliding into open holes. Take great care walking near any ice edge without them on solid ground first.

Know the signs of hypothermia and treatments  Rapidly treat mild hypothermia symptoms like shivering, lethargy, stumbling, or confusion before they escalate. Stay dry. Keep extra layers handy.

Educate yourself on recommended ice fishing safety guidelines  Responsibly familiarize yourself with ice safety fundamentals from reputable sources like state agencies prior to each season. No ice should ever be considered “safe ice.” Only thoughtful preparation will keep you safe.

Understanding Key Factors Impacting Ice Strength

While simple thickness measurements are often cited, judiciously judging the proper stability and strength of ice involves several critical factors:

Ice thickness chart – General minimum thickness guidelines recommend at least 4″ clear ice for walking alone on foot, 6-8″ for snowmobiles or ATVs, 9-12″ for UTVs or small vehicles, and 12-15″+ for trucks or small cars. But thicker does not necessarily mean safer if other factors like consistency are neglected.

Clear vs. cloudy ice  Ice that forms in early winter with few impurities is more vital blue or clear ice, while opaque ice that forms later into winter with more air pockets and debris is structurally weaker per inch of thickness. Cloudiness indicates density issues.

Snow cover  Heavy snow buildup insulates ice from cold air and inhibits solid freeze through. Check actual ice thickness by clearing away snow. Travel is riskier in the late season, with significant snow cover on the ice.

Currents and moving water  River inflows, winds, springs, and other moving water weaken ice dramatically, so avoid these high-hazard zones. If venturing onto rivers or spring-fed lakes, exercise extreme care.

Pressure, cracks, and heaves  Cracked, buckled, or heaved ice that has shifted under pressure is potentially unstable and prone to open holes or breaking suddenly under added weight. Stay clear of these areas.

No ice should ever be considered 100% “safe ice.” Only intelligent, cautious preparation and vigilance will keep you safe. Consult local experts on ice conditions.

Using Modern Technology to Enhance Ice Fishing Safety

In addition to sensible precautions, modern fish finding and GPS technology can make ice fishing safer by aiding awareness:

GPS fish finders – Ice fishing specific fish finder/GPS combo units like the Humminbird ICE HELIX 5 feature built-in GPS mapping and Down Imaging sonar perfect for locating structure, depth changes, and brush piles to identify the safest access spots and avoid hazards before drilling or approaching any areas.

Waypoints and track  Use your fish finder’s GPS capabilities to mark waypoints, pinpointing any cracks, heaves, inflows, or other danger areas you encounter to avoid and recall them later. Also, track and map your path of travel and fishing holes as you move around the lake.

Sonar ice scouting – Flasher-style sonars allow scoping out ice thickness, structure, and bottom composition ahead of your position without having to drill multiple holes. Use this information to strategically locate your fishing spots in the safest, most promising areas.

Satellite imagery – Satellite map options on units like the Humminbird HELIX 10 allow seeing a detailed overhead view of the entire lake and shoreline for planning the safest approaches and identifying structural elements like old foundations, shoals, or drop-offs that influence ice stability.

Additional Ice Fishing Resources and Local Guidance

Seeking out additional ice fishing safety resources and connecting with guides or outfitters familiar with your target lakes is advisable. Some great sources of information include:

State agency fishing websites – State DNR/wildlife departments provide ice fishing safety education, lake maps, and sometimes local ice reports by region. These are invaluable for studying the lake and planning a trip.

Guide services – Hire a guide for the first time on unfamiliar frozen lakes. Guides monitor ice conditions regularly and understand the lake. Let them show you safe areas and where to avoid.

Local fishing shops – Bait and tackle shops are hubs of insider ice fishing knowledge. Anglers keep them updated on current ice conditions, thickness, hazards, and accessibility. They know the lakes they service well.

Salus Marine Wear Float Suits – The experts at Salus Marine manufacture specialized ice fishing float suits and have a library of excellent safety blogs and videos worth perusing.

Final Thoughts on Staying Alive While Enjoying Ice Fishing

Ice fishing may look straightforward enough, but it requires much more preparation, awareness, and diligence to partake in safely versus regular summer fishing. Having the proper essential gear, checking ice carefully, learning how different factors affect ice strength, and following prudent safety practices outlined here can help ensure you have an enjoyable day on the hard water and return home safely.

Emma is the wordsmith behind the insightful articles and guides on our website. Her extensive research and passion for fishing shine through in every piece she creates. Whether sharing angling tips or delving into the latest conservation efforts, Emma is dedicated to providing valuable and engaging content.