So far this winter, ice fishing in Illinois and most of the Midwest has been a bust. Continued up and down warming trends have kept all but some extreme northern locations free of ice suitable for fishing. But hang onto your long johns, colder days are ahead and sure to bring Arctic blasts and safe ice for fishing.

With the coming of bitter weather, be mindful of the potential hazards of frozen lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. It’s important to keep a watchful eye on neighborhood retention ponds, lakes and other waterways for others who may venture out and find themselves in trouble.

Every winter, thousands of Midwesterners safely enjoy fishing, skating, hiking or just sliding around on frozen ponds and lakes. Unfortunately, every year people drown after falling through ice.

Just like driving differently on snow versus clear roads, some may need to relearn how to safely have fun on ice.

Put safety first. The best rule of thumb when thinking about getting on the ice is believe it is thin ice unless proven otherwise.

Here are a few tips to remember when considering standing or walking on a frozen lake or pond:

  1. No ice is safe ice.
  2. Test the thickness of the ice with an ice auger. At least 4 inches of ice is recommended for ice fishing; 5 inches for snowmobiling.
  3. If you don’t know the thickness of the ice, don‘t go on it.
  4. Wear life jackets or flotation coats.
  5. Carry ice hooks and rope gear.
  6. Before going on the ice, leave a note of your whereabouts with a friend or family member.
  7. Don’t test the thickness of the ice while alone.

Wearing a life jacket is especially important when on the ice. If you fall through, a life jacket will keep your head above the water until help arrives.

A coating of snow can make for treacherous ice conditions. Snow can insulate the ice, causing it to freeze at a slower rate. When snow and rain freeze into ice, it is never as strong as solid, clear ice.

If you see a pet or other animal in distress on the ice, do not go after it. Doing so can often end in tragedy. Instead, contact your local emergency response personnel, who are equipped to make a rescue.

Some bodies of water will appear to be frozen solid but actually can have thin ice in several potentially unexpected areas. Flowing water, such as rivers and streams, should be avoided when covered by a layer of ice. Water surrounded by sand may freeze with inconsistencies in the thickness of the ice. Underground springs, wind, waterfowl and other aquatic animals such as beavers can also keep areas of ice thin.

Safety first, fun later.