As Wisconsinites, we spend much of our year braving the cold temps to get outside for fresh air and exercise. And for a few weeks a year (maybe longer depending on the year!) we can also brave our frozen lakes for a walk on top of the ice. Ice fishing, ice skating, even ice boating are short-season activities we can enjoy right here in Madison…but how do you know when it’s safe to hit the ice?
Last winter, my family and I took a winter stroll on an incredibly cold day. My kids, being kids, love to find ice to crack and stomp. We found a little iced over marshy spot and let the kids grab sticks and try to make dents in the ice. I followed them over on the ice and within seconds crashed through the ice into the freezing, incredibly murky (and stinky!) water below. Luckily it was only 2 feet deep, but it taught me a very important lesson – DO NOT TRUST THE ICE. Having a healthy dose of fear when it comes to ice can be lifesaving. In my experience, all I truly suffered was a very cold walk home soaking wet and very dirty. If the ice wasn’t frozen over on a below-zero day, how can you ever tell?
Here are some tips to keep you safe on the ice:
- If you’re unsure, ask an expert. Ice fishermen often know a TON about ice conditions. If there are a bunch of people fishing, see if you can ask them how deep the ice is, if there are areas to avoid, etc. You can also check with local bait shops or outfitters that have a wealth of knowledge about local conditions.
- There’s no 100% guarantee ice is safe. The DNR does not monitor ice conditions. Even if the ice is a foot thick in one area, it can be an inch thick just yards away.
- Avoid inlets and outlets where flowing water is more likely to create weak/thin ice.
- Ice should be at least 4 inches of thick, solid, clear ice.
- Always have a buddy with you – and stay far enough apart that you can help one another in case of an emergency.
- Clear ice is thicker than ice with bubbles or snow
- Beware of snow – it can create a blanket preventing cold air from freezing the water. It’s also heavy, putting strain on the ice below.
Don’t forget, there’s no perfectly “safe” ice. If you’re unsure, stay away! We hope these tips help keep safety top of mind this winter – and we hope you find a slice of time to enjoy the magical frozen lakes.