Even on the most carefully planned ice fishing adventures, things can happen. A person never plans to get excessively cold, wet or break through the ice, but these are inherent risks taken each time we venture onto frozen water—and something that recently happened to our good friend Zach, who broke through ice while negotiating his way across a shallow water inlet.
While Zach was never in danger of drowning, he was at risk of suffering hypothermia. Fortunately, we were prepared—and you should be, too.
If this happens close to your vehicle, the best bet is to immediately head back, and get inside with the heat flowing. But if you’re in a remote location as we were, the scenario changes fast. In this instance, we were on a lake surrounded by forest—something that ended up being a saving grace, because we were able to start an emergency fire.
Everyone may have different ways of providing an emergency heat source, but here is what I suggest: First, always carry a lighter or matches. Aron and I keep multiple lighters stashed all over in our gear. We also bring a couple one pound propane cylinders and a small cook stove attachment. Generally we use these to cook our lunches on the ice, but can also be used to warm someone up fast if need be. In fact, depending on the situation–especially when out in the open and it’s windy—the safest, easiest and fastest warm up option is to simply set up a portable shelter and “fire up” that propane heater inside.
If this option isn’t available, the next one is starting an actual fire—but before I proceed, please understand many areas have strict regulations regarding recreational fire use—even outright bans on the practice within many public domains. And even where legal, campfires are often restricted to designated fire pits, and the cutting of wood or breaking of branches from trees remains strictly forbidden. However, when there’s an emergency, such as the one we encountered in our situation with Zach, collecting a few dead branches or pieces of driftwood to start a carefully watched shoreline fire may also save a life.
Should this need arise, begin by finding kindling. Dry moss growing from trees, fallen birch bark (never strip this protective layer from live trees!) and small, dead, pencil diameter sticks or branches all work great. The key words when it comes to wood, however, are dead and dry. When you bend the stick it should snap instead of bend. If it bends, it is considered “green” and will constitute poor fire starting material.
Rather, try to snap dead branches from trees not laying on the ground. You want the wood to be dry, so preferably it should be out of the snow. In this particular instance, I laid a bed of dead balsam boughs down first so I wasn’t dropping all of my dry wood down in the snow.
To start the fire, clear an area of snow and debris down to the ground, sand or rock as best you can. Place the bark, moss or whatever you found as an initial fire starter down (paper, napkins, cardboard can also be used when available), then loosely surround this mass with the small, pencil diameter branches. I say loosely because you want to make sure enough air is able to get in and feed the fire. A hand full should be enough to do the trick.
Next, loosely arrange three or four wrist wide diameter pieces of dead wood over the kindling. Again be careful it does not stop air from moving through the pile, yet is close enough to the kindling so it will catch fire. Then light the kindling. Sometimes you may need to help the airflow by blowing on the flames, but when stacked properly it will typically catch on its own.
Once your kindling has ignited, the pencil-sized bits are burning and wrist size diameter pieces have caught flame, SLOWLY begin adding bits of wood just a little bit bigger. After you have a good, hot fire rolling you can add wood of larger size, but again let me emphasize: Use dead, dry wood!
All in all, fire starting is a babysitting game. You have to watch it closely and gradually add little bits of this or that to slowly grow the fire. Once you have a good fire established and the wrist size branches are burning well you can begin adding larger sized pieces of wood.
Now, depending how wet your clothing is and how cold and windy it is, the best way to dry everything out will vary somewhat. In Zach’s instance, we took off his jacket and hung it over a stick near the heat. He was able to dry his pants simply by unzipping his bibs and standing close to the fire–while being careful not to allow any of the fabric to get too close to the open flame.
Drying boots can be tricky, and the best method varies depending on the style boot you’re wearing, but taking them off, removing the liners and holding each piece individually over the heat with a stick generally works best–just be sure you are simultaneously keeping your exposed feet warm, too. Sitting in a folding chair, on a stump or log while keeping your feet elevated over the heat and avoiding any contact with the cold ground works best.
Again, situations vary greatly based on conditions you’re facing, and honestly, I hope you never have to use the information provided here—but should an emergency arise, maybe the story of our experience with Zach will be something you find helpful.
I strongly recommend keeping a fully charged cell phone in a Ziploc back or other type of watertight container, so it’s always readily available, dry and ready to be used in instances requiring outside assistance or contact with rescue personnel.