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Pond and Lake Ice Safety

by Karen Ung

Follow these tips to stay safe on pond and lake ice this winter.

Ice skating is a wonderful way to enjoy winter, but there are many precautions you need to take before skating on “wild ice.” Looking at statistics from the Red Cross, we would all do well to learn some ice safety tips. Did you know that about 45 people in Canada die each year from falling through ice and the largest number of deaths occurs in the Prairies1? Ice accidents are highly preventable if you take precautions! 

From 1991-2000, a third of the victims (34%) fell through ice while fishing, hunting, skating, walking, or playing on ice, about half (55%) were snowmobiling, and 11% were driving other types of vehicles2. Sadly, children 14 and under accounted for 40% of deaths3. How can we minimize the risk of recreational activities on and around ice?

Ice skating in Banff National Park

Ice safety tips for skating on ponds and lakes

1. Use Designated Ice Surfaces4: Many towns designate skating areas in city parks and trained personnel regularly check the ice, to reduce risk of accidents. You should still evaluate conditions before heading onto the ice as ice conditions vary from day to day and throughout the day and always heed “Thin Ice” / “Stay Off The Ice” warnings, if applicable. 

If you choose to skate on “wild ice” (unmaintained natural ice), do so at your own risk, but take the following precautions:

2. Check the ice thickness and quality. (Wear a lifejacket while testing & keep a buddy with a rope or hockey stick nearby in case you fall in.) Here’s what to look for:

  • Ice color: Clear, blue, or green ice is the strongest. Stay off of brown or white ice – white ice has snow in it and is weak5; brown, spring ice is also weak even if it measures the right thickness.
  • Ice thickness: Stay off of ice less than 4 inches thick!6 Thickness can vary over a water body, so check the ice in several spots before allowing others onto it. To accurately check, you must bore into the ice with an ice screw, ice auger, ice chisel, or drill, then measure with a tape measure. For people up to 200 pounds, the minimum recommended ice thickness is 4 inches. Snowmobiles or ATVs require the ice to be at least 5 inches thick7.
  • Ice QualityStay off the ice if it is thin, broken, cracked, or discolored (white or brown). Where fatalities occurred, “the most common ice condition was thin ice at 57%, followed by an open hole in the ice at 21%, cracked ice 8%, and ice floe 8%.”8 

3. Type of Water Body: NEVER GO ON ICE OVER MOVING WATER! Do not travel on ice on rivers, reservoirs, or lake inflow/outflows! Moving water does not freeze well so one side of the lake could have thick ice but near the dam or lake outlet, there could be holes, open water, or thin ice. “Reservoirs accounted for 19% of all ice drowning.”9

4. Stay close to shore. Skating over shallow water greatly reduces the risk of severe injury or death if you fall in (plus, you’re that much closer to your car so you can quickly warm up). 

5. Weather Conditions: Rapid cooling is just as dangerous as rapid warming. Rapid warming can cause melting, while rapid cooling can cause ice to crack10. Ice strength can change throughout the day, so always check the ice before allowing others onto it!

6. Supervise children and keep them within arm’s reach: “None of the toddlers and only 10% of 5-14 year olds who drowned during activities on ice were accompanied by an adult.”11

7. Go With a Friend: Most adults who died falling through ice were alone.12

8. Stick to Daylight Hours: “Nearly all snowmobile drownings occurred late in the day or at night.”13 No matter what activity you are pursuing, better visibility allows for a better inspection of the ice, helps you keep tabs on members of your group, and will aid in rescue attempts if necessary.

9. Stay Alert (& Stay Sober): “Alcohol was associated with at least 59% of snowmobile drownings.”14 When our judgement is impaired, we may take risks we ordinarily wouldn’t and endanger others who will come to our aid. 

10. Wear a PFD Over Your Coat15: It might look funny, but could save your life! 

11. Carry Ice Rescue Devices16: Not everyone has an ice pick or ice axe, but at the very least, a rope with a loop tied on the end could come in handy in the event you need to rescue someone. A flotation ring is also helpful if the victim is not wearing a lifejacket. Hiking poles may help if the victim is alert enough to hold on – in very cold water, hypothermia can set in rapidly.

12. Take the same precautions whether you are in an urban or rural area: 36% of deaths occurred in urban areas17. It is easy to get a sense of false security in town, but ice conditions change constantly, so you need to pay attention. 

Know What to Do If Someone Falls Through the Ice

If you fall through the ice (self-rescue): Try to stay calm, keep your head out of the water, kick to get yourself up onto solid ice closest to land, then stay low. Shout for help and try to pull as much of yourself onto the ice as you can. Crawl or roll away from the broken ice18.

If someone else falls through the ice: See the LifeSaving Society’s document on Ice Rescue here.

Maintained outdoor skating rinks are safest. For options in Calgary, see our story: The Best Outdoor Skating Rinks in Calgary.

Stay safe, everyone! Love, Mama Bear

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1, 2, 9, 13, 14 Drownings and other Water Related Injuries in Canada, The Red Cross https://playoutsideguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/3-3-4_10drwn_english.pdf
3, 8, 11, 12, 17 Drownings and other Water Related Injuries in Canada, 10 Years of Research, The Red Cross, April 19, 2006  https://playoutsideguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/3-3-4_ws_final_m2_english2006_04_19.pdf
4, 5, 6, 7, 15, 16 Ice Safety Tips, Life Saving Society http://www.lifesaving.org/public_education.php?page=181
10 Water Smart Facts – Ice Myths, Life Saving Society http://www.lifesaving.org/download/Ice%20Myths_2.pdf
18 Stay Alive, Stay Ice Smart, Life Saving Society http://www.lifesavingsociety.com/who%E2%80%99s-drowning/ice-safety.aspx

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