Divers who have advanced diving skills can experience new adventures via ice diving. Preparation for ice diving requires weeks of dive training and assembling equipment specific to the sport. Ice divers also are required to wear dry suits. The training, which includes techniques unique to ice diving, is discussed.

Ice diving is a lot like a wedding – lots of planning and preparation for a few minutes of ceremony/underwater time. Leading up to your first ice dive could be weeks of training sessions, learning to use a drysuit, assembling the unique equipment, dry runs of new techniques and waiting for the lake to freeze hard and thick.

Watch for a day with bright blue skies (better light penetration), weather in the high 20s ([degrees] F), no wind and thick ice, so vehicles can drive across the lake to the exact dive location. When the dive day finally comes, you will be warm with excitement and activities needed to set up the ice diving site.

Now the work begins: testing the ice before driving out; driving or dragging all the equipment to the site; cutting a triangular hole; pinning the block; shoveling spokes with arrows pointing back to the hole; and erecting a tent or wind break.

Then you must warm and rest the divers. Plan to have hot soup, nutritious drinks and snacks. These will replace fluids lost during exertion and provide sound energy boosts, not sugar induced highs and lows.

It is tough to ice dive with less than six people – two are active divers, two are standby divers and two are line tenders. If you have eight participants the program goes faster. The extra people can rotate in and allow the divers just out of the water to warm up before they go on duty. It works with six people but takes longer as divers gear-up or down and get warm.

Ice diving techniques

Let’s review the dive site preparation:

Once the site is prepared, it is time to suit up in a warm van or tent. Line tenders can assist the divers and be sure suit seals are flat. If wearing detachable boots or gloves, some divers duct tape the glove to the suit arm to reduce waterflow. It is easier to do a buddy check in this environment. Be sure each diver can manipulate his/her equipment while wearing three-fingered mitts or heavy gloves.

It is also a good time to review the dive plan. Using safety lines is much easier if divers maintain the same position relative to each other – there is less line entanglement. Is the plan to immediately go to the bottom, randomly swim around or do a sweeping circle? Are you going to try and hand catch hibernating fish? Who is going to try and walk upsidedown on the underside of the ice? If you are attempting photography, do you have a lanyard so there is no chance of dropping the camera when your fingers get numb?

Have you practiced line signals with your line tender? Do you need to review the code? There are lots of systems but the key is for both parties to speak the same language. Simple systems are more reliable because they are easier to remember, transmit and answer. Any signal is returned with the same signal, letting the sender know the message was received. The line needs to be kept taut or the message becomes undistinguishable. All line pulls are long, deliberate movements. Short jerks get confused with the vibrations caused by the line moving through the water. A message should be sent every three to five minutes by the tender if no messages are received from the diver.


One: Are you OK?

Two: Do you need more line?

Three: No more line.

Four or more: Emergency, return.


One: I am OK.

Two: I want more line.

Three: No more line.

Four: Emergency, pull me up.

If line tenders and divers are communicating effectively and line signals break down, it could mean the line has gotten snagged or there is an emergency brewing. Erratic pulls, unreadable pulls or no response are pre-agreed to mean trouble and safety divers will be launched. When safety divers enter the water, the line tenders begin pulling in the safety line.

What happens if you lose the line (this should not happen if it is clipped to a chest harness), get entangled or have trouble at depth? Here are typical safety procedures:

  1. Ascend.
  2. Look for the spokes shoveled in the snow. Look for the arrows that point toward the hole. Swim toward the hole. The spokes should be longer than the diver’s safety line.
  3. If you cannot see the hole or the spokes shoveled in the snow, ascend to the ice. Look up and extend an arm, so you don’t crash into the ice and knock yourself out.
  4. Do not guess where the hole is and risk going in the wrong direction.
  5. Inflate your buoyancy compensator a little but don’t drop your weightbelt. The idea is to be vertical in the water, right under the ice, with your legs hanging down.
  6. Concentrate on your breathing, slow down, relax.
  7. Watch for the safety diver’s lights or lines. Look from side-to-side frequently. If you see other divers in the distance, signal with your light or by tapping on your tank with a knife.

Safety divers will enter the water, stay close to the ice, swim to the length of their safety line (which is longer than the original diver’s lines) and begin making a full circle sweep. As they sweep around, their line should snag the lost diver. This is why it is important for the lost diver to try and stay vertical in the water. The lost diver can grab the safety diver’s line and give it four long pulls. This signals the tender to begin pulling in the line.

If the divers are on separate lines and you suddenly realize your buddy has disappeared, do a 360 degree turn while looking up and down. If you do not spot your buddy, signal your tender with four long emergency pulls. When the other diver’s tender does not get the signal, the line tenders will instantly know that something is wrong. Rescue actions will begin immediately, with the stand-by safety divers entering the water before you return to the hole.


