February 2nd, 1996 saw some of the coldest temperatures on record throughout the state of Minnesota, with air temps in the -30’s F, and windchill values nearly double that mark. Trucks, like mine, needed a jump, town was quiet on account of Gov. Arne Carlson shutting down the state, and people hunkered down to wait out one of the coldest spells in our region’s history.
Naturally, the cool kids went ice fishing. I found myself on a pond that day hand-augering holes to stay warm, catching bluegills with jigglesticks as our primitive reels were rendered inoperable due to the cold.
I’ve learned a lot about staying warm on the ice, on that day and many others, as when it comes to cold weather, I’ve seen my fair share. In over 20 years fishing and filming throughout the Northern US and Canada, there’s been some dangerously cold days on the ice. The one constant however, is that I’ve somehow never suffered frostbite, hypothermia, or really any other cold-related ailment.
Of course for most of us, getting cold should never come to the point of being medically perilous, and for the most part we’re all just trying to avoid being uncomfortable. Here are some of the best ways I’ve found to shake the chill.
Set Your Thermostat
Our bodies are amazing things. Give me 50 degrees in July and I’m reaching for some flannel, but show that same forecast in April and I’ve already got shorts and sandals on. That same effect happens at the beginning of every winter for me. I need to go out, underdress in a hoodie on purpose, grit my teeth and put mind over matter to properly get my personal heat pump operational. Follow up the first trip with a few more successive cold days outside, and your body reacts to keep you warm.
It shouldn’t come as news to any of us that wetness equals cold, as anytime you step out of the shower or a pool you’re reminded that wet skin conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than being dry. That makes sweat, and specifically sweat against your skin the enemy.
Today’s blended synthetic long underwear attack that very problem, pulling warmth-stealing perspiration off of you through layer number one, to layer number two.
The second layer then should be a fleece or some other midweight filler that both lofts air (insulation) and can handle some moisture. Cotton fabrics like jeans or hoodie are terrible first layers as they hold moisture, but if need be worn as a layer should be donned in this mid-layer.
That leaves a durable outer shell as layer number three, which should be windproof and waterproof. These days, we’re lucky to have garments like a Striker Ice Suit that will serve this purpose, do it comfortably with tons of convenient storage, and also float you should the unthinkable actually happen.
I shot a quick video on how-to’s of layering out on the ice:
Alcohol can warm up your insides and freeze you everywhere else, creating a dangerous situation in tough temps. Water that you store too long internally also makes you cold, just in a different way, as your body needs to generate additional heat to keep excess water warm. Drink as much water as you please to stay hydrated, but pee frequently.
Hands and Feet
These are always trouble spots, as while each of them are furthest from your heart, thus large volumes of blood-flow, hands get cold for different reasons than your feet. With ice fishing, the largest culprit is wet fingers from a minnow bucket, holding fish, etc. We know from our layering that dryness counts, so bring towels to constantly dry your hands. I prefer the ones that clip to the outside of my bibs, and good fishing requires several. Fish with the biggest and baddest leather or synthetic cold weather glove you can find, then shed it for detail work. Weak gloves need not apply.
Feet suffer from being wet too, as most people don’t know how much their feet sweat. For the same reason you layer top and bottom, you need to be layering your feet too. First with a poly or synthetic light wicking sock, and second with a wool or wool blend. Make sure you start dry as well, putting your boots on a dryer each night before the next day’s fishing. Any rubber boot keeps moisture out AND in, making a portable boot dryer an incredible ice fishing expedition go-to gadget.
Food drives your engine, so feed it well, with the right stuff. Nuts, granola, gas-station beef-product-imposters, all will make your guts grind away and generate heat. Science says that a warm meal on the ice, especially hot soup or other liquids will actually lower your basal temperature as your body attempts to cool and counteract the effects, but I’ll disagree if only slightly this time. The mental effect of a pause, break, or reward is a powerful one, and simply holding something warm at times can greatly improve morale.
Motivated movement is probably the best bet for staving off the cold, provided you properly vent your clothing to do it right. Drilling holes every 2 hours at a minimum will always reward you with a boost of post-workout style endorphin-release, but the problem is that you start cold, and usually end too hot. Generating sweat then keeping it in just starts a vicious cycle, so make sure you START the process by underdressing or venting, stopping to shed layers as you continue to drill.
Wind blows. Wear a facemask during windy conditions to prevent what little moisture may be on your skin from feeling far worse than it should. If on a machine, wear a helmet to completely protect you from the effects of windchill. Your red-faced wind-buffeted-buddies will be wishing they came as prepared as you at the end of every night.
Probably my biggest tip and trick is to operate a heater responsibly, and avoid one as long as you can. Similar to the way you “set” your internal thermostat each year, when you succumb to a far too comfortable position on the ice, huddled and hot inside of a super-insulated shelter with the sunflower threatening to melt your boot, you prevent yourself from being able to tolerate colder temps in the immediate future.
For that reason, I’ve gone to carrying either one sunflower style heater for max BTU output, or a big heater and a small one. I prefer to fish outside as long as I can or conditions will allow, then eventually work my way into my Otter with no heater, only to get out to drill and do it again. On really cold days, the single sunflower heater will give me a burst of short term warmth and motivation to get out and drill more holes. On the most extreme days, especially with wind, I allow a small heater to provide just enough warmth to take the edge off. I know that for at least me personally, the more I fully settle in to complete comfort, the less apt I am to keep after the fish.