How to tell if ice is safe to skate on

Frozen lake

Winter is coming, and so is skating season. This means more time spent practicing pirouettes at arenas, playing shinny in flooded backyards and—our favourite—coasting across a frozen lake or pond.

However, while we all love going for a skate on a natural body of water, it’s important to make sure the ice is safe before you venture out on it. In Canada, roughly 15 people die every year from falling through the ice during non-motorized activities. The most common cause of these fatal accidents? Skating on thin ice.

Here are some tips on what to look for before you lace up:

The ice should be at least 20 centimetres thick

The Canadian Red Cross recommends that ice should be at least 15 centimetres thick to carry a single person—but skating is more fun with friends, so add an extra five centimetres for your buds. Thickness of the ice can be tested with an auger or ice chisel, but it’s also good to double-check with local authorities that monitor conditions, such as your municipality or lake association.

The ice should be a clear blue colour

It doesn’t just look prettier—colour is one of the key clues to determining whether the ice will hold your weight. If it’s clear and blue, it’s likely safe. Opaque white ice is isn’t quite as strong, while grey or black indicates that there’s water present; the ice may be melting or have air pockets. Keep in mind that even if it is the ideal crystal blue, you’ll still want to stay off the ice if it’s less than 15 centimetres thick.

The ice shouldn’t have flowing water nearby

Other things to avoid: cracks, breaks, abnormalities or holes, or ice that appears to have thawed and refrozen. Keep in mind that the location of the ice can also affect its strength; if it’s near a flowing stream where water is constantly flowing in and out, it may be best to stay off it.

Most importantly, remember that even under ideal conditions—thick, clear blue ice with no abnormalities—you’re still at risk. The thickness of ice may vary across a body of water or from day-to-day due to snow cover, water flow, currents and weather. If you’re heading out on the lake, always let someone know where you’re going, and be prepared for what to do in case of an emergency by reading these tips from the Red Cross.