Tips for Playing Safely on Natural Ice

feet on winter ice

At this time of year, people’s thoughts turn to such outdoor recreational activities as ice fishing, pond hockey, snowmobiling and even nice leisurely walks in the fresh air. Often these activities involve traversing upon frozen lakes, ponds or rivers. While a patch of natural ice can inspire happy visions of old-fashioned hockey games or nature hikes with family and pets, the truth is that the consequences of falling through ice into the frigid waters below can be dire. Keep yourself and your loved ones safe with some straightforward safety tips.

First and foremost, consider the type of frozen water body you’re visiting. Avoid creeks and other flowing waterways – even when covered with an icy surface, the constant current prevents proper freezing throughout. Likewise, frozen municipal waste ponds and other drainage areas can contain pollutants and solids that affect freezing patterns. Whenever possible, stick to places that are monitored and/or maintained by a municipality or other responsible body. You should only travel across frozen surfaces in designated areas and make sure to heed all ice safety warnings posted there. Whether or not you’re spending time in designated areas, however, you should always follow some basic precautions.

Generally speaking, it’s only safe to walk or play on ice that is more than five inches thick. Anything less than that is dangerous. Keep in mind that five inches of ice can hold a snowmobile, according to safety experts, while ice needs to be more than eight inches thick to support a regular car or small pick-up truck. Be aware of the cumulative weight of ice fishing huts and any nearby vehicles – and whether the ice is strong enough to support the total load.

If you’re going to be engaging in any recreational activities on ice, it is recommended that you measure the ice by drilling a hole – with a cordless drill – and using a tape measure to determine its depth. If the ice is less than four inches thick you should stop measuring and leave the ice immediately – and carefully.

Ice should be tested in several locations to make sure that it is of an acceptable thickness throughout the area where you anticipate your activity will take place. This is easy enough for people to follow when playing pond hockey or ice fishing, but it is less practical for individuals going for a walk or snowmobiling across a lake.

Another consideration is how many days the lake or pond has been frozen. This is more complicated because one must know the average temperature for the area and then do some math. Complexities aside, if you are serious about your outdoor activities on ice, such as ice fishing or snowmobiling, experts suggest that you take the time to do the arithmetic every time you venture onto your lake to ensure that it is is frozen throughout.

Avoid traveling on ice at night or when it is snowing. You should have a clear view of your path and take care to monitor the ice surface, should it start to crack. Ice can appear smooth and pristine from a distance, but natural ice on lakes and other waterbodies can contain partially-submerged branches, dock structures, and other obstacles. If you are using a snow mobile or other motorized vehicle on the ice, travel at a speed that allows you to spot such hazards in time to avoid them. Wet patches are a clear signal that you should not be on the ice. That doesn’t mean you should only avoid the areas that are wet – you should stay away from the entire location because the temperature is not cold enough to sustain proper freezing and ice thickness.

Common sense dictates that one should never go out on the ice alone. Wherever possible you should also wear thermal protection that is buoyant or, at least, a life jacket. Always be conscious of the possibility that you or someone in your group may fall through the ice.  Make sure you know all the safety precautions and procedures and, if possible, keep safety equipment close at hand. When someone falls through the ice, never enter the water to try and help them. Different circumstances and ice conditions require different rescue procedures. Many websites, including the Canadian Red Cross website provide descriptions of proper ice rescue techniques – it’s always a good idea to review them with your group before heading out. Once an individual is rescued, it’s imperative to get them to a warm place and remove their wet clothing.

Outdoor winter activities can be lots of fun if you are a winter person. Being mindful of obvious and less-than-obvious dangers is always necessary. It’s also important to remain fully aware of your surroundings and to make safety a paramount concern, including learning appropriate rescue techniques.

At Howie, Sacks & Henry, LLP we help people who have been injured as a result of negligence and accidents on ice. We can let you know what your rights are and what benefits you might be entitled to claim. If you or a loved one have been injured on a frozen waterway, please contact Michael J. Henry at or 416-361-0889.

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