ICE CLAWS ARE SIMPLE AND EFFECTIVE ICE SAFETY EQUIPMENT.
NEVER LEAVE SHORE WITHOUT THEM. Over half of ‘through the ice’ deaths would probably be avoided if everyone had ice claws.
They are also called ice picks, safety claws, ice awls, etc. Most local stores that sell ice fishing gear have them and chain stores with decent icefishing departments usually stock them (although in our area the run out early in the season). There are a few online sources (see below). There are several different styles. The Swedish claws are the best design although any style is better than being in the water with nothing.
They are easy to make. The simplest design is the 'broom handle' design.
20D common nails are plenty strong enough (roughly twice as strong as some of the commercial claw designs designs which work fine). The heads can easily be cut off with a hacksaw or bolt cutter. Some people recommend using cement nails for the spikes. They are hard and strong but can be hard to cut the heads off. A hack saw with a high quality blade will cut them if they are not too hard. My current batch of 3-1/2" cement nails has a few that are too hard to saw with bimetal blade. An abrasive cut-off tool will cut them easily, just don't set your wood shop on fire. An 11/64" drill should be a tight enough fit to keep cement nails in place without glue (although glue never hurts). It is best if nails are cut as long as you can drill. The point does not need to be any sharper or more tapered than the unmodified nail.
Directions for making classic 'L shaped' claws can be found at: http://www.idniyra.org/articles/ice_claws.htm . This method is intended for making a bunch at one time and involves a radial arm saw. A few pair can be made efficiently with basic hand tools (hand drill, hand saw and a coping saw or saber saw). There are other simple home made designs on the www.
Some homemade claws start from screw drivers. If you go that route, the spike on the end should only be an inch long to make them more effective and to reduce the impalement risk when carrying them. If the spikes are much longer you get less purchase on the ice than you would with a shorter spike length.
You should have several spare pairs of claws so you always have them with you and you have some for friends. Make a bunch and give them away. Sooner or later you will save someone’s life, most likely your own. (I sailed my iceboat into a very rotton pressure ridge the day I made my first pair of claws...much more luck than sense).
The Swedish claws are designed to be worn close around your neck so they are where you can find them quickly when you are in the water. It is recommended that you keep the neck strap short so they don't come over your head when you fall in. The Swedes have a large skating population and they analyse accident details. They know what they are talking about. The ease of access of the Swedish claws also means they can be bumped out of their holder once in a while. For people on foot that seems to me to be a minor liability for what is a very good design. For sailors this could be a problem so another design is better.
There are two commercial designs available in local fishing stores and on the web. One type has black or yellow handles with retractable claw covers that are designed to be worn with the lanyard through your coat sleeves and the claws hanging out the ends of the sleeves a little bit. That makes them easily available in the water. They sink in water. If you carry them in a pocket the lanyard should be tied off to you. Some of these have a spiral plastic lanyard.
The red claws in the next picture are are available with either a light rope lanyard or a spiral plastic lanyard. I like the spiral lanyard better because it keeps the claws where they are easy to find. They are made with polypropylene but the lanyard is PVC so they sink. As long as they don't slip over your head when you fall in this is not likely to be a problem.
- The Swedish design is the best as they are easy to find and it only takes one hand.
- Rope lanyards on broom handle or L shaped claws are most conveniently worn over your head and under one arm. If the lanyard is kept reasonably short they will ride on the center of your chest where they are easy to find. With a velcro closure they can be deployed with one hand although not as cleanly as the Swedish claws, especially of the lanyard is under your pack or clothes.
- The black retractable design looks good if you don't mind having them hanging out of your sleeves.
- The red plastic claws require pulling apart which can be done with two hands or a hand and an armpit or teeth (not recommended unless you are desperate).
Breast pockets are probably a reasonable place to carry them. Places that are either poor or useless include pockets that are harder to get to, packs, tackle boxes, gear buckets, on your sled or snowmobile, vehicle glove compartments, or at home.
A good procedure for using ice claws is:
- When you see you are going in, put your hand over your mouth and nose to reduce the chance you will gasp in water.
- If you can, try to slow your fall to minimize the chance your head will go under. The general method is to spread your free arm, your other elbow and legs as you go in and pull your legs together as you get to about waist deep and swing your arms down as you approach shoulder depth.
- Once in the water, get your breathing under control (this may take up to a minute).
- Turn to face the direction you came in from (this presumes the strongest ice is probably where you came from).
- Swim back to the edge of the ice.
- Find and deploy your claws. Stab one into the edge of the ice.
- If you have a throw rope you can get at easily, throw it back to anyone you can who is still on good ice. Obviously the end of the rope should be attached to you (typically to a pack which has a waist belt and a leg loop.
- If you have poles of any sort, place them across the ice a foot or so from the edge (to support your weight better).
- Get the second claw in.
- Swim you legs up behind you
- Pull with the claws, lift with your elbows to get your body over the edge while kicking with your feet (a frog kick works well). It may take several kicks to get you out.
- Once out, roll away from the edge or drag yourself with the claws until you are sure the ice is strong enough to get up on your hands and knees and proceed until you are confident you can stand on the ice.
- Change your clothes (assistance may help) and get to shore or, if you are in a dry suit on, have some lunch and continue to enjoy the rest of your day.
- Breathing: The gasp reflex can be unavoidable. If you manage to get water in your larynx it can make breathing difficult or impossible for a period of time - hopefully a short one! As best I can tell, the biggest risk is if your mouth is open when you are gasping. That is why our local rescue people suggest putting your hand over your mouth and nose as you enter the water. Part of your plan to save yourself should be to diliberately clamp your mouth closed as soon as you realize you have broken through. There is some difference of opinion by experts about how big a risk the gasp reflex is.
- If you are under the water most people can’t hold their breath in cold water for more than a few seconds.
- I have been told by a knowledgable Swede that it is quite rare that someone is trapped under the ice.
- Get on with getting out. Your ability to grip things like ice claws and throw ropes goes away in a few minutes.
- Claw Placement: There is a tendency to place the claws as far back on the ice as you can reach. In most cases, stabbing your claws a foot closer to the edge will let you get more weight over them and your elbows. The purpose of the claws are to let you lift your upper body over the ice edge without sliding back in.
- Swimming your legs to a horizontal position behind you makes getting out much easier.
- Getting to shore and re-warming: If you are not fully re-warmed by the time you get to shore you need to get rewarmed BUT if a car is involved, have someone else drive you. In some cases you may develop a re-warming heart arrhythmia that could cause you to lose consciousness.
- Call 911 at any point in this process if it looks like the victim is significantly hypothermic of shows any other signs of medical distress. If in any doubt, call rescue. They much prefer being called when they are not needed to not being called promptly when they might be need.
If you can't find what you want locally, here are some www sources of ice claws:
Swedish Ice Claws From VT Nordic Skater (menu on the right near the bottom)
Floating retractable sheath claws (Pick Of Life)
Red Claws with spiral lanyard (Shown above)