Tips for Snowmobile Travel on Ice Covered Water

Stay off the ice: or prepare to go through

(Practical advice from cold water survival expert Dr Gordon Giesbrecht)


Nineteen snowmobile riders died on lakes and rivers in North America  in the 2013 season.  The following are some suggestions for reducing the risk of falling through and significantly improving the chance of surviving if you do.  

  • Choices: The choice to go onto a lake or river ice is yours alone.  In groups, decisions can be dominated by the least cautious members.  Make sure a group decision is one you all can live with.
  • Ice Assessment:  Talk to the locals about known and expected problems.  Make your own assessment of the ice: thickness, degree of thaw, recent weather history, stream and river flows and known problems like ridges, open water, holes, thin ice, etc.  Expect to find problems you did not anticipate.  Some ice problems are hard to spot, especially with snow on the ice.
  • Minimum Thickness:   A snowmobile needs at least 5” of cold, hard ice and a lot more if it is warm.  Warm weather from several days ago may affect the uniformity and strength of the ice today. More
  •  Changing conditions:  Don't expect the ice to be the same as it was last year at the same time or last week or, in some cases, even a few hours ago.
  •  Nighttime: Stay off the ice after dark or in low visibility. The 8 years of accidents in Wisconcin 76% were after dark. There are two big risks here: not seeing thin ice/open water until it is too late and going too fast and hitting an object or loosing control of the sled.  More
  •  Flotation:  With a life-jacket or, better yet, a flotation snowmobile suit, most of the Nineteen 2013 victims would have had a good chance of surviving.  Links to 'Getting that Sinking Feeling'  and   More on flotation
  •  Tools:  Ice picks and throw ropes make getting back on the ice easier and more certain. Waterproofed cell phones have saved many lives.  Carry them in pockets or a pack (not on the sled).  A drill or hatchet for checking the ice thickness is important .
  • Rescuing someone who fell in can be difficult and dangerous.  Once someone has broken through, before you move or do anyting else, call 911 to get professionals on the way.   Have a plan before you act but act promptly. A throw rope, if used quickly, will substantially improve the odds of a successful rescue and reduce the odds of a double fatality (you and them). Victims reach swimming incapacitation in a few minutes.  After that, if the ice around them is weak, it is very difficult to get them out of the water without proper equipment and an experienced team. 
  • Riding:    Don’t ride alone, you have no back up.  In groups, stay in single file and far enough apart so, if the sled in front of you finds thin ice, you can stop before you fall through to. If the ice is weak (thin or partly thawed) it is Best to avoid following directly behind the sled in front of you as each sled can weaken the ice sheet.
  • Throttle for crossing weak ice/open water: There are a fair number of accounts where aggressive use of the throttle has kept people on the surface.  There are also many drownings in cases where the circumstances, skills or the machine itself cause this to not work.  Often part of a the group pulls it off and others do not.  Ideally the machine should have the right track, other modifications to keep the belt dry and the rider should know how to skim.  This should be a 'last resort' method as the death rate is probably on the order of 50%. 
  • Throttle Thrill: Opening up a powerful machine is a big thrill but doing it at night or in poor visibility or  when intoxicated or on unfamiliar terrain is behind many many deaths. 
  • Moving Water:    Streams, rivers and narrow places on lakes have additional risks.  Bridges over the ice often have open water or thin ice under them.  Warm weather can quickly create thin or open spots that may last a while after the weather gets cold again.  Feeder streams often make thin ice or holes.  The same is true of water coming out of lakes. The current can sweep you under the ice, sometimes in just a couple seconds. Free running rivers are typically more dangerous than impounded (dammed) rivers. Local knowledge is especially important for river ice. In the 2019 season there were 12 deaths on rivers in Alaska and northern Canada mostly attributable to climate change.  Earlier years reported an average of one death per season. Narrows are common on Ontario lakes and they kill one or two riders a year. Some narrows have trails that go around the hazard.
  • Overnight Survival:   If you are riding in a remote area, be prepared to spend a night outside after a swim and loosing your sled in a lake.  Watch this video.
  • And one more thing:  Based on 8 years of  data from Wisconsin, booze was involved in 85% of snowmobile deaths on lakes and rivers.  The average blood alcohol concentration for impaired riders was  0.19% (hammered).  The risk of death at 0.19% BAC is 240 times more than for sober riders! It gets way worse than that at higher BACs.   Impairment represents a far greater risk than anything else in this list.