Besides entanglement or losing the line, more common problems are the creeping effects of cold or mechanical failure. Last month’s column covered selecting top of the line regulators that have been tested and shown to reliably deliver large volumes of air at depth. Regulators can freeze up or freeflow in cold conditions. Improve your “no problem” odds by only ice diving with a perfectly functioning, high performance regulator.

Predicting how your body will perform is more difficult. As with any strenuous or arduous activity, only participate when you are feeling fit. The day after the flu or a late evening of alcohol and partying probably are not the best days to ice dive. Cold affects each person, each day at a different rate and with varying symptoms. Everyone expects to shiver a little when ice diving. But shivering that turns into jerky shaking, numb lips that can’t hold a regulator and hands that can’t grasp and hold are dangerous. The extremities are the first to get cold and function poorly but, when your core body temperature begins to drop, your critical thinking skills deteriorate and you are unable to make appropriate decisions. This is life threatening.

As your body temperature drops, hypothermia sets in. Your body uses more energy to try and reheat it. It produces more urine and your bladder feels full – not a great feeling in a drysuit. Cold also increases mucus production and it becomes harder to clear your ears. Some people are prone to coughing when they breathe cold air or may begin breathing faster and shallower, which does not effectively ventilate the lungs with fresh, oxygen rich air. This pattern of breathing can lead to a blackout.

Knowing and recognizing the effects of cold will help you determine when it is time to terminate a dive, regardless of how much air you have left. When your breathing changes or you can’t hold onto your regulator, it is time to return to the surface.

Recreational ice diving is for the fun of getting wet in the winter, looking for artifacts in clearer water, playing with exhaust bubbles as they pool under the ice, exploring places inaccessible in the summer and having an adventure with friends. You do it for fun and to expand your underwater experiences. Part of keeping it fun and safe is to recognize that macho attitudes have no place on the dive.


After a fun time underwater, it is time to return to the surface where, with wind chill, it may be colder than the water! After you surface, your regulator may freeze up if you continue to breathe through it, so do not be surprised. After surfacing and giving a hand to the head OK signal, back your tank into a corner of the triangular hole. Place your arms on the sides of the hole. The line tenders will grab your tank valve and arm pits and pull you out of the water to a sitting position on the ice. You can help by kicking and pushing up with your arms.

Once seated, the tenders can unclip your safety line and remove your tank, BC and weightbelt. Don’t daily sitting on the ice as this saps body heat quickly. Head for the van or warming tent and get into dry, warm clothes. Cover your extremities and begin rewarming your hands, feet and head. Towel your hair and try to get your head dry and warm first, since your head gives off body heat rapidly. Drink warm, non-alcoholic beverages such as soup or hot chocolate.

If you will be a safety diver later in the day, squeeze/wipe the water from your drysuit and try to keep it warm. If the support group is small, you will likely be a line tender next, since you would not be in physical shape to immediately be a safety diver.

After everyone who wants to dive has had a chance, it is time to pack up the dive gear and tools. Since winter days are short and it takes a while to prepare and make ice dives, it may be late afternoon when you break camp. Things disappear in the snow, so have a tarp to lay out and collect ice spikes and tools. A quick inventory will identify missing items. Coil lines carefully. Place them in waterproof bags so they don’t freeze into a tangled mess or flood your car trunk. Super heavy duty trash bags or rubber bins and lids are ice divers’ best friends. Everything is going to be wet, icy or snowy when you pack and, as you drive home, the vehicle heater will turn all of this into an amazing quantity of water.

Before you leave the dive site, it needs to be made safe for the public by closing the hole. Pull the pin and, using shovels, push/pull the block back into the hole. It will probably be a little smaller, since exhalation bubbles have worn away the edges. Position the block of ice in the hole and pack the edges with snow to cement it in place. If you cracked the block into little pieces when making the hole, getting it closed so kids do not fall through can be a challenge. If there is any chance someone walking, skiing, snowmobiling or driving could fall through, mark the spot with tree branches or other natural materials. Be mindful of not creating a trap for the unwary. Walk the area to pick up trash and any equipment or tools.


Whether you ice dive because of insatiable curiosity, winter scuba withdrawal or to have a lively cocktail party topic – it is an adventure. Ice diving has become more user friendly. Drysuits have made an enormous difference in comfort and safety. Regulators continue to improve so mechanical problems have decreased.

Any time you venture into a closed underwater environment, you have assumed additional risk. While this article provides an overview of ice diving techniques and practices, there is no substitute for hands-on training from a certified ice diving instructor. So, take a class, don your drysuit and find out how wild it is to walk upside down on the ice or find a fur trader’s artifact that’s been hidden on the lake bottom obscured by algae bloom. It’s the ultimate cool dive!


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