There’s plenty of frozen fun to be had on the ice, but changing conditions can easily cause lakes and ponds to become dangerous in the winter. Sounds like a good time to brush up on some ice safety best practices! We asked Stephanie Bakalar, spokesperson for the Lifesaving Society, to bust—or prove true—these common pieces of advice for staying safe on the ice.
Snow on ice means it’s frozen solid: Myth
Being able to visually judge the integrity of an ice surface before venturing onto it is an important safety step. In general, ice travellers should consider sticking to this mantra: snow means no. “In reality, the snow acts like a blanket, insulting the ice and making it harder for it to freeze,” says Bakalar.
River ice is just as strong as lake ice: Myth
You might want to think twice before lacing up a pair of skates and traversing down a winding waterway. “Rivers are constantly flowing,” says Bakalar. “That movement makes it very difficult for them to freeze solid.” For that reason, it’s best to exercise additional caution when judging river-ice thickness compared to other bodies of water like lakes, for example. Or, avoid them altogether.
Clear or black ice is the strongest: True
“We like to say that no ice is safe ice,” says Bakalar. But if you do decide to venture onto the ice, she confirms clear or black ice is the safest: “Make sure the ice is solid and clean. Look for no cracks, fractures, or layers of freezing and thawing, all of which can make ice very unstable.”
That being said, Bakalar says it’s impossible to judge with 100 per cent accuracy how thick a body of ice is without drilling into it. “You can use an auger, which is what many ice fishers use, or even a large drill bit.”
Safe-ice thickness is the same for one person as it is for a group: Myth
After using that auger or big drill bit, you should be looking for ice that’s at least four to six inches thick for one person, and eight inches for a group of people. “If you’re playing a game of pond hockey and you all end up in the same zone, you’re going to want to account for that weight,” says Bakalar.
You only need to check ice thickness once: Myth
One of the most important safety practices, says Bakalar, is continually checking the ice as you move across it. “This is why drownings happen while snowmobiling. The snowmobiles move so quickly that ice conditions change under them and drivers aren’t able to get out and check the thickness fast enough.” she says. Keep in mind that variables like temperature and water currents can quickly change the thickness of ice in one area compared to another, so that’s why it’s necessary to check ice density thoroughly as you move around.
It’s safe to travel on ice at night: Myth
In general, travel on ice at night should be avoided. “It is absolutely more risky to go out on the ice at night,” says Bakalar. “You just don’t have the same visibility so it’s not as easy to spot hazards that might have frozen into the ice or holes and weak spots you could fall into.” The best time to get out on the ice is during the day when you can accurately judge the conditions.
You should always wear a PFD while travelling on ice: True
It may seem silly, but trying to swim in ice-cold water is no joke: “When you fall into freezing water, not only does it become hard to breathe, but your extremities go numb very quickly. All of that makes it incredibly difficult to swim,” says Bakalar. “That life jacket or PFD will help you float, making it easier to get to safety.”
If you fall through ice you should pull yourself up as if you were getting out of a pool: Myth
“If you try to get out simply by pushing down on the ice surface, it will likely keep breaking under you,” says Bakalar. Instead, the Canadian Red Cross says you should first reach your arms out flat onto the ice surface. Then, kick your legs up behind you so the rest of your body is in line with your arms—you want to try and keep your body fairly horizontal. Next, shimmy your chest and stomach onto the ice, kicking your feet for momentum and using your arms to help you crawl forward. Once your whole body is out of the water, resist the urge to stand up right away. Instead, roll away from the broken ice and towards the shore to safety.
You should always travel with a friend while venturing out onto ice: True
A friend can help rescue you if you fall in, and call for help if they can’t save you on their own—that’s why it’s essential to travel in pairs while out on the ice. Bakalar says the best help someone can provide to a friend that’s fallen in is to find stable ground and call 911 right away. Next, while remaining on solid ground, try to locate something like a long branch or rope to help pull the person in the water out. The most important thing? Stay on solid ground: “Nobody can help anybody if you’re both in the water,” says Bakalar.
If driving on ice, you should leave your windows open for a quick escape: True
Driving on ice is generally not safe, says Bakalar. But if you do need to do it to get to your island cottage, say, Bakalar confirms it’s best to drive with your windows down, your doors unlocked, your seatbelt undone, and your headlights on. “Having these restraints out of way ensures you will be able to make a quick escape if the car breaks through the ice,” she says. The recommended ice thickness for vehicles is at least 12 inches.
All in all, it’s best to practice an abundance of caution while out on the ice, either with friends, in a vehicle, or otherwise. Plus, with winter temperatures becoming increasingly unpredictable, it’s more important than ever to know how to identify safe ice, how to prevent emergencies, and what to do if you do encounter one.
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