Risk management

Simple, easy-to-use gear to help you survive—or avoid—a plunge into icy water

Emergency essentials for saving yourself from the hardwater season’s potential perils

3Patrick Walsh

Provided you’re wearing a PFD, an embarrassing tumble into the water during summer could mean lost tackle or a bricked phone at worst. But during winter, falling through the ice can get very serious, very quickly, with a very real threat of drowning. A fall onto the ice is no laughing matter, either.

As always, your most important piece of safety equipment is the grey matter between your ears—you must use it constantly to assess ice and weather conditions when heading out onto the hardwater. But there are also some very practical, easy-to-use items that can help you survive a serious mishap or, better yet, completely avoid trouble in the first place.



These durable suits are designed to keep you dry and warm on the ice and, more importantly, offer flotation and protection from hypothermia should you go into the water. A flotation suit keeps your head in a swimmer’s position above water and gives you time for help to arrive—or to haul yourself out (see “Ice picks” on next page).

Both one- and two-piece suits are available, with the choice coming down to a personal preference for warmth versus the option of wearing just the jacket or bibs on warmer days. Whatever the case, make sure the apparel is approved by the U.S. or Canadian Coast Guard. And to get a proper sense of the fit, try the suit on over the base- and mid-layer apparel you typically wear when ice fishing. Like a PFD, it only works if it’s comfortable and you actually wear it.



Also known as ice spikes, ice grippers or bear claws, these are one of the ice angler’s simplest and most effective self-rescue tools. They’re simply a set of two sharp metal picks set into handles, usually connected to a string so you can wear them around your neck. Slick, commercially made versions have retractable guard sleeves, but you can also make your own picks with wooden dowelling and stout nails.

Should you happen to break through, you simply drive the points of the picks into the ice surface and pull yourself out, almost like a horizontal rock climber. This is much faster and more effective than trying to use your cold, wet hands to clamber back onto the slick surface. Once you’re out, get warm as soon as possible and pat yourself on the back for saving your own life with a $15 investment.



What’s the easiest way to test the thickness and strength of snow-covered or otherwise questionable ice? Just jab it with an ice chisel, also known as a spud bar. This safety tool is simply a sturdy, four- to five-foot-long metal bar with a sharp chisel-like point. Depending on how fancy you like to get, handle options range from bare metal to a vibration-dampening grip with a lanyard.

While you generally want your ice-fishing gear to be as light as possible, that’s not the case with a spud. Its substantial weight lets you test the ice by banging the business end into the surface with some authority, like a heavy-duty walking stick. Safe, strong ice will chip away, but if the end penetrates for some distance—stop walking and head back to safety. An ice chisel can also be used for reopening old holes or cutting holes when the ice is less than six inches thick.



Although it can seem funny—like that old banana-peel gag—slipping on winter ice is no laughing matter. This mishap is so common that we all probably know someone who has seriously injured an elbow, knee, back or head in a fall. And a bad fall is made all the worse when you’re ice fishing way out on a lake, far from help. But it’s easy to prevent such an accident: simply add ice cleats to your boots for extra traction.

Also known as spikes, creepers or grips, ice cleats come in numerous designs. Most boil down to metal studs set in flexible rubber straps and treads that attach firmly to your boots and stay in position, yet easily slip on and off as needed. When choosing cleats, the more studs, the better, preferably positioned under both the heel and ball of your foot. You also want aggressive, self-cleaning treads.



Every winter, ice anglers crash through the ice on their snow machines or ATVs and drown. It’s tragic. But thanks to a remarkable new product—the Nebulus Emergency Flotation Device—such a tragedy is now largely avoidable. Outdoor Canada fishing editor Gord Pyzer first wrote about the Nebulus in 2014, calling it “brilliant and essential.”

A small pack the size of a pillow that tethers to your snow machine or ATV (below), the Nebulus automatically inflates in less than 30 seconds if you go into the water. Once inflated, it provides enough buoyancy to prevent the vehicle from sinking to the bottom and, more importantly, serves as a life raft you can climb onto. At about $500, the Nebulus isn’t cheap, but neither is your life. See www.nebulusflotation.com.




aMost outdoorsfolk are savvy enough to carry a small emergency kit in their vehicles and boats, or when heading into the backcountry. But how many of us bring one along when we go ice fishing? The answer, most likely, is not enough. But if you can be unexpectedly stranded during a spring, summer or fall outing, you can certainly be stranded in the winter, too.

A few simple items—no more than would fit into a lunch bag—are generally all you need to get home safely or wait for help to arrive. The contents may vary depending on when and where you head out, but an ice safety kit should at least include a flashlight or headlamp, whistle, survival blanket, waterproof matches, candles and hand-warmer packs. But once again, always remember that the most important piece of safety equipment is that grey matter between your ears.


Associate editor Scott Gardner enjoys heading out onto the hardwater on foot.