When winter kicks in, many of the lakes in the northern regions of the world freeze over and turn into twisting networks of temporary highways and snowmobile trails. As you only need about 12" of ice for a car to drive on and many areas reach upwards of 30", it is usually quite safe as long as you follow a few safety measures. As the laws and rules of the road change all over the world, this article will stay away from any legal discussions and anything it contains should be adapted to your own area.
We live in Northern Ontario (Lake of the Woods) where the ice road is plowed to connect communities that are isolated by the massive lake to the nearest population centre and main highways. At its widest, the road is at least 6 cars wide and has a steady flow of construction vehicles and semi-trailers hauling materials to the far reaches of the lake. For our roads, and the many that stretch around us, they are public roads so you do not need a permit, but many of the lakes in the northern USA are not this way so make sure to check with your local governments to get the scoop!
Be prepared for the "worst-case" scenario
A trip onto the ice road is an adventure and it should be treated as such by preparing thoroughly. Whenever we travel on the ice road (which is often as its the only way to get to our house) we always have a dedicated safety backpack that comes with us as well as an extensive car safety kit. You can read more about both of these bags HERE but they basically contain enough food and water for a day, blankets, warm clothes, a first aid kit, and several different pieces of safety equipment. When you have a vehicle to carry all of your things, it's always better to be overprepared than under!
Keep speed under control
Like any road, speed kills. This is even more true on an ice road as the entire surface can be slippery, unpredictable, and bumpy. Keeping your speed under control will ensure that you can slow down appropriately when there is a heave in the road (more on that below), or if you start to slide. It is also very important to keep speeds low to help protect the ice itself. Anytime you drive on the ice, a shockwave is spread into the water below causing under-ice waves. These waves are usually pretty harmless, but when you have two vehicles approaching each other and the subsequent shockwaves hit, if speeds are high or the ice is weak, it can cause major issues. The same is true for any time you approach a land crossing as the under-ice waves collide with the shore and weaken the ice at these points.
Watch out for the pine trees or other markers
Yes even in the middle of the lake, you have to watch out for the trees! While each place may have a different marking system, the spots where turbulent water causes ice ridges, are marked in some fashion. Up here, this is by pine trees and if you don't slow down for the ridges, it can spell bad news for your suspension!
Windows down and Seatbelts off
This is likely the most controversial point in the article but it is something we believe is the best route to go. The ice is always changing so it's important to always be prepared for the slight chance of falling through the ice. The way we prepare is to keep our windows open ajar, and our seatbelts off. While there are conflicting ideas about your windows, our belief is having them cracked a bit will allow for a much easier and quicker escape. Think about it, if you are sinking in the water, the pressure pushing on your doors is going to be immense and you likely won't be able to open them. Having your windows open a bit helps to reduce the pressure thus increasing your chances of getting out. The seatbelt is purely a case of speed. By limiting things that can go wrong, it increases that everything goes right! On the contrary, that's assuming everyone else on the road is also following similar safety measures but as we know that is not always the case.
Carry an emergency safety tool
Finally, while it isn't necessary, we highly suggest you carry a vehicle emergency tool like THIS ONE. The small tool has everything from a seatbelt cutter, to a window smasher to an ice pick. With one tool you have everything you need if you have the worst case situation arise. Like always, it's better to be safe than sorry! As a final little plus, keeping it in your car means you have something small to protect yourself in the case of a non-ice-related attack.
Understand how to get out of the water
Knowing how to get out of the water is likely the most important thing to know. Even if you are able to swim really well, cold water and hypothermia can cause rash decisions and kill you in just minutes. The simplest way to get out of the water is using an ice pick of some sort. If you have a safety tool like discussed above, use it but if not, a screwdriver is a good option. When you get to the edge of the ice, breakthrough as much as you can with your arms until you are at a spot you can't easily break. With both your arms resting on the ice, kick your feet so that you end up lying horizontal to the water. At this point, start kicking forward and wiggling your way up on the ice. This is much easier with the ice pick. Keep laying on your stomach and army crawl or pull your way far from the ice edge trying to spread your weight out as much as you can. DO NOT stand up until you are far from the edge or better yet, on the nearest bit of land.
At the end of the day, ice road safety is all in the eye of the beholder. If something doesn't sit right with you, don't do it just because you see others doing it. Don't venture out onto the ice if you feel it is unsafe to do so or if you are not prepared. This article is not here to replace your own sense of right or wrong or to replace any legal authority